Railways, ruins and modernity: artists’ explore Mexico’s abandoned rail network
Our latest exhibition, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s ‘SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220‘ has already been featured in several blogs around the world. Even Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wrote a very nice piece about it. However, there is still much to say about this remarkable project, not to mention the stunning pictures and video. The exhibition, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and presented in partnership with Furtherfield Gallery, at the heart of Finsbury Park in London – ends next weekend (27 July). Do catch it if you haven’t yet.
I’ll start with a video which nicely captures the concept of this ambitious and delightful project, in which the artists designed and built their own silver road-rail exploration probe SEFT-1 (which they call a “spaceship”) and set out to travel the forgotten passenger railways of Mexico and visit the communities isolated when Mexico abruptly discontinued its passenger services after privatisation in 1995.
For five years (between 2006 and 2011), Puig and Domene travelled in the SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe), recording the landscapes and infrastructure between cities, interviewing people they met, taking photographs and videos, and sharing their findings online, at www.seft1.com (more pictures at the bottom of this page).
On their journeys, they encountered hundreds of “modern ruins” – places and systems deserted quite recently, not because they weren’t functional, but because political and economical priorities changed. Their photographs show remote, derelict stretches of track slowly decaying back into forest or desert landscapes, presenting an eerie image of the past that is also a dystopian vision of an abandoned future.
As Professor Malcolm Miles noted in his talk at the opening of the exhibition, ruins hold an allure for us, provoking a different emotional response from the pristine. In the case of modern ruins, they may make us to dwell on the waste and decay of industrial economies; if we look around, such ruins are everywhere in our urban environment. Power leaks, declines and becomes derelict, noted Miles, a notion encapsulated in Shelley’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, but, he felt, in an age of climate change it is easy just to dismiss industry as well as modernity, and perhaps ruins can tell us also about survival. Modernism and industry, he argued, brought us many benefits. It’s hard to look back at that idea now, as it predicted where we are, even if this isn’t the world we wanted.
Railways are an icon of modern industrialisation, part of our identity in the UK. It was British companies who partnered with the Mexican government in the second half of the 19th century to build the iconic railway line that connected Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean, a line that now lies in ruins. In the UK, in 1963, Beeching closed many tracks, and since then the rail network has continued to suffer from disinvestment and prioritisation of road transport by successive governments.
Recognising the historical links between Britain and Mexico’s railways, for this new exhibition, the artists invited British expert model railway constructor Neville Reid to collaborate by creating a scale diorama and model of the ruined viaduct spanning the Metlac gorge in Mexico. One gallery has become a space for the process of model ruin construction. All details – down to the vegetation – have been meticulously researched and reconstructed.
The SEFT-1 exploration probe and exhibition are still open this weekend and next (11am-6pm): 18–20 July and 25–27 July 2014.