Railway gate on the Mexico - USA border seen from the Mexican side.


By Dave Hickey 1994

”Willy will tell you that doers and thinkers say moving’s the closest thing to being free.”
– Billy Joe Shaver, ”Willy the Wandering Gypsy”

Several miles north of the Gulf of California and several miles south of the Bay of San Diego, the Great American Desert makes its tortuous way through rugged foot hills and coastal tundra down to the Pacific Ocean. Its geological progress is bisected by an invisible line running east and west, dividing the United States and Mexico. Not surprisingly, this geopolitical line is not so invisible at all for its last twenty miles. It is marked by a tall, steel fence that winds through the urban sprawl and extends westward, across the perfect beach and out into the Pacific surf. The tidy, American paradise of San Diego deploys itself to the north of this fence – a ”Peaceable Kingdom” of parks, palms zoos and idyllic beaches. On the south side of the fence, the improvisational sprawl of Tijuana blankets the hilly terrain with wood-and-tin-shanties, mission stuccoes and fly-by-night post-modernities – a hot bed of lumpen-commerce in illicit pleasure; garden furniture and plaster statuary (virgins, saints, shepherds, Quixotes, Donald Ducks and Bart Simpsons).

Obeying the paradox of border towns, the mercantile bustle of Tijuana is as distinct from the rest of Mexico as the garden paradise of San Diego is distinct from the rest of the United States – Tijuana mirroring the dream of northern commerce, translated it into Catholic Spanish – San Diego mirroring the dream of tropical Arcadia, translated into Protestant English. The old railroad station that once served as the conduit between these two mirrored dreams still survives. It is located in the red dirt foothills of Colonia Libertad above the border crossing at San Ysidro, roughly four miles from the ocean in the Zona Rio of Tijuana. Today, a single track arrives from the south, from the peninsula of Baja California. It makes it way north, past the dilapidated station and dead-ends into a giant steel gate that now bars its entrance into the United States.

Across the track from the railroad station, on a bare patch of scrub desert overlooking Tijuana, Ulf Rollof’s railway does the best that art can do to compensate for the stasis and finality of that gate. Rollof’s railway is a circular track, roughly 18 meters in diameter. When the railway is in operation, a small cart bearing a screen of five fir trees trundles in stately fashion around its circumference. The cart is driven by a motor located in the centre of the circle, connected to the cart by a beam that sweeps the circle of desert like a second hand sweeping the face of a clock. A ”passenger seat” is affixed to the clock-hand beam, facing outward from the centre of the circle, so that, when the railway is in motion, a passenger strapped into the seat gazes at the passing scenery through the ever-present screen of fir.

For Ulf Rollof, this screen of fir signifies the cultural filter through which the artist, who is a native of Sweden, must necessarily view this border-culture at the edge of the Pacific. For a passenger like myself, however, who is intimate with this intercultural mix, who has ridden Mexican railroads through the Sierras, the experience of riding Rollof’s railroad provides an uncanny simulacra of riding in the observation car of one of these trains. The visual dynamics of the motion are reversed, of course, but they are exactly reversed. For the passenger on Rollof’s railway, the image of the trees in the foreground remains stable while the landscape in the background sweeps by, while on an actual railway the the foreground sweeps by while the background remains stable.

Our cognitive processes, however, are used to decoding and re-reversing such reversals in our experience of art, and thus, Rollof’s railway provides us with an experiential compensation for the freedom denied us by the blocked track leading out of Tijuana – an experential analog, which, if we are brave enough or lucky enough, we may hope to confirm in reality. In this sense, Rollof’s little train fulfills one of the oldest functions of visual art. It provides us with a simulated image of our desire as an emblem of hope – as Coreggio’s image of a heaven populated with angels might confirm and intensify our hope for it.

It is this compensatory gift, then, this emblem of hope, that (with the single exception of Terry Allen’s contribution) distinguishes Rollof’s railway from the rest of the work in the larger project within which it appears: Insite ’94: A Binational Exhibition of Installation and Site-Specific Art. Under the aegis of this project, over a hundred artists created sevnty-eight works of art to be situated in locations scattered across the expanse of Tijuana and San Diego County. Stylistically, the bulk of these works spoke in the dominant modes of Latin American and Anglo-European artistic practice – the Latin American artists working in an idiom best described as ”metaphorical modernism” (a practice in which representational images or objects are expected to take on symbolic cultural functions) – the American and European artists practicing a brand of ”allegorical post-minimalism” that imposes textual meanings upon accumulations and arrangements of unconstructed, or ready-made materials.

Reading the artist’s statements that accompany these works, however, we discover that a majority of these artists, regardless of their culture, regard their contributions as disengaged ”critical” or ”political” statements – regard them as ”interrogating” or ”questioning” or ”dramatizing” or ”addressing” or ”dealing with” specific cultural ”issues” pertinent to their site – for the educational benefit of their beholders. Only Rollof’s railway and Terry Allen’s adjacent speakers’ platforms (which allow citizens to speak to one another across the border), offer the beholder any symbolic compensation for the cultural deficiencies the works address. Allen’s work offers the the beholder the opportunity to speak across the border – in hope of being someday understood. Rollof’s railway offers the beholder the opportunity to move – in hope of someday travelling. And these are small gifts, to be sure, but in the act of imagining lies the possibility of realization; and, finally, these compensatory gifts signify the artist’s bond with the beholder. They distinguish the works that bear such gifts from the pedagogical elitism of contemporary practice and locate that generosity within the broader field of secular culture. Which is far from the worst site for a work of art to occupy.

Group Exhibition IN_SITE 94, site specific installations USA – Mexico border in San Diego and in Tijuana.
Special Thanks to Carmen Cuenca, Michael Krichman, Don Celso Zavala Martinez, Ola Marklund, Rob North, Michael Schnorr and Guillermo Santamarina.

1994 "23 SEPTEMBER 1994" DRAWING. H 30 x W 21 cm. Ink on cotton paper.
Ola Marklund with chalk early morning.
The entrance to the train station in Colonia Libertad, Tijuana, Mexico.
Don Celso Zavala Martinez at work.
Local building in Colonia Libertad in Tijuana, Mexico.
1994 "23 SEPTEMBER 1994". H 300 x W 1800 x D 1800 cm. Fir trees, steel, motors, rubber, plastic, earth, wood and concrete.
Locals testing the work.
School class visits us. In the background you can catch a glimpse of the most frequented border crossing in the world.
Don Celzo Zavala Martinez looking north at the border fence. Photo by Philipp Scholz Ritterman.
07.01.94 - 12.02.95. Ulf Rollof Catalogue, 29 x 20.5 cm, 176 pages,
texts by Bart De Baere, Daniel Birnbaum, Philip Peters, Dave Hickey & the artist,
graphic design by Stefan Lidström, photographer Lars Gustafsson & the artist,
published by the artist (Mira Förlag), Stockholm, Sweden, 1996.