The Desert Southwest has no shortage of representations in literature, art, and film. Its aesthetics—open horizons, strange landscapes, and vast wilderness—inform and saturate the early Western films of John Ford,…
The Desert Southwest has no shortage of representations in literature, art, and film. Its aesthetics—open horizons, strange landscapes, and vast wilderness—inform and saturate the early Western films of John Ford, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and continue in today’s popular imaginations. My work acknowledges such contributions and then it challenges them: why are those names more widely associated with the Southwest than Luis Alberto Urrea, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, or Pat Mora?
The project intersects the environmental humanities, critical theory, and cultural studies with the Desert Southwest. It explores the fullness of desert places with regard to cultures, borders, and languages, as well as nonhuman forces and intensities like heat, light, and distance. Dispelling the dominant notion of desert as void or wasteland, it sets a stage to suit the polyvocality of desert place. My work is interdisciplinary because the desert demands it. It begins with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in order to reorient readers towards the rupture of the US War With Mexico which helped set the national and cultural borders in effect today. I then explore Denis Villeneuve’s film Sicario to emphasize the correlation between political hierarchy and verticality; those who can experience the desert from above are exempt from the conditions below, where Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway and Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood take place. The novels expose the immanence and violence of being on the ground in the desert and at the lower end of said hierarchies. Analyzing Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World and Mora’s Encantado enables what I term a desert hauntology to produce a desert full of memory, myth, ancestors, and enchantment. Finally, the project puts visual artists James Turrell and Rafa Esparza in conversation to discover a desert phenomenology. The result is an instigation of how far is too far when decentering the human, and what role does place-based art play in creating and empowering community.
John Ford was from Maine. Georgia O’Keeffe, from Wisconsin. Edward Abbey, Pennsylvania. As someone born and raised in the Desert Southwest, I’ve written the project I have yet to encounter.