Yossi Milo Gallery
Feburary 5 – March 14, 2009
Karen Rosenberg has a nice review of Mark Ruwedel’s exhibition Westward the Course of Empire, and successfully covers the historical and aesthetic context, but the exhibition raises a number of additional questions. Ruwedel re-traces railroad lines across the American West, photographing the deteriorating infrastructure. In many instances the lines are completely abandoned, recognizable only by the scars left by their grading or the splinters of the ties and trestles. Beautifully printed, Ruwedel (I believe) shoots 8×10” black and white film and contact prints, dry-mounting on 16×20″ mat board. The artist titles each work in pencil directly on the mount, describing the name of the railroad line, for example Canadian Pacific #3. Rosenberg makes all of the right references to the New Topographics (in particular Robert Adams) and Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.
The press release says Ruwedel “acts as an archivist,” but this is not the most accurate term. “Archivist” usually describes someone who organizes an existing collection of materials, whereas Ruwedel is himself creating material—to use the term is to de-emphasize his authorial role. Partially this misuse of terminology may arise due to fashion, witness the outstanding exhibition last year at ICP, Archive Fever, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Rosenberg perpetuates this idea, writing, “The presentation tends toward the archival.” But the photographs are framed and hung on the walls, in a typological style, and the pencil titling is an affected throw-back rather than an earnest attempt at filing and labelling. I’ve read somewhere that the artist considers the landscape as a repository of histories. Is the landscape an archive, or do landscapes simply bare the traces of prior events? Ruwedel is in a sense a person who creates an archive; he is documenting a set of sites that highlight technologic and historic entropy. Is to document the same as to archive?
What Ruwedel is doing may be more accurately attributed to atavism, that is, a reversion to a previous photographic form (a term taken from George Baker, again). As Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows elegantly makes clear, the history of photography and the history of the railroad are inextricably bound as contemporaneous modern technologies at the height of Enlightenment aspirations. But in the American West the relationship is even more explicit, with photographic luminaries like Watkins and Jackson frequently hired by the railroad companies (as well as government land surveys) to document their industrious advances. Some of the most pristine prints from this era survive in large bound portfolios supplied by the photographers to their corporate employers. Photography and railroad were twin pillars of the Manifest Destiny propelling westward development. Ruwedel pays lip service to this spirit – albeit ironically – in the title of the exhibition, and also explicitly in compositions that echo his 19th century predecessors. The artist very deliberately adopts the formal strategies of a previous age, highlighting a genetic connection between photographs.
Baker sees contemporary photography operating between the dialectics of abstraction and atavism. Extending Baker’s argument, Ruwedel clearly operates according the Barthesian this has been. There is a timeliness to such images of collapse, but from a certain liberal or neo-Marxist position such a reading might be inevitable regardless of the S&P 500 rating. Given the formal elegance of the images and their loaded aesthetic history, in as much as they suggest an “infinite return,” they are also an ode to entropy, and therefore point to the future as well as the past.