1m: Capturing the Image of History on the Rails

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So called history generally refers to those things that have already happened. The reason people discuss things from the past is because they differ from the present, which is to say that changes are always happening, and it is because of constant change that we have the concept of time. In other words, the essence of time is in change, in what we could call its “historic nature.” As beings with historic existence, people are situated in the present, face the future, and frequently look back upon the past. Through the study of history, they extract experience from the past that can be applied to the future. The field of history, however, can often only reveal general history on the macroscopic level. Its focus is on those great landmark events and the connections between them, like the way anatomy understands the connections between the different parts of the body. Even when history is truthful, precise and systematic, it is hard pressed to re-create it with vividness, much less present the continuity that extends from the past into the present. For this reason, there are always these artistic historical accounts that attempt to make up for this perceived shortcoming, such as epic poems, biographies and historical literature. There are other methods which are more fragmentary, such as frescoes in churches or temples, novels or other works of literature set in a historical background, even a yellowing family photo album. These more poetic forms, often not seen as “history,” allow us to understand the true implications of “history” through experiential means. To quote Aristotle, “poetry is more philosophical, and more deserving of attention, than history, for poetry speaks more of universals, but history of particulars.”

This exhibition looks at the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway from an artistic perspective, and aims to reveal universal historical facts through poetic means, to reveal predicaments and responses to a changing society over time. On the macroscopic level, it is about the cultural continuity of peoples and states. On the microscopic level, it touches on the state of existence for the individual and the family. When we follow these remnant traces in search of universal truths about history, those forms with clearly unique traits stand out as indispensable road signs. Among them, the meter gauge railroad stands distinct from later railroads in a particularly striking manner. It can be seen as both a spatial measurement and a temporal one, and when it is used as a sign to connect art and history, its cultural import emerges in even more vivid form.

There has been much research on the historical level of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, and there is a rich collection of textual accounts, with no lack of historical materials (including photographic materials). Many professional photographers and even tourists have taken current photographs as well. But there have been few concentrated presentations of such related photographs in an artistic manner, or perhaps they have never been presented in a way that highlights their historical nature. In response, this exhibition has invited several famous artists to use their unique photographic works to paint a historical portrait of the Yunnan-Vietnam railway through a distinctly poetic perspective. Their photography is carried out on a foundation of deep research into historical materials on the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. On many trips along the line, they have surveyed the terrain, researched the history, and exchanged with the locals, fusing fragmentary oral accounts with systematic historical narratives to form a synthesized impression that ranges from the macroscopic understanding to the microscopic experience, which eventually emerges through each artist’s methods of artistic expression to produce these artworks.

Bao Lihui favors the classic documentary approach, capturing typical sights and scenes from the ordinary everyday life along the line, using small details to reveal a greater story in the background. To make each story more concrete, he has added text to each photograph. Though these texts are quite simple, they provide very important information, such as the time, place and people in the photographs. The intervention of this “explanatory text” concretizes the details of the images, turning each photograph into the seed of an independent story. The reason I only call them “seeds” is because the overly simplistic explanatory text is not enough to lay out the entire story, yet it is precisely this “insufficiency” that allows the images to retain their independence, rather than sinking to the level of illustrations. Illustrations emerged in response to human visual demands, from their desire to “see” something after learning about it through text. This desire, however, is quite limited.After all, to really understand something requires the logic of written language. As a result, images have long served as footnotes to text. Even in those seemingly independent classical paintings, the logic of written language, with its detailed re-creation, dominates the visual composition, a situation that lasted until the emergence of photography. The widespread use of photography, however, did not entirely subvert the traditional subservience of image to text. To the contrary, documentary concepts, particularly photojournalism, further strengthened this relationship. Yet the reality of documentary photography does not just present the “truth” as people expect. In its quest for typicality, the visual form inevitably presents its subjectivity.

Bao Lihui is a documentary photographer, and he has adhered to strict documentary principles while creating this series of photographs on the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. Yet the emergence of this text reveals that he has left quite a bit to the imagination in these photographs. Take, for instance, the old man who likes showing off his precious photo collection. Before reading the text, we see only an old man, smiling mischievously as he clutches a photograph of a train, flanked by two old friends. We are drawn in by their facial expressions, their poses, their clothes, as well as the train tracks and the distinctive period architecture in the background, along with the mountain landscape and the weather conditions. All of these details are concrete and vivid, and they come together to form some kind of scene, but not a story. After reading the text, we learn the name of this place, the identity of this old man, and what they are doing. This leads to more curiosity, about, for instance, what this old engineer has experienced in his career on the rails, and what they know about this train station, this street, and other things. In this way, the photograph has transcended the limits of photographic information to reference the untold story. The photographer may know some of these stories, but he does not necessarily recount them here. There are, after all, many stories scattered along these rails. As a storyteller, Bao Lihui knows where to stop, and how to use image and text to present just enough, but not too much, information. It is as if he is laying down tracks to guide the viewer toward understanding and contemplation of the railway’s history, toward a desire to further probe those stories scattered along the rails, just like the photographer.

Similarly emphasizing documentary qualities, Zhang Yongning’s graphic narratives tend more toward the establishment of visual atmosphere than the recounting of specific details. A series of works with a unified color tone reveal the continuity of history through fragmentary scenes. As director of the National Arts Fund project “Disappearing Traces—Documenting the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway on Film,”Zhang must think about how to use photography to systematically present the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway’s history and its present. To this end, he carried out comprehensive research on related documents, visited virtually every station and expanse of track, held extensive interviews, and photographed many important figures and events. Throughout the process, Zhang Yongning followed traditional documentary principles, using straightforward techniques to allow his subjects to present the nature, cultural landscape and history of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway for themselves. Nevertheless, as visual form, Zhang Yongning’s photographic works cannot avoid taking on certain individual stylistic traits. This individualized graphic language is rooted in the photographer’s experience, and also reflects the photographer’s understanding of the subject. This is actually very important for the comprehensive presentation of history. As Hans-Georg Gadamer said, history is a combination of the substance of history and our understanding of it. For people in every era, the “substance of history” they face amounts to the observable traces and the accounts left by their ancestors. These records may be those people’s own understanding of their times, or their reinterpretation of the records from even earlier times. One could say that this “combination of history” is the “substance of history” threaded together by a series of understandings.

Thanks to the technology of photography, beyond using poetry or other traditional art forms to express their understanding of history, modern people can use cameras to present the traces of history by the most direct means, and allow historical facts to unfold naturally. There are basically two methods for narrating history through photographs. The first is through the old photographs left behind by history, which directly fix those historical moments. They are real records that can be used to verify history. The second is through returning to the scene to photograph the situation in the present and capture the traces left behind by the past. This method may be unable to restore the scenes of the past, but these images of the present can spur thinking on the past, and inspire understanding of “universal facts”—understanding of history.

As the subject of “understanding,” people are the threads of history. That is why Zhang Yongning focuses so much on the people along the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, particularly the few who have always remained right beside it, probing the changes that the rise and fall of the railway have brought to their lives. To photograph these changes not only requires a lot of time, it also requires sustained contact with his subjects in order to establish relationships with them. These relationships do not reach the level of friendship, but they do at least reach the point where the photographer can no longer maintain the distance of the bystander, and the photographed is no longer entirely passive. According to a superficial understanding of documentary photography, affinity between photographer and subject is harmful. It is seen as destroying the photographer’s “objectivity.” Leaving aside the fraught nature of “objectivity,” in such a massive historical documentation project as the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, it is impossible to uncover its deep historical nature without intensive document research, on-site observation, and interviews, and is this process not bound to breed familiarity between photographer and subject?

Precisely because of this familiarity from the macroscopic to the microscopic, the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway in Zhang Yongning’s photographs lacks the flashiness of novelty-seeking, and though there is no lack of majestic mountains, rolling clouds or swaying shadows of trees and leaves, it is always permeated with a quotidian warmth, like a landscape captured on mealtime stroll around the house, with the streams of people flowing past the camera resembling the people one sees in the neighborhood every day. This sense of familiarity is simply Zhang Yongning’s understanding of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. Even in Vietnam, the scenes remain ordinary. These images prompt us to use the concept of intersubjectivity to take a new look at that not-so-distant history and its relationship to the present.

Unlike the previous two photographers, Lin Di pursues an “objectivity” and “truth” that is situational. He tends to seek out connotations of life in photography, rather than details or atmosphere. The scenes that emerge through his lens are thus permeated with a mournful air, much like the tone of the storied Yunnan-Vietnam Railway itself. In fact, Lin Di’s works have always had a strong sense of plot. So called “plot” refers on one hand to the aspects of a scenario, or, in more illustrative terms, “having a story.” On the other, it refers to the photographer striving to maintain an “objective” stance. “Objective” and “stance” may be opposites, but as an attitude of “non-intervention” it produces results that are very different from photography with predetermined themes. When the two are placed together, we get “objective stories.” The use of photography to present “objective stories” is basically the aim of documentary photography. In fact, documentary is not a photographic style, but an attitude and principle. Lin Di holds fast to this principle of “non-intervention,” especially when photographing the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway.

The aspect of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway that most attracts Lin Di is the lives of the people who live alongside it. Life is always trivial, and for the photographer with a clear theme, extracting the typical from the trivial is a fundamental issue. It seems that Lin Di doesn’t think about this issue at all. What he wants is for life itself to appear. As a result, his photography is loose. When text is loose to a certain degree, it is called “prose,” and when it is even looser, it is called “poetry.” Correspondingly, when photography is loose to a certain degree, the plot details become murky, and when it is looser, these details give rise to connotations. Lin Di’s photography is very loose, to the point that he can’t actually tell us the stories of those lives lived along the rails, but is only able to share their connotations with us.

The connotations of life in Lin Di’s photography emerge through arrangements of multiple photographs, often one large photograph alongside three small ones. There is often some indistinct connection between them. Perhaps they all present a particular type of setting, or a particular type of thing. They are like scenes from a stage drama; it feels like there is some story there, but you can’t quite figure out what is happening. Is this not the same as real, everyday life? There are countless ordinary stories in ordinary life, but the stories people anticipate are the extraordinary ones, especially against the backdrop of the macroscopic historical narrative. These ordinary lives along the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway are even less noticed, but beyond those great events that make it into the history books, is it not these ordinary little lives that really make up the century of the railway’s existence?

Lin Di can only use the documentation of everyday life in the present to imagine the everyday life of the past. The two are of course very different. The splendor of the past has long since receded, and the desolation of the present is laid bare under Lin Di’s lens. Even so, in these harsh situations, we can still intuit certain congruous connotations of life, those trivial little details that must be dealt with in every time and place. No matter how they change, they link together to form our everyday existence. In this way, we gain a transcendent understanding of history: those great events distilled to mere data in historical documents are permeated with connotations of life, and if we can turn around and examine them through the lens of such connotations of life (such as through this situational photography), will we perhaps make even more discoveries? These discoveries may not only be answers to history, but raise new questions of the future as well.

The works of the three photographers described above present the interpretive relationships between image and text from different angles. Because it is unable to concretize the image, textual descriptions leave vast room for the imagination. On the other hand, visual images force the viewer to take in the visual details. We generally hope that the two can come together in just the right way to give us more comprehensive information and impressions. One form of this combination is to have image and text referencing each other. Another form is to have the image include textual information. Wang Yuhui’s photographs of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway use the latter method to record a large number of train cars and many of the words and signs found on them. He is like a collector of graphic specimens, tirelessly documenting the train cars in all their different shapes and colors, using their powerful forms and textual information to present the past and present of this railway from another angle. Of course, as an artist, his focus on the visual forms, rather than the textual information, but in any case, these highly constructed images reveal the history of this railway in a different light.

The train cars he has photographed are scattered throughout the rail line, and are quite diverse in form due to cultural differences and various functions. The differences are particularly evident when he shoots them from behind, revealing the roundness of a fuel tank car, the squareness of a coal car, and the wide variety of roofs on different closed cars. Furthermore, differences in the frequency of use and maintenance give us some cars in bright colors, and others covered in rust and falling apart. The markings on these train cars are also varied in interesting ways. Some is properly printed, while some is written by hand. There is also the odd bit of graffiti here and there. There are words in Chinese and foreign languages, numbers and signs, sometimes in rows, sometimes partially covering earlier markings. Sometimes these various situations appear together.

These elements come into focus in Wang Yuhui’s photography to create a series of images with strong formal connotations. Shifts in lighting give them an almost abstract beauty. These photographs have not been arranged chronologically or systematically catalogued, and stand as a chaotic pile of historical cross-sections, but when they are grouped together into categories, they take on a very unique historical feel, the character of an era. For the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, this character is an industrial one. This character may be rooted in the forms of the machines themselves, like the speed and power so beloved by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, or it may touch on the issue of how people reaffirm their subjectivity in the midst of industrialized production, a theme expressed in the photography of Lewis Hine.

On the surface, Wang Yuhui’s photographs seem to lean toward the industrial character revered by Futurism, because no people appear within. The train cars themselves may be the products of people, but their forms are so powerfully mechanical as to make people forget about the presence of people. The signs on the cars, however, mark out the presence of people (luckily they are not explained; otherwise, it would lead our inquiry into the trivial details of railroad management), and since they do not present people as subjects, as Hine did, these signs symbolize an oppositional relationship between people and machines, in the form of the signs and the train cars, a modern problem that remains unresolved to this day. Thus, the value of these photographs rests not in their obvious beauty, but in their role as cross sections of the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, for which they can perhaps serve as visual evidence for research purposes, but more importantly, it is the way they prompt us to reflect on the internal contradictions of modern development.

These internal contradictions of modern development emerge in Li Ji’s works as the relationship between people and nature. Out of their instinct to survive, people set out to understand nature and exploit it. In this process, it grew beyond the original need for survival, and evolved into the plunder and destruction of nature. Li Ji has always focused on the questions this raises. We can see these questions emerging in repeated forms throughout his body of painting and photography. If his earlier photography focused more on presenting the environmental problems that arose from human development (such as wild animals on the verge of extinction) to draw attention to the environment, then these photographs of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway directly reveal the problems of humans themselves, and reflect on our understanding of “development” on a conceptual level.

As a massive man-made artifact of the industrial era, the railroad stands as a striking marker of the interplay between people and nature. Not only is the natural environment affected in the places it reaches, the values and ways of life of the people there are altered as well. At the same time, the existing natural and cultural conditions of the place have also come to shape the railroad. The Yunnan-Vietnam Railway sets out from Kunming, at an altitude of nearly 2,000 meters, and extends out to the sea at Haiphong, Vietnam. Along the way, the natural and human landscape changes in myriad ways, and reflects the complex relationships between people and nature against a unique historical backdrop. Of course, the relationships of the rails as historic existence are concealed, and only illuminated by certain speech.

Li Ji’s manner of speaking remains reserved as always. His photography along the railway does not directly present the conflict between people and nature. To the contrary, he uses classic visual techniques, with balanced compositions and subtle contrasts of black and white, to perfectly capture the beauty of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. Furthermore, under this unique visual perspective, Li Ji’s photographs are permeated by a vaguely surreal atmosphere. Part of it is an almost religious sense of ritual, as seen in the century-old steel structure of the Dahua Bridge in Kaiyuan, towering over the land and stretching into the distance with its orderly geometric forms, and forming a strange contrast with the copycat foreign architecture of the mountain building at the upper left of the picture. There is also a sense of recollective passage, like the train “Dongfeng” hurtling toward us along a mountainside near Mengzi, shattering the tranquility of the wilderness, and casting a tragic image of the weary hero against the backdrop of the sparsely vegetated rocks. There are also the children playing on the platform at Bisezhai, the workers hauling wood over the interwoven tracks at Zhicun Village Station, the sealed off old building at Jiangshuidi Village, and the old shepherd along a nameless road…

These scattered scenes are not enough to create a complete portrait of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, but through the language of photography, they have given it a vivid expression, like the expression of an old man who sees through the affairs of the world, and looks back, with great emotion, over the past, standing unmoved by the turbulence unfolding around him, and looking off into the distance, deep in thought. Confronting this gaze, we are driven to face the issues of humanity. As nature’s children, people live and die with the other species, but there truly is something different about them. They have opened up a life beyond mere survival, and have been reduced to tools of efficiency within the civilization of their own creation. The rise and decline of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway is a microcosm of the pursuit of efficiency. When it comes into focus in these images with their tragic air, we catch a glimpse of what the Club of Rome calls issues of global significance.

Like Li Ji, Nie Rongqing also focuses on the conceptual level, but his focus is more microscopic, with a perspective that touches on the individual experience. When the confluence of history and art emerges in the form of individual experience, it is that thing we call “memory.” Much like the way macroscopic history has been misunderstood, the value of individual history seems to rest only in the precision of the storage and extraction of data. When we say a person has a good memory, what we mean is that this person can precisely recount much information regarding times, places, people and events, What is it that we see when we look at the index of a historical chronology? Aside from learning of the sequential order of things, at best we are able to deduce the relationships of cause and effect between certain things. As for the perceptions of those people who were in the midst of those historical facts, we know nothing, nor are we in any position to place ourselves in their predicament. But those imprecise elements are particularly good at linking the present to the past. The sensory perceptions of taste, color and texture serve as road markers to the memories of an era for their particular form, bringing people right into the moment with no need to be “understood.”

Nie Rongqing is intensely interested in this deep sensory give the story of his experiences with an extraordinary group of Kunming artists at an extraordinary time (the 1980s) the title The Colors of the Moat. If we can find the colors of life in that not-so-colorful book of text, then in the unique tones of his Yunnan-Vietnam Railway photography, we can turn back to look at the spirit of that era. The color tones of these photographs come from the imaging effects of Polaroid cameras. This effect, which is flawed as far as the restoration of our everyday visual experience goes, stands as a marker of the times. Looking back now, these strike us as very nostalgic tones. But there are many expressions of a sense of “nostalgia,” such as black-and-white photography, or the placement of faded, yellowing or damaged photographs from the past, so why Polaroid? This is basically because Nie Rongqing shot so many Polaroid photographs in those days, and the Polaroid color palette is an important part of his photographic experience. When he took his Polaroid camera out to photograph the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, it was not out of some conscious intent to evoke “nostalgia,” but an extension of his personal experience, and a path to revisiting memory.

Coincidentally, this process unfolded along the rails, leading Nie Rongqing to remark, “Walking the rails is like fishing. It’s a lonely process, constantly walking along, maintaining an exact stride. You just can’t walk along the rails and maintain a conversation with someone, so as you walk, you think about a lot of things.” When thoughts are fixed as photographic images, we can see those solitary landscapes. When they are magnified dozens of times as high definition images, rather than limited to the borders of the Polaroid, we discover that solemn, stirring emotion is not longing for something that has passed, but is instead rekindling some old faith.

In the tones of memory, this faith is like a train on the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, roaring through those years of great passion, and still echoing today along the rails. Times may have changed, but some things still remain, extending like rails from the past to the future. It isn’t necessarily the clamor of the past. It can also extend out like the silent mountains along the rail line. Nie Rongqing’s photographs set out from the perspective of individual experience to engage in a deep interpretation of the “historic nature” of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. These photographs not only present its historical spirit in an artistic manner, but also prompt rethinking on the gains and losses of contemporary art over the past few decades, and on the path forward into the future. Nie Rongqing places great emphasis on this deep visual perception, which is why he tints the mountain landscapes and abandoned train station scenes with these nostalgic tones, presenting the solemnity of history in all its solitude, desolation and poetry.

Overall, the stylistic leanings of these six photographers form a visual pathway linking art to history, one which unfolds like the process of finding focus through the camera lens. Nie Rongqing’s works can serve as the starting point. His works are the most individualized in the exhibition. The Yunnan-Vietnam Railway in his photographs is his own individual memory, his artistic life, and so in his works, the history of the railway forms an indistinct feeling. If we follow this feeling to Li Ji’s works, it is like stepping out of a dense forest into a wide open field that makes people feel tiny, and many ultimate questions come rushing at us. These questions become very concrete in the works of Wang Yuhui, like a series of different train cars and the signs affixed to them, always calling to mind the people who make and use them, calling to mind labor and methods of labor. These laboring people finally emerge through Lin Di’s lens, but they are no longer in the state of work from the past. The old scenes finally begin to emerge when they are placed together with the stark scenes that remain. These implications of plot are compressed in Zhang Yongning’s works as fragments of stories, at once familiar and strange, like a tattered, dusty old dossier, filled with stories quietly awaiting discovery. Bao Lihui’s works are the discovery of these stories. They have not been told in great detail yet, but the combination of image and text is enough to make us want to carefully read each one.

To view the exhibition in this order is to follow a process from perception to understanding. Of course, you can follow the opposite direction as well, just as the trains move back and forth along the rails. After many trips in each direction, we naturally become familiar with the scenes along the way, and become able to pick out the differences between the stations, and even between the different stretches of the journey. It is the same for appreciating photographic art, or understanding the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. This meter-gauge railway from Kunming to Haiphong influenced the lands through which it traveled since the day it opened, and was restrained by the very same terrain. Everything it touched, from the smallest patch of grass to the families and homes along the way, has experienced so much over the past century. Past events aside, even the things that persist to this day cannot be fully recounted and described through one single method. Nevertheless, we can use the different focuses and visual languages of these six photographers to perceive the honor and shame of this century-old rail line, see the cultures and customs along the way, and intuit the profound implications of the various traces left behind by people. Through these, we can reexamine the relationship between art and history, look back on what has been gained and lost as society has changed, and ponder our actions as individuals. This is the historical significance opened up in the space fixed by the one meter gap between the rails of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway.

Xuan Hongyu, Curator

Written on June 13, 2018, at Shilipu Station

Translated by Jeff Crosby