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Features / April 15, 2013

Iron Rooster Redux: Scott Conarroe in China

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
—Paul Theroux

China is a lot nearer now than it was in 1967 when, in his film China is Near, Italian writer-director Marco Bellocchio had a 17-year-old seminary student turned Maoist scrawl that terse observation on the wall of his town’s socialist party building. Today, China is no longer merely near. China is everywhere, omnipresent.

And, as any traveller in China will attest, its railroads go everywhere, too, traversing the country with lines, standby-old and proliferating-new, supporting everything from the barely serviceable trains encountered by novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux in his 1988 book Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China to new China Railway High-speed and maglev (“magnetic levitation”) trains, capable of whispering along at 300 kilometres per hour. There are already 91,000 kilometres of railway lines in China. And back in 2008 (I’m reading this on Wikipedia), the Chinese State Council approved a $292 billion railway investment that plans to fund development until 2020.

Scott Conarroe has been riding a lot of these trains.

His recent photographic pursuit of railroads in China has clearly been an extension of the epic photo-journey around North America that, beginning in 2007 and continuing until the fall of 2009, resulted in the richly conceived and consummately realized suite of searching, lyrical, sociologically acute, large-format colour photographs titled By Rail (2007–09). The photographs from his latest railroad adventure in China—the most recent sojourn ended at the end of November—offer a photo-virtuosity consistent with that of the By Rail project. They are, however, subtly different in ambiance, texture and rhythm from the earlier works.

His By Rail photographs (and also, folded into that project, his adjacent 2009–11 By Sea works) generously embody Conarroe’s self-conscious enjoyment of the transcendent atmospheres of the sublime and the seductive contrivances of the picturesque—welcomed into his work by his fondness for the soft, crepuscular light of early evening, for the long exposure times he requires (most of one minute; some of two to three hours), and for the elevated vantage points he favours. He uses a big, traditional four-by-five field camera (although his negatives are digitally scanned and printed), which lends him the fine grain he needs for an image resolution that makes the photographs seem almost enterable—as if you were leaning out of a window, or stepping through a door.

All in all, he seems to be in pursuit of a Vermeer-like clarity—but a clarity tempered, softened with quiet infusions of scenic delicacy, deftness and (invariably at a tiny scale) miniature isolated dramas culled from the ultimate panorama (a solitary car isolated on a desolate rooftop parking lot in Loop Canyon, Chicago, IL, 2007, for example, or the three people in varying attitudes of waiting in Streetcar Stop, San Francisco, CA, 2008).

In an email from November 28, 2012, a couple days after his return from China to his sometime home in Zurich—where his partner, Eva, lives—he asked me, rather enigmatically, I thought, “Are you familiar with the term veduta?” I wasn’t. The word is simply Italian for “view.” Wikipedia says a veduta is “a highly detailed, usually large-scale painting or, actually more often print, of a cityscape or some other vista”—like a Francesco Guardi view of Venice. It’s clear that Conarroe, too, is making vedute.

But it’s never about exquisite for exquisite’s sake. During a 2009 interview with Justin Mah, Conarroe talks about the need for long exposures “in the subdued light and deep depth of field I like to work with,” but adds—heading into a preoccupation that is more conceptual than pictorial—that he welcomes the way scenes change continuously while he photographs them. “Long exposures increase a photograph’s autonomy,” he tells Mah, “because the truthfulness of its negative doesn’t portray a specific instant that appeared in a certain way, it portrays a compilation of moments blended together; they underscore the camera’s roles of abstractor and editor as well as recorder.”

Conarroe’s vigilance about the infusion of what he calls “rhetorical positions” into his photography (which facilitate his being able so ingenuously to admit that he “likes how dawn and dusk look in photographs”) comes to the fore in the degree to which he offers certain correctives to untrammeled rapture in the works—imagistic and therefore perceptual counterpoints to any runaway lyricism. For Conarroe, the lyricism of his photographs is natural, open and unstressful—and sometimes, I think, offered just a bit puckishly—as exemplified, for example, in his statement to Mah that “visually, few things satisfy like backlit railway tracks i.e. ribbons of pure light.”

But always, in the end, he fends off any wayward passages of uncut, high-caloric pictorialism, usually by adding (or permitting) moments of hard, telling detail to the photographs. Sublimity, I think, is not much nourished by particularity. As he observes to Mah, “I try to complement twilight with streetlamps and other electric highlights when I’m able; I like projecting tension between the vast shifting romance of a sunset and the arbitrary on/off nature of light bulbs.…”

Added to this alertness to any drift in his work toward an uncritical romantic somnolence are Conarroe’s utterly resolved but perhaps only subliminally felt sociological convictions, implicit but not hortatory in the photographs, about the railroading past and its place in cultural history.

He frequently characterizes the By Rail project as “more epic than polemical,” but the polemic is there, no less powerful for being muted. Critics and commentators, in writing about Conarroe’s work, have made frequent mention of the cultural moire effect that arose during the 19th century with the twin advent of both photography and the railroad, and also of the railroad as ruin (“what is apparent in Conarroe’s images,” writes James Patten in the catalogue for the By Rail exhibition he curated in 2009 for the Art Gallery of Windsor, “is the skeletal remains of a great social organism: the vestiges of a cohesive apparatus for economic and cultural exchange”).

There has been a considerable amount of discussion of Conarroe’s attentiveness to the 20th-century race between the railroad and the automobile (which, it looked for a while, as if the automobile had won), and the degree to which he has memorialized the failing landscapes of North American industry. As artist-writer Robert Bean puts it in an elegant essay from the Patten-curated By Rail exhibition catalogue titled “The Iron Horse and the Silver Image,” “the brown spaces that Conarroe introduces into his conversation with the rail system exemplify the rusted ruins of late twentieth-century culture.” And if you recall your Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1981) and his ubi sunt terseness about the photograph as a memento mori (“with the Photograph, we enter into flat Death”), it seems entirely appropriate for Patten to have described Conarroe’s project as, in the long run, “more elegy than epic.”

But one of the impulses that fuelled Conarroe’s trips to China—the most recent was his fourth—was the impulse to witness and record the progress and the implications of the railway renaissance there (“North America is the only place left in the developed world,” he tells me during one of our Skype-fests between Zurich and here, “where railroads are just a heritage contraption”). He says he enjoys “the beautiful little irony” inherent in the fact that China’s current massive rail expansion is rather like the one North Americans witnessed in the 19th century—but, of course, without the decimation of the Chinese workers who, in North America, actually built the lines.

Despite having studied Mandarin during one of his early visits (his Mandarin is now pretty good, he says), it was inevitable that Conarroe was going to feel like an outsider in China. And there is one crucial difference between the generation of the North American By Rail photographs and that of the new Chinese ones, which certainly contributed to his feeling isolated: in North America, he never actually took the train, preferring instead to drive everywhere in his 1981 Chevy camper van. In China, he rode the train.

Which means he would buy a train ticket, not knowing where he was going (“a trip is a leap in the dark,” said Paul Theroux in an interview on The Browser’s website last June). Then he’d get off the train, find a hotel (“I usually went to the first hotel I saw”) and go out looking.

Often what he found was astonishing fragility: cities and sites that were “both crumbling and emerging.” His Underpass, Guiyang, Guizhou (2012), for example, is clearly not about the railroad tracks sweeping past the community, but rather about the apotheosis of infrastructure. The tracks are mighty and relentless, but the buildings nearby are as delicate and provisional as soap bubbles. And if we’re in search of a lurking Barthesian punctum here —“a photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”—we may find it, as Conarroe did, in the “French-looking chairs” on the ramshackle patio on the right. “The chairs are what made it for me,” he says. “A touch of human grace in chaos.”

Conarroe’s contention that most of China is under construction is persuasively exemplified by his “7 Star” Hotel, Jiangxi (2012). Here, any idea of comfort and quiet seems definitively subsumed within the urgencies of building. “I was interested in this moment in history,” Conarroe tells me, “with all of China building for what they’d like the country to become. It’s all aspiration.”

Of course, there is much to aspire to that isn’t construction. Like survival. Coexisting with the fervour of construction is the intensity of the garden. In Conarroe’s New Homes, Anshun, Guizhou (2012), it is the irregularly shaped rice paddies (railway lines and new homes notwithstanding) that animate the photograph—by the force, pictorially speaking, of their absence in it (the paddies look like a fallen and cracked mirror, or shards of mica).

In his Gardens, Wenzhou, Zhejiang (2012), shot 473 kilometres south of Shanghai, the high-speed rail lines go screaming over a quiet, intensely green garden patch where, oblivious to everything but the cultivating at hand, a solitary man works the earth as people have done since the beginnings of horticultural time. The gardener is the telling detail. Too real to be—strictly speaking, deconstructively speaking—a punctum, he is nevertheless an active detail in the photograph, the equivalent in pictorial energy, in a way, to the powerful presence of the new trains.

This is the kind of detail Conarroe loves. And it actually led me, at one point, to ask him about the frequency with which his photographs are compared to those of Edward Burtynsky. “I think we’re picking from somewhat different trees,” he tells me.

I think so, too. For me, Burtynsky is directing attention, no matter how wide and richly complex his subject (oil fields, shipbreaking, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River). And while he does this with great brio, his vision of his mega-projects is essentially a vertical one: a rich, deep, focused, encyclopedic view only of the matter at hand. Scott Conarroe’s photographs, by contrast, offer an equally vast but unusually tender gathering-in of what is before him; his is a horizontal vision—an acknowledgement and harvesting of the inextricably braided cords of the built environment (the railways in this case) and of the outwash of human experience (everything else, in other words) through which the railways cut like swords. Burtynksy’s photographs are trophies. Conarroe’s are souvenirs.

Take his First Graffiti, Jining, Inner Mongolia (2012). You think to yourself, what first graffiti? Then you see it—there at the bottom of the brand new railroad pylon, surrounded by “red soil, freshly laid.” I can’t imagine Burtynsky caring much about it. “How did you find this small, if telling moment?” I ask Conarroe. “It just caught my eye,” he says. “It was a happy find.”

This is an article from the Spring 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.