"Sanctuary," 2018 (detail), Erick Antonio Benitez.
Focusing on contemporary issues, says artist Erick Antonio Benitez, brings an immediacy to artwork, a chance to immerse an audience, to inspire reflection, and -- when everything clicks -- to perhaps effect change in real time.
It's the final week for Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra (This Land Is Your Land) in The Gallery at PCA&D, Benitez's multimedia exhibition on display since November. The Salvadoran-American artist's collection of photos, documentary film, and found objects document his travels over the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Reflecting the stories of migrants, border agents, and Minuteman militia members, Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra is a living archive of how contemporary American policy impacts and shapes the lives of those who experience it.
Based in Baltimore, Benitez earned a BFA in Painting from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2014. We talked to Benitez about the demands of focusing art on contemporary issues, his process of compiling many pieces into multimedia, multidisciplinary artwork, and the rewards of uncovering timeless themes living within real-time events:
"Sanctuary #2," 2018, Erick Antonio Benitez. From left: Two images of a refugee tent site taken at Sacred Heart Church; McAllen, Texas; a board display of contraband confiscated at Tent City Jail, Maricopa County; Arizona; an altar created from the original installation of Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra.
What are some challenges about producing art about history *as it happens*, as opposed to art about solely internal expression, or events that already have happened?
Benitez: (One thing) that becomes challenging in producing work about the present history is picking out the essential moment or parts that are timeless. For instance, I believe it’s better to focus on elements that have subtle change or relevant in the conversation of something that is evolving. It could also be difficult to keep up to date within a narrative that keeps evolving. So therefore my focus lies in the details that are timeless or slightly ever-changing within a subject of history and current timeline.
"Esta Tierra Es Tu Tierra" documentary film excerpt, Erick Antonio Benitez.
What draws you to producing art with this immediacy?
Benitez: I believe art can be a powerful source and tool for education and advocacy especially within relationship to current political and social climates. In art history, we can see that pattern, where artists tend to respond and reflect upon their time and era. I think it's a natural way to cope and connect with others who are affected by destructive political and social climates.
In my case, the circumstances of immigration and migration affected me in a profound way due to the people who were being affected in my personal life, from family to close friends. I realized that some didn’t have the privilege to voice the unjust circumstances happening in this country to people who are seeking refuge from the terrible conditions that exist in their country of origin. As an artist, it was natural to take this approach and create something compelling that would give a viewer or audience a time and space to reflect and gain more awareness and insight in relation to the narrative of migration, land, and freedom.
What is the root of your multidisciplinary approach? What did you initially study, and how did you branch out? When compiling all these media into a single project, do you always follow the same pattern (ie, photography first, then objects, then video), or do you gather and create the work simultaneously?
Benitez: Originally my educational background as an artist traces back to a BFA in Painting with a concentration in Video. As I finished school, my interest began to branch out into sculpture and installation due to its physical immediacy ... relation to space and interactiveness (with) the audience. My multidisciplinary focus (is) heavily influenced by the element of inclusiveness of the audience to the work.
I believe, in my case, (previous experience shows that) works that deal with sensory and immersive components are successful. This continuously interests and inspires me to create work that transcends the viewer within the space or exhibition.
When it comes to travel research or site-specific projects, the approach is improvised and organic. There is no hierarchy within what medium dominates or (is) favored when capturing or documenting things. The process is solely based on the experience of the project or travel, along with what things catch my eye or leave an impression with its bitter or sweet.
Once the research is finished, I spend some time reflecting and thinking about what just happened. I like to also ask questions within a micro and macro lens. Then simultaneously ideas begin to pop as I begin to review the work, but also by the circumstances of various experiences in life like conversations, dreams, and other triggers in life.