Jason De León Dares You to Look Away From the Items Border Crossers Leave Behind


In the summer of 2012, University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León was doing fieldwork in Arizona with his students when they discovered the body of an Ecuadorian woman. As De León would later discover, she had been abandoned by her smuggler and died of dehydration on a hillside in the Sonoran Desert. She’d been dead for three or four days. Her name was Marisol.

“After several days in the boiling summer heat her body has begun to change. Her skin has started to blacken and mummify and the bloating is beginning to obscure some of her physical features,” De León later wrote, reflecting on the encounter.

Since 2009, De León has been taking his students into the Sonoran as part of the Undocumented Migration Project, an anthropological study documenting the lives and legacies of those who cross from Latin America to the U.S. Working with curator Amanda Krugliak and artist Richard Barnes, De León has translated this data into the sobering new exhibition “State of Exception/Estado de Excepción” at the Parsons School of Design. “I used to be really skeptical of it,” De León said of presenting, as art, the artifacts he and his team have unearthed. His perspective has since changed. “I think using these different kinds of artistic venues is a great way for us to start new dialogues with people who wouldn’t necessarily go to an anthropological exhibit on these materials.”

Upon entering the gallery, visitors will note the nearly eight hundred backpacks — JanSport, Wilson, Puma, Nike — festooning one wall, some in better condition than others. It’s the personal details that stand out: the handwoven lanyards tied to zippers; the name Nadia, written in black Sharpie; a child-sized Dora the Explorer pack. Some are reduced to zippers and thread. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei addressed similar humanitarian issues in his recent “Laundromat” exhibition, which displayed the clothes refugees left behind in the Idomeni refugee camp along the Greek-Macedonian border. The stark difference is that Ai washed and ironed the clothes before displaying them. “State of Exception” presents them as they are. For De León, this was “a key component of the relationship that I have with the exhibition space and the collaboration.”

Hundreds of thousands of people cross the Mexico–United States border every year, their belongings lost or discarded along the journey. Migrants often leave their backpacks behind once they’ve changed into a new set of clothes, the better to blend in to their new surroundings upon making it across. The nonprofit Border Angels estimates that ten thousand people have lost their lives trying to make the crossing since 1994, whether from dehydration, fatigue, or heatstroke.

“People assume that plastic water bottles and nylon backpacks will lie intact on the desert surface forever,” De León wrote in his 2015 book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, the research for which forms the basis for the exhibition. “It’s not true. Things out here fall apart. Clothes are reduced to shreds, leaving only the stitching behind. Backpacks evaporate leaving only metal zippers and polyurethane buckles.” Visceral and confrontational, the exhibit leaves the gallery smelling of sweat from these artifacts and the bodies that left them behind.

The wall contains an audio element as well: Voices of the migrants, cut from endless hours of interviews, resonate from inside the backpacks. In one section of the exhibition, clothes hang from the ceiling: muddy and tattered jeans, soiled work attire, a pink children’s jacket and shirts. In another, the ceiling projects a video of the debris field where these objects were found: clothes, bags, and empty water bottles piled together on a desert path. De León and his students have collected all of it as archaeological data, recorded each object’s GPS coordinates, and preserved everything in plastic bags.

In the show, the objects are presented as they were found. “At the end of the day those things will go back into a box on an archival shelf and return to being the artifacts that they always have been,” says De León, speaking of the challenge in presenting such data as art.

A number of De León’s students, moved by their discovery of Marisol’s body in 2012, later tattooed the GPS coordinates where she was found on their bodies. Barnes has photographed these tattoos and included them in the show; the images stand alongside the rest of the personal histories on display.

By presenting unaltered archaeological data, the exhibit becomes a critique on the tendency to turn a blind eye on contemporary calamity. In a hundred years these artifacts will have historical value, but what does it take to make them meaningful now?

“We can look back now at situations like Japanese internment camps and have perspective and capacity to understand them,” says Krugliak. “If we look at something right in the midst of it, it seems easier for people to look away.”

‘State of Exception/Estado de Excepción’
Parsons School of Design
2 West 13th Street
Through April 17