Nine months ago, on June 27, 2022, an abandoned box truck was discovered by the side of the road in southeast San Antonio containing the bodies of more than fifty dead and dying migrants. The victims, including nationals of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, were killed by extreme heat and by the neglect of their driver, who fled the scene. Grotesquely, many of the dead had been sprinkled with steak seasoning before they died, perhaps to misdirect K-9 units at the border. The tragedy was the deadliest ever in our era of policed borders, which make successful clandestine border crossings as dangerous and inadvisable as possible.
This spring, San Antonians are encouraged to contemplate this carnage in an incongruously serene environment by sitting inside The Sunset Road, a sure-to-be-controversial installation up now at Artpace from artist Reynier Leyva Novo. Novo’s work revisits last June’s migrant deaths in the form of an attractive working sauna built from the back half of a box truck. Visitors to the gallery are invited to enter the box, relax in the heat, and spend time there thinking or in conversation.
The work can be interpreted either as a solemn site to meditate on the brutality of our immigration system or, less charitably, as a high-toned and on-the-nose joke about a mass death of poor, desperate people. Which of the two interpretations you favor—“chapel for public mourning” versus “problematic stunt”—may depend on how much trust you put in the good faith of the contemporary art world and the culture of luxury and indulgence that surrounds it.
Both these takes are surface-level, however, and risk missing out on the piece’s subtler effects. The Sunset Road is an immersive artwork, which asks us to spend extended time with it before we draw conclusions. I can’t fault anyone inclined to find the piece offensive to good taste; that instinct stayed with me throughout my visit. But my half hour inside the hotbox with Novo, talking through his ideas and growing increasingly affected by the temperature—feeling simultaneously both disarmed and discomfited—made me an admirer in the end. If I left the gallery still troubled by a profound ambivalence, that reaction seems in keeping with the artist’s intentions.
Novo himself is a recent immigrant to Texas. As an acclaimed international artist and a Cuban (arrivals from his island enjoy special immigration status), he has had an easier time of it than many, but he can also relate to the motivations of indigent asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America, because he too came to the U.S. seeking safety for himself and his family. Novo took part in the broad-based pandemic-era protests against the ruling Cuban regime, including a demonstration supporting freedom of expression that was held in front of the Ministry of Culture in late 2020. After that, life in his home country became intolerable.
“In my three last months in Cuba, I had many interrogations, conversations with the security state, with the political police, and they were high-level. They put pressure on me and my family,” Novo tells me as we sit down together in the sauna. “I was very exposed politically. I had to go.”
Already, since his arrival in the U.S. last year, Novo has installed immigration-themed works at El Museo del Barrio, in New York, and at Phoenix Art Museum, and in early 2024 he’ll have a solo exhibition at the Blaffer Museum in Houston, his new home. Artpace, an artist residency program in San Antonio that includes budgets for artists to create new bodies of work, has been another welcoming harbor.
This January, as Novo tells it, he was working late the evening before his Artpace proposal was due, developing a couple different ideas, when the box-truck sauna concept appeared in his mind. “This image came to me in a very, very strong way,” he says.
After talking it over with his wife, Novo felt compelled to make the vision a reality, and he set about choosing materials. He was advised to build the interior out of cedarwood, the best choice for a high-heat environment, but his budget pointed him to Texas yellow pine instead. Now, Novo tells me, he likes the fact that he went with a local product, because the sauna smells like Texas.
Next, in search of large stones for the heating unit, Novo made a purchase on Amazon but found it unsatisfactory. Instead, he collected rocks from local railroad tracks—the big hunks of splintered granite ubiquitous along rail lines in the region. These, he notes, also call to mind the train tracks that run beside the road where the migrant bodies were discovered.
I ask him about the heat inside the sauna. Is it typical for a spa environment, or has he cranked it up for a more intense experience, to drive home the panic of the dying migrants? It’s normal, he tells me. “If you want more, we can do more,” he deadpans. “But this temperature is enough to kill you in one hour.”
I wasn’t at Artpace for The Sunset Road’s public opening in mid-March, but I have attended enough such events that I can imagine the scene: donors, artists, and collectors dressed for the occasion, wine and laughter, a see-and-be-seen society energy. I think that’s where I struggle most with the installation—the way it transforms a site of abject death into an amenity of privilege associated with exclusive gyms and hotels. Novo talks of his sauna as a place to be tranquil and meditate, but it also fits a bit too neatly into a landscape of conspicuous consumption. The connotations are less religious than, say, those of Houston’s mournful Rothko Chapel, which The Sunset Road might be nodding to in some respects. Instead, one thinks of the luxury self-care facilities that justify their exorbitant rates with vaguely spiritual pablum.
I’m getting hot, perspiring, and I have to strip to a T-shirt. I ask Novo about my misgivings. “Maybe it is an irony that people were smiling here, during the opening, drinking wine outside,” he admits. “But it’s okay. It’s what people do. You see the news, you see the headlines, and you close your phone, yeah?” He makes an additional reference to changing the channel on the television away, for instance, from coverage of the war in Ukraine, when there’s more death than we’d like to see.
He has a point. What right do I have to set myself up as arbiter of what constitutes good taste when making reference to the 53 dead migrants, when I personally might not have even finished reading a single news article about them? We read the first few paragraphs and click away, either because we don’t have the stomach for the story or because we’ve decided that we “get the idea.” But do we, really? And do we wish to avoid having the tragedy shoved in our faces because there’s something unsubtle in the metaphor, or because we want to avoid, almost literally, sitting with it?
Novo nudges me onto a slightly different train of thought with a phrase he keeps returning to in our interview: the “collective body.” This term, which sounds like art-theory jargon, takes on deeper resonance the more time I spend in the sauna, sweating and listening. “You cannot control the body that we all produce socially,” Novo says. “Maybe you don’t like immigrants, but they are in your collective body.”
It’s not hard to reason out what he means: immigrants very often supply the hands that clean homes and workplaces, the muscles that strain to build and maintain these properties. Our lives are tied up with migrants’ lives in myriad ways, including on levels both deeply personal (child- and eldercare) and necessary for our survival (food harvesting and slaughter). Novo speaks about the “collective body” as an analogue of collective memory, but it’s more rooted in the senses and subject to pain, pleasure, and mortality. In a sense, this “collective body” is the basic material of The Sunset Road; the high temperatures draw out the connection between the living and the dead. It’s a mechanism to awaken a feeling that’s difficult to name. Hauntedness, perhaps. Or solidarity. Far beyond that feeling lies the question of whether change is necessary, or possible, and if art has any role or power in advocating for change.
By the end of our interview, I’m physically uncomfortable. My mind’s a bit mushy, probably half due to the heat and half due to the swirl of heady and sometimes distressing ideas. I ask if we can leave the sauna, and of course the door swings open for me. I exit freely back into the cool air.
A week or two later, news comes in from Ciudad Juárez of another migrant holocaust: 39 dead in a fire at a detention center just across the river from El Paso, where guards might not have done enough to save the would-be asylum seekers trapped in the blaze. It feels like something that has happened before and will happen again. I don’t read the entire article. I do, however, for a moment, feel something in my body—that last, intolerable wave of too-hot heat before I exited The Sunset Road.