How does a pioneering industrial achievement such as the railway influence the entire geography, culture, history and the people of a country as grand as America? In 1989, German artist Lothar Baumgarten set out to find out, following the country’s railroad tracks for six months in company of a camera, a dictating recorder, a notebook and a pen. The result is the Carbon project, first shown in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Some 27 years later, Cologne’s Galerie Thomas Zander will host the most comprehensive presentation of the work in Germany to date, by putting on view more than 45 gelatin silver prints, several large-scale wall drawings, further material from the genesis of the project, as well as the acclaimed publication of the same name.
Lothar Baumgarten’s remarkable Carbon project represents a unique documentation on the impact the instalment of railroads had on the American nation and landscape. It stands to show it as an invention that had opened a new chapter in the book of trading, but had also brought up the imminent conflict between the two world inhabiting the continent: one of its first inhabitants and the other of the pioneer migrants to the West. While these train tracks, part of the world’s largest railroad system, opened the way towards the wonders of Pacific Ocean and became a powerful metaphor for development and progress for a short while, they eventually led to the gradual displacement and final decimation of Native American societies, as the westbound settlers claimed their land and spread the web of iron lines across it.
The Lothar Baumgarten exhibition in Germany gives an insight into the impressive construction of the railway system, ”built upon the pillars of Indian expropriation and Chinese exploitation”, as the rich private entrepreneurs used immigrants from China as their recruited manpower. The Carbon project documents the way flora and fauna changed after the arrival of the tracks, as some of it was destroyed while some mainly remained intact. On view, there will also be the wall drawings as typographic segments of construction of bridges, semaphore systems and rail structures. The project shows the outcome of the battle between two cultures, reflected in the polyphonic names of the train lines that signify the superimpositions of heterogeneous cultural strands.
With this endeavour, Lothar Baumgarten joins generations of landscape photographers who were fascinated with the traditional beauty of the American West, with an important story that backs his visual documentation. As such, his photography is aesthetically very rich, carefully constructed in terms of vantage point, lighting and detail. Sidetracks, an exhibition of works by Lothar Baumgarten, will be on view at Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne, Germany, from April 14th through May 28th, 2016. The opening reception is scheduled for April 14th at 6pm, concurrently with the 50th edition of Art Cologne.
Editors’ Tip: Lothar Baumgarten: Seven Sounds, Seven Circles
Aside from Carbon, Lothar Baumgarten released a couple of other books worth your attention, especially if you’re a fan of quality photobooks. Here we recommend his audio book entitled Seven Sounds, Seven Circles, which houses seven CDs that were the audio accompaniment to the German conceptual artist's 2009 exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. Each disc contains an hour of audio recorded on a remote peninsula in the Hudson River, the shrieking and croaking of native fauna broken by the occasional Amtrak train. The book opens with photographs and an essay by the artist.
Featured image: Lothar Baumgarten - Sidetracks, 1989. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016, courtesy Lothar Baumgarten, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris/London & Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne.