Exhibition Review: Bonnie Donohue’s A THIN GREEN LINE: Borderlands

Emma Newbery

What is feral will never conform, but it does confess. When discussing her survey of the European Green Belt, Bonnie Donohue notes: “If you look at it from the drone, you might see a line of trees that are all the same size, which would indicate where a structure came down—all the trees started growing at the same time.” 

For the past five years, Donohue has focused on the Green Belt, a demilitarized strip of nature spanning the 12,000 km where the Iron Curtain used to be. This porous strip of green, the joint effort of 24 countries who formerly lay at the edge of the Iron Curtain, is at the center of Donohue’s exhibition A THIN GREEN LINE: Borderlands at Kingston Gallery this October. 

“There are clues on the ground,” she adds, “of what was there before.” 

Donohue’s work primarily features drone footage, Augmented Reality (AR), and archival documents from Cold War-era Berlin. While her manipulations of the line between past and present are more readily apparent, Donohue’s engagement with the boundary between the virtual and the tangible goes beyond AR to fundamentally question borders themselves. As figments of national (and often global) consciousness, they are as influential and constructive as they are entirely imagined.

Her take on A THIN GREEN LINE weaves in and out of temporal, physical, and emotional bounds, mapping the underbellies and charged spaces around the borders we have constructed throughout human history. 

“The precariousness of confidence, when relegating [anything] to a distant history, is fragile, as contemporary signs and signifiers constantly threaten the re-emergence of authoritarianism,” she explains. “My work is a form of vigilance and resistance.”

Bonnie Donohue, video still from Thin Green Line, (05:01 minutes) (2019), drone footage.

Over the past several decades, Donohue has embedded herself in such environments as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Vieques Island in its efforts to rid itself of the vise grip of the U.S. Navy. This show is no different in its ambitious scope. Donohue makes sure to highlight our own national backdrop for this exploration: Donald Trump’s efforts to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. 

“There’s one piece in the show that is from the Mexican border, and that’s an AR piece that’s an homage to the butterfly sanctuary that’s threatened by the wall. They want to just go right through it.”

The European Green Belt is compelling as a living, growing monument to the bleak and inhospitable ground once demarcating the Iron Curtain. “What once divided, now joins,” explains the chair of the European Green Belt Association. “[The German state] Thuringia is affording complete protection to its section of the Green Belt,” he adds, “a positive move that will be noted far beyond Germany’s borders.”

In some sense, borders can be understood to be deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be. Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford. 

In addition to using drone footage to document the size and scope of the belt—“it’s about as wide as a football field is long”—Donohue also interrogates the different valences and implications of the border by digging into Germany’s past. 

One of the most intriguing components of the show is the amplification and manipulation of various images from a German border guard training manual used in the 1960s. The manual features passport photos from individuals that either closely resemble one another, or the same person in photos taken ten years apart.  Donohue’s exploration of an effort as dynamic as the Green Belt alongside her manipulation of this imagery from 1960s-era Berlin emphasizes the fragility and arbitrary authority that borders can afford. 

Bonnie Donohue, Die blauen Augen (Blue Eyes) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.

The manual purports to break down the human form into digestible pieces. Inevitably, generalizations are made, stereotypes invoked, and the racial implications are impossible to ignore. What’s more, the goal of this training was to successfully identify permissible individuals—Germany’s past efforts to examine and quantify human attributes come to mind almost immediately. 

Donohue manipulated these sets of photos in Photoshop, and incorporated various drawings and labels from the manual. “I built up layers of amounts of blur to make them more ephemeral,” she explains. “Then some details were added back in, superimposed drawings from the manuals in some cases.”

Bonnie Donohue, Die Lippen (Lips) (2019), digital photograph on acrylic. Image courtesy of the artist.

The layered, spectral photos Donohue uses recall the many instances of dehumanization a governing body can inflict once it has identified “the other.” In 1987, President Ronald Regan visited West Germany to advocate for an end to the border wall and promote an ethos of freedom. Many know his famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

When Regan made this speech, it had only been two years since he had broken his own barrier of silence, publicly acknowledging the AIDS crisis for the first time. In the three years following the official identification of AIDS by the CDC, individuals who were suffering from the disease and watching it ravage their communities were largely kept out of the national spotlight. Regan deliberately avoided codifying AIDS in the national consciousness, building a barrier of politics and morals around AIDS victims and activists. 

Donohue’s blurred layers crowd with shadows of the past, and are meant to make us turn towards the borders we create, both literal and metaphorical, in the present. Donohue’s show warns of allowing geopolitical maneuvers of the last several years—from the U.S.-Mexico border wall initiative to the decision to move the U.S. embassy, arbiter of legitimacy, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—to fade into the safe uncertainty of near-distant history. The lines we draw, both geographic or personal, over mountains and amongst ourselves, strain at the prospect of keeping the past separate from the present. Borders can be understood as deeply emotional, fraught displays of human frailty. Whatever they consist of materially (or not), borders lay bare the force of human compulsion to delineate space and time. And the more fervently these lines are drawn, the more uncontainable the reality of the circumstances is revealed to be.

On her choice of the Green Belt as the heart of her show, Donohue explains: “I look at it as a place of hope. The word ‘utopia’ is unfair, because utopias can never last. But, I look at it as a fragile, free space. Anybody who wants to can be part of it.”

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