George Sanchez-Calderon's smart site-specific installation fills the project room of the de la Cruz Collection with a single old-fashioned train schedule sign, arranged diagonally in the dark space. The viewer is confronted with the size and physicality of a machine that would normally be looked at only from a distance and then only briefly by train passengers in order to quickly glean the necessary information to get where they are going. However, in this case the artist has taken the mechanical relic—a precursor to the digital signs that are more likely to greet today's train passengers—and programmed it in such a way as to undercut our expectations of clear data, instead refocusing our attention on matters of deeper, but less settled, significance.
The sign runs through three cycles, each of which adds another layer of meaning even as it reinforces a general sense of disorientation. Throughout each cycle, the permanent column headings remain, reading "Destination," "Time," "Number," and "Track."
The first cycle begins quietly but somewhat ominously, with all forty-four "Destination" slots reading "Providence," the time reading 6:66, and all other slots filled with strings of sixes. My first thoughts were of the city in Rhode Island, but the Satanic reference of 666 set a darker tone.
After a few moments, the mechanical pieces started rotating quickly, and as they spun, the names of other cities could be seen briefly. Yet when everything stopped there were no more place names. Instead each "Destination" field contained the name of a different financial institution—including AIG, Morgan Stanley, Standard & Poor, and other devilish entities that have been implicated in the Global Financial Crisis. Next to each institution's name was a string of Z's—suggesting that someone was (is) asleep at the wheel, either the financial institutions themselves, government regulators, the general public—or, more likely, all three. The "Track" field was notably empty in this cycle, signifying perhaps that the economy is not yet back on track, or even that there is no track for it to go back to, since so much of the U.S. and global economy is based on shaky foundations.
After another round of spinning through place names, the last cycle ended on a more open-ended note, with all of the "Destination" fields empty, and only strings of the letter U in the other fields. It appeared that the "U" was addressing me, the viewer, as in texting shorthand. "Where are U going?" the piece seemed to ask, referencing the universal longing for a deeper sense of one's place in the world.
I came away from The Family of Man impressed with how each of the three cycles builds on the context of what comes before, and how the piece as a whole points to the subjectivity and unreliability of the seemingly cut-and-dry information that we receive from supposedly authoritative grids, spreadsheets, or tables.
My one quibble with Sanchez-Calderon's installation is the audacity and grandiosity of its title. The original The Family of Man was a landmark exhibition of humanist documentary photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955. It consisted of 503 images that were described by curator Edward Steichen as a "mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world." These photographs were published in book format and that book has remained a powerful classic for over half a century. As much as I liked Sanchez-Calderon's piece, I do not think the scale and scope of its ambitions can be compared favorably to the original The Family of Man. Nor do they need to be.
~Eduardo Alexander Rabel, an artist and writer living in Miami
Image: Detail of The Family of Man, 2011, Photo credit: Carlos Rigau. Courtesy de la Cruz Collection.