The industrial infrastructure that keeps our society and economy chugging along – highways, rail lines, factories, mining pits –may not be the first place a lot of us would think to find aesthetic inspiration or a reverie, but it’s been a rich source of inquiry for many contemporary artists. Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been exploring everything from the Alberta tar sands to high tech Chinese assembly plants to wrench a fresh view of what human activity and its impact on the landscape entails. He’s brought his polished eye for stills to the moving images of Jennifer Baichwal’s films Watermark and Manufactured Landscapes, and if you’ve seen either of these, you’ll likely have had some cognitive dissonance dealing with the potency of these images: at once, there is the squalor of large scale industrial land use and ravaging of natural resources, and yet, a strange beauty to behold, an attraction and repulsion. I’ve often tried to square my feelings for heading down a rather truck-clogged, monotonous drive on the 401 with the pastoral charm presented of the same highway in the exquisite eye of Jack Chambers’ 401 Towards London No. 1.
In 2007, acclaimed photographer and former Londoner Scott Conarroe ventured out across the North American continent to document what was the harbinger of the industrial revolution, the rail lines that pushed this nation westward and shaped the economies of nations world wide. The results are on display in Scott Conarroe: By Rail at the McIntosh Gallery at Western University, and it’s a stellar exhibit.
As curator James Patten aptly notes, photography and railways were 19th century technological innovations that changed the game on many fronts, and here Conarroe brings them together with a conceptual art approach where “the railroad becomes one enormous art installation of interconnected lines that form a skeletal web connecting communities and economies in time and space.”
For the most part, the images on display here cast a favourable light, if not a picturesque take, on how the railroads have left their mark on our geography. In The Coaster, Southern California, the cut of tracks alongside the Pacific beach seems neatly in harmony with nature’s splendour, as if they were intended to be there all along. Equally, in Bow River, AB we see the rail following the natural terrain of the river valley, mimicking the flow through the geography in a human engineered counterpoint. The intervention of technology almost enhances our understanding of how the valley was forged by nature’s forces cutting through rock and glacial till over the millennia, and we’re piggy backing on all that hard work.
In stark contrast, Canal, Cleveland OH shows the opposite of simpatico between the natural and engineered. It’s hard to see where the natural landscape remains in this image of flying track and highway bridges that have colonized the Cuyahoga river basin in Cleveland, a river notorious for catching fire back in the 60s. It’s an arresting image, yet one that works without preaching about degradation. It’s perfectly composed, a visual feast of line and form, with just a smattering of colour. While the first impression is one of chaos in the layers of bridges and rail lines, Conarroe has brought the show’s themes together here, where the rich detail of truss and iron work suggests a technological sublimity, but with ambivalence: there is decay and decline in what presents as the skeletal remains of past technological marvels, a “ruin of rust”, and yet the foreground with new construction mate- rial suggests hope for renewal in this marginalized industrial and transportation space.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation in this study is how the rail line, mostly razor-straight by necessity, cuts like a sharp surgeon’s knife, taking a cross-section of the social and geographical and exposing it to the eye. You certainly get that feeling onboard the Via on a journey out of London, as layers of industry, housing, agriculture, open pit quarry in Ingersoll, terrain shifts over the Grand River, unfold in a way that can only be appreciated by travelling that laser-like line through space. And this aspect of the rail is well documented here by Conarroe. He presents these serendipitous views of the everyday as in Patio Set, Thomasville GA. More than occasionally in this series, the railroad is in a dialogue with highways, automobiles and parking lots, as they verge or vie for our needs for transporta- tion, perfectly captured in Car Lot, Great Salt Lake UT.
In House with Pool, Shrewsbury WV a humble home that has its front door and yard facing the rail suggests a more welcoming attitude, if not reliance, on the rail- ways in rural culture. Contrast this photo to Suburb, London ON, where the neighbourhood rejects the rail’s intrusion with large sound-barrier walls, like a NIMBY attitude in denial. This photo from 2006 was taken when Conarroe was working in London, and it became the starting point if not inspiration for the series that followed. Suburb is also one of the stronger images here, reminiscent of the subdued winter palette you’d find in a Pieter Bruegel landscape.
There’s something afoot in Prairie Tracks, Saskatchewan, a mesmerizing print that soothes like a Rothko Colour Field painting. It’s mostly the play between field and sky, as your eye is led in from the stationary rigidity of the tracks in the foreground and carried into the infinity of the blossoming hole in the sky. But there’s also a delectable tension at play here, where the rail line and horizon line compete to satisfy the Golden Section rule of our perception. Like other works here, there is technical mastery by Conarroe through his long exposure times that softens the grass of the fore- ground and adds a mystic tinge to the light. This print is pretty much all I want for Christmas. Santa can be directed to Stephen Bulger Gallery, Scott Conarroe’s representative in Toronto.
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