George Sanchez-Calderon, The Family of Man, 2011
Altered Solari Di Udine Split-Flap Display
Courtesy of the artist and de La Cruz Collection
The Family of Man
de La Cruz Collection
23 NE 41st Street
Miami, FL 33137
August 14th through October 8th, 2011
Little has affected our modern understanding of time as much as train travel. Not until railway clocks were synchronized in the mid 19th century did time standardize the day. Because of this, travel still proves to be the best opportunity to reflect upon the passage of the hours. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz discusses this rather poetically:
“It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the giant spaces separating us from each other. And indeed, said Austerlitz after a while, to this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.”
In an effort to create a work of similar vein, George Sanchez-Calderon recently purchased the old split-flap display from Boston’s South Station on Ebay for $350. It is now installed in the de La Cruz collection, where the artist continually updates the equally dusty computer program that instructs travelers as to where to go and when they’ll get there. The sign has been rechristened The Family of Man but hasn’t been physically altered except for the removal of a banner that read “All Trains to the Suburbs.”
The title, of course, comes from Edward Steichen’s 1955 photo exhibition, a saccharine antidote to fears of nuclear winter. The railway piece isn’t related to Steichen’s show, but to its mass appeal. Like its namesake, Sanchez-Calderon’s installation is a feast of nostalgia–of the chasm of imagined time between an unsure present and a fictive past. We’ll always be a car nation, but we behave and believe like trains. That is to say, teleologically, with a terminal station in mind. Just as the great train stations can be seen as the cathedrals of the Industrial era, there is something religious about The Family of Man. This is partially due to the appearance of the word Providence, which one quickly forgets is a city in Rhode Island.
Still, Sanchez-Calderon’s piece deals mainly with passing from one place and time to another. Since this is America, the main evolution in train travel is surely not the clunking trains themselves, but the switch from analog to digital time. With this evolution, the units of perception have become more nebulous. Modernist time was so reified, set in stone, and while this was begrudged by Lukács and Gramsci, it seems a nice alternative to the swirling chronology of our present, where smart phones keep us always and never working, always and never alone. This is compounded further by the fact that trains never actually run on time. So the traveler is faced with the vertiginous combination of real time, nominal railway time, and actual railway time.
Speaking of making the trains run on time, which was something that only the fascists could do in Italy (also to Gramsci’s chagrin), the sign was made in 1982 by the Italian manufacturer Solari di Udine. It was then installed in the South Street Boston station, a year after Tilted Arc went up in Federal Plaza. I bring up the connection to Serra because it is somewhat difficult to place The Family of Man. Feeling the cold metallic weight reminds us of Serra, a key detail being a dramatic gouge in the back of the sign – the result of getting the thing through the studio door. It has the same psychogeographic presence; both pieces dictate how people move through space. However, as a found object, albeit an altered one, The Family of Man escapes Serra’s emphasis on minimalism and the production of the art object. Further still, it is an awkward fit next to the other purveyors of the found: Duchamp and Rauschenberg, namely. The Dada/Pop trajectory of found objects rests upon cool emotions of irony and recontextualization. In short, the original meaning of the object is discarded as the found object enters the art institution. With Sanchez-Calderon’s piece, the opposite occurs.
The Family of Man both condenses the emotional responses to travel and unhinges them from their original setting. One might borrow from Krauss to say that it is nostalgia in the expanded field. It goes without saying that nostalgia is traditionally thought of in tandem with an idyllic place (e.g., Combray, Tom Petty’s “Hometown Blues”.) That said, The Family of Man asks if a better definition of nostalgia is a yearning for the journey home, and thus the places that allow for this: airports, country roads, and train stations. It claims that our attraction for sites of motion has replaced that reserved for those of stillness, simplicity and comfort. But this attraction is not the same as that of say, the Italian Futurists, who saw technology as both liberating and progressive. We are attracted to train stations because they are not liberating or progressive. Like the death drive, Amtrak gets you nowhere, but is at least cozy.
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Hunter Braithwaite is a Miami-based writer and founder of Thereisnothere.org. His work has been featured on Artforum.com, Cnn.com, Artinfo.com, and Artslant.com. Additionally, he is a contributing editor of Asian Art News.