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American Fences -- As Seen By A Russian Designer

  • Robert Lyle



Washington, May 31 (RFE/RL) -- Fences, the most common element of landscape nearly everywhere, but especially in the United States, have been made into a major museum exhibition in the American capital city -- by a Russian-born designer.

Constantin Boym, who left the Soviet Union 15 years ago, and now heads a multi-discipline design studio in New York City, was chosen by the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., to handle the design and installation of the exhibition called "We Live Between Fences" which opens today (Friday).

Organized and researched by curator Gregory Dreicer, the exhibition makes visitors look at the fences which are everywhere, but are seldom seen. "We may hardly notice them, but they are dominant figures in our lives," says Dreicer. "North America could not have been settled without fences," he says, "it is still impossible to imagine our nation without them -- a nation defined by the cutting point of barbed steel and the staccato rhythm of the homey white picket." More than any other nation, argues Dreicer, the U.S. has been defined by its fences. "Fences are essential to the way we think about land," he says, noting that the American revolutionaries established the concept of land ownership as a foundation of the American dream. "For many," says Dreicer, land ownership "cannot be separated from happiness." And fencing that land -- whether a simple plot in a city or thousands of acres on the great ranges -- became an essential element in the development of the United States. The exhibition is designed to make American's understand that historic significance and see how fences define, shape and affect just about every aspect of everyday life in the U.S. today. Boym says his having come from a different culture was an advantage in designing the exhibition.

"My Russian upbringing allows me to see and notice things that are right under everyone's nose," he told RFE/RL's correspondent. "I find a lot of beauty in conventional and everyday realities, objects, shapes and forms of American life -- beauty that often passes unnoticed just because its's so omnipresent," he says. "It is the designers role to bring this beauty out, extract it and present it to the public." Boym says he never really thought about drawing comparisons between Russian and American views of fences, although acknowledging that in the Soviet Union of his day, "fences might have looked the same, but had a different meaning." Now, however, he says, "the Russian experience is changing so rapidly that we can only speculate what is going to be." Although the exhibition will not travel from the National Building Museum, Boym says he thinks that all Europeans would get "an incredible kick" from it because it presents such a "discovery of the American culture." For everyone, says Boym, he and Dreicer aimed simply to make people "start seeing fences and their beauty as they go back into their own neighborhoods." Exhibition visitors walk through a series of fences and gates -- from wooden split-rails to cast-iron scrolls, from early barbed-wire to modern chain link -- to experience the ways in which fences guide everyday human interactions. Historic photographs and drawings help complete the picture. In colonial America, land ownership was necessary to vote or hold office, so fenced land meant full participation in the life of the nation. As the U.S. grew, fences reflected the basic beliefs -- both good and bad. The exhibition recalls, for example, how the concept of free range land was prevalent in the American south until white plantation owners realized it allowed poor whites and the black slaves freed by the Civil War to raise cattle without owning land. New laws and fences quickly ended free range. In the American west, range wars broke out and lasted some 50 years -- well into this century -- as cattlemen, homesteaders, and farmers battled over rights to fence or not fence scarce water, grazing lands, fields of crops and homesteads. In modern times, the American dream of owning a home with a "white picket fence" remains central even when few people actually live in such places. "Fences express the confidence and contentment of the homeowner," says Dreicer. "Fences send a message about social status and wealth," by both including and excluding others. As the finale of the exhibition, the visitor walks through a larger-than-life-size white picket fence to see a replica of the three-meter tall border wall of steel-matt covered chain link fence which snakes along part of the U.S. border with Mexico -- designed to keep out illegal immigrants -- and pictures of the strip of mowed grass and occasional concrete posts which mark the U.S. border with Canada, described as the longest undefended border in the world. "Pickets surrounding a yard, gates enclosing a neighborhood, and walls bordering a nation express the values of individuals and communities," says a wall plaque at the end of the exhibition. "The structure that stands at the edge reveals the innermost character of our relationships," it says. "We live between fences."
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