Sometimes all it takes to get people thinking in new ways about important issues is a certain amount of playfulness to the approach. Such is the method expounded by Yara El-Sherbini, an internationally recognized artist who moved to Santa Barbara from London approximately one year ago. El-Sherbini has her first Santa Barbara exhibit now through October 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and it’s at once provocative and delightful — a rare enough combination to merit multiple visits.

Border Control consists of a metal rod that has been bent to form the shape of the United States border with Mexico. It stands on a platform made of glossy white plastic and is accessorized with a handheld wand in the shape of a small loop. There’s a start button, and once it’s been pushed, the objective is to trace the outline, which is made of something known as “buzzwire,” from beginning to end without touching the loop to the metal. The first touch sets off an alarm; the second touch raises the volume. The third touch, and you’re out. Like the vintage children’s game Operation, the piece demands not only hand-eye coordination but also steady nerves to negotiate the twists and turns of this electrified version of an international threshold.

Talking with El-Sherbini last week after trying (and failing) to win the game, I learned about her fascination with borders and her determination to make art that’s accessible. In addition to this show, she was recently included in the 56th Venice Biennale, for which she created one hole in an artist-made miniature golf course. Of Border Control, she said that, as with crossing the real border, “some high percent of those who attempt it will fail,” and adds that “even if it’s not something a young kid understands, they might still enjoy it.”


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