Speed Limits

We multitask. We drive too fast. Ours is the nonstop generation in the express lane. There’s not really even time to pause long enough to think about such a notion as a part of cultural history or of the way it is expressed in architecture, art and design. And yet the new exhibition at The Wolfsonian-FIU probes all this in a richly textured, even dramatic way.

Speed Limits takes its impetus from a century-old political and artistic manifesto. The objects and images on view are, in general, not contemporary. Yet the provocative issues posed by this show, namely the quickening pace of our lives, and its consequences, are absolutely of our time.

The exhibition’s intellectual reach is broad — encompassing art, architecture, decorative arts, urban planning, advertising, mass consumerism and more, really all that could be considered material culture. It’s heady and provocative and also a lot of fun, an absorbing effort that can be read on many levels. Even the name is ambiguous enough to be provocative: Is it a phrase describing maximum miles-per-hour above which you will get a ticket? Or is it a declarative sentence? Speed limits.

The exhibition is a co-production with the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where it made its debut. In its Miami venue, it was designed by architect Rene Gonzalez and co-curated by Jeffrey Schnapp, a professor at Stanford University (who basically created it based on his longtime research interests), and the Wolfsonian’s associate director Marianne Lamonaca.

“Speed is a dominant theme of modernity,” says Schnapp, explaining that mechanical motion — the technological ability to enhance the pace of travel, to chart time and much more — “is the defining moment of cultural shift.”

For its defining moment, Speed Limits uses the Italian Futurist Manifesto of 1909, but the exhibition has acquired a life of its own, one far more relevant to contemporary times, as “a critical show about the legacy of Futurism,” as Schnapp says. “We used the centenary as an occasion for reflecting much more broadly and particularly to frame it as a series of contemporary questions about economic growth and its limits, about the environmental consequences of unimpeded growth, about relentless consumerism.”

The exhibition is also, as its title implies, about the inherent contradictions of such issues. A centerpiece of Speed Limits is a video display with projections (on the wall) of a snail slowly making its way toward its goal and (on the floor) of pedestrians in Varanasi, India; freeway traffic; a passenger jet landing and an Apollo 11 booster rocket.

Gonzalez designed it so that the images would reflect against one wall superimposed on the other but also could be seen clearly as juxtapositions: a contemporary version of the famous Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. The conundrum: is fast actually faster? Or is slow faster and fast slower? “The subplot,” Schnapp says, “is that these choices always exist.”

The compelling design reinforces ideas inherent in the exhibition. Black, gray and white stripes of varying widths create a roadway throughout, hurrying you up and slowing you down, raising the stakes.

“It’s important that the show be about the experiences of speed and pace and momentum and structure, not about the formal gestures,” Gonazalez says. Mirrors along gallery walls add to the frenetic, yet contemplative (always the contradictions) pace of the show, which is broken down into five components dealing with time, construction, efficiency (in the workplace and the kitchen), transportation and what the museum terms “mind and body.”

Futurism, its jumping-off point, was founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose Manifesto, as the exhibition explains, “celebrates dynamism, the habit of energy, feverish insomnia, and the race pace in a hyperbolic language that precludes traditional modes of argumentation.” Though Italian Futurism took on a much larger cultural and artistic life throughout the early 20th century, the theme of speed dominated and, of course, has persisted to become one of the shaping forces of our time. This is where Speed Limits enters, taking its cue from Manifesto points such as:

“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

The first section of Speed Limits looks at the measurement of time with an offering of clocks and an array of other measuring devices in vitrines that can be examined up close or viewed as reflections (is that time going backward?) across the room. Against the mirror, Lamonaca says, “you can engage in the act of experiencing time, but you can also — as I love to do — experience the objects close-up.” With such clocks as Kem Weber’s 1934 Zephyr and Henry Dreifuss 1938 “Big Ben” on view, the latter choice could not be more worthwhile.

Almost as a point-counterpoint is the small side gallery showing Andy Warhol’s film Empire, which shows the Empire State Building — in its time (1929) known for the remarkable speed of its construction — in a kind of static netherworld. “Time,” Lamonaca says, “is a relational issue.”

Next up is a gallery examining the profound changes in work place and home, namely in the white-collar office and the kitchen, a bittersweet and ironic journey through the recent past, recalling the old saying attributed to the Amish, “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” A subsequent gallery looks at the dichotomy of construction and demolition, aspects of the ever-faster-paced modern and post-modern world and the transitory nature of the built environment, which we’ve come to take for granted.

“Our whole sense of place is powerfully shaped by a whole new sense of provisionality,” Schnapp says.

Likewise, Speed Limit’s examination of transportation leads to contemplation of how dramatically we’ve reshaped our cities, making complex urban patterns that often lead to confusion and gridlock where once simple urban plans sufficed. The final element looks at our human quest for speed, a point driven home by a wall-sized display of commercial energy boosters. Three films — showing Usain Bolt sprinting to win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, Erik Adjervik setting a world’s record solving the Rubik’s Cube and speed talker John Moschitta Jr. in FedEx’s long-remembered 1982 A Fast-Paced World ad — advance the point.

Ironically, an examination of speed takes a good long time to see. Much of what’s on view is small in scale and bears examining and reading — and thinking about. It needs to be seen at that proverbial snail’s pace. The questions it poses are profound and topical in an era in which we are beginning to understand the consequence of the fast lane.

“The show tries scrupulously not to give any answers,” Schnapp says, “but rather to provide a rich, textured critical framework for reflecting, for thinking critically.”


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