Just over two years ago I spent 24 hours on a train from Seattle to San Francisco. It wound its way down the coast at first, before heading into the backcountry, through what felt like the America I knew from a lifetime of books and TV—acres and acres of agriculture and backyards as well as half seen forests and lakes.
I was worried I’d get bored, hungry, stiff, but it was fine. I spent most of my time in the futuristic observation car reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books and taking bad videos of the view from the window as it rushed past. I went to sleep in Oregon and woke up in California. It was a dream.
I arrived in San Francisco around 9am on a Friday. I walked all over that day, looking for something I had glimpsed from the train. That night I ate alone and dreamt of a fast moving landscape. The next morning I headed downtown to the Museum of Modern Art. Deliberately, I hadn’t looked up what was on, excited just to see the permanent collection.
On the third floor I came across a show called The Train. I watched captivated as a screen in a dark room played back to me the journey I had just made. People in sixties’ skirts, hats and sunglasses stood before the very backyards I had cut through on my way down the coast, bathed in evening sun.
I hadn’t taken in the wall text at first, too absorbed by the movement on the screen, but now I went back to read it. This was not my train but one carrying the body of Bobby Kennedy from New York City to Washington DC in 1968. A completely different route, a different landscape, and yet the familiarity of this perspective was overwhelming. The screen of trees, the pairs of eyes tracking the windows, no time to see inside. But something was off. The caption for the video work read, ‘Philippe Parreno, June 8, 1968, 2009’, and I realised I had started from the end of this story.
Walking back to the first room I found a series of colour images taken by Magnum photographer Paul Fusco who was on the funeral train to document its journey. People stand by the side of the tracks holding banners, their faces stilled by the train’s movement, the weight of tragedy – the background is a blur. Their hands are clasped in prayer, clutching handbags or covering mouths, sometimes saluting, sometimes holding their own camera.
The next room showed images sourced by the Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra who set about tracking down the memories in those cameras, the home videos and snapshots, to bring to light the people’s view of the journey, to give agency to those captured and left behind, those who had placed so much hope in the empathy of a senator.
And now here was Parreno, with his re-enactment of the journey, creating a false document of history, the mourning subjects of Fusco and Terpstra’s work now replaced by carefully styled extras.
When I realised this the work became a beautiful counterfeit, easily slipped in next to the real thing, like how something remembered too many times can be inadvertently embellished by the spectator, the witness, the mourner. I found myself asking what it meant to be there, to mourn for something never experienced, to create a false memory of history.
I stood there for a long time feeling the weight of collective grief mixed in with nostalgia for clapboard houses and a ‘real’ America that doesn’t really exist. I stood there and thought I recognised the view from the train that was not mine.
Maria Howard is a writer and artist based in Glasgow mariahoward.org