Train in Vain

Lothar Baumgarten's "Carbon" offers a subtle lesson on manifest destiny

For those of you who secretly find comfort in alien postures--who find yourself always the observer rather than the participant, forever the wallflower and never the butterfly--you'll be happy to know that evidence shows this to be normal. We are alien by nature. Our collective provenance as humans may not be as local as once thought. In short, science has shown that we could very well be Martians and not Earthlings. Upon finding traces of carbon on a wayward Martian meteorite plunked down by chance on Antarctica in the mid-1990s, scientists suggested that microbial life existed on Mars. In turn, the hypothesis arose that Earthlings might be the prodigal descendants of a few specks of Martian matter that were swept off course and into our own planetary orbit. Martian dust landed on earth and generated our diverse spectrum of life, and thus alien bacteria begat your neighbor Bob.

We owe this comforting revelation to carbon, the crystalline substance that is No. 6 on the periodic table. The fount of life as we know it, carbon is an element so elegant and full of possibility. Couple one atom of carbon with two of oxygen and you get the exhaust from human respiration that is necessary to plant life, carbon dioxide. Put that same atom with only one atom of oxygen and you get the deadly gas carbon monoxide that in 1997 put the Nike-wearing Heaven's Gaters on the road to what they thought would be an extraterrestrial hereafter. Sometimes lethal but always necessary, carbon gives us so much--both life and death, diamonds as well as immediate duplication by way of the carbon copy.

The German-born artist Lothar Baumgarten understands well the potency of carbon. In Lothar Baumgarten: Carbon, (Dallas), now at the Dallas Museum of Art, Baumgarten focuses on the life-giving yet lethal duality of carbon, as it has borne a double-edged sword of creative destruction upon the American landscape. His take on the element is more material than atomic, as he looks to it as the basis of large-scale modernization in the United States. Baumgarten's interests lie in the greater molecular buildup of carbon, as it became the necessary stuff of steel and railway development, fuel and speedy locomotive movement. The show is the result of Baumgarten's four-month-long peregrination back in 1989, when he set out with a recorder, camera and journal to document the geography of the American railroad. The result is the multimedia installation "Carbon" that incorporates wall-sized vinyl drawings in black and red, more than 100 black-and-white photographs and a book of the same title.

Lothar Baumgarten's "Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and Amtrak's Sunset Limited Railroad Crossing, Jefferson Davis County, Texas" (1989)
Lothar Baumgarten's "Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and Amtrak's Sunset Limited Railroad Crossing, Jefferson Davis County, Texas" (1989)

Details

is on display through December 5 at the Dallas Museum of Art. Call 214-922-1200.

"Carbon" is installed in the main barrel vault and adjacent quadrant galleries of the DMA. One enters the exhibition space to find three large wall drawings made up of red and black vinyl words stuck high on the walls. In form, the words mimic the abstract linear geometries of vertical and horizontal railroad crossings, both upright mechanical gates and the imbrication of tracks on the ground plane. Their layout also references the form of the steel truss that makes an iconic presence in the photographs lining the walls of the four galleries. Playing on the Westward-ho mentality of 19th-century frontier development, the two drawings on the walls next to the galleries are titled "Infinity (Dallas North)" and "Infinity (Dallas South)." Criss-crossing underneath the seam-like window under the vault is "Double Diamond (Dallas West)." The words constituting these forms are staccato and, in Baumgarten's words, "polyphonic." They are the names of various railroads (Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & California, Frisco, Santa Fe, Fort Worth & Denver City, Rock Island, etc.) that once operated or still operate in Texas and neighboring states. Occupying the open ground space below are several shallow vitrines set up on saw horses that display Baumgarten's book of the same title in various stages of graphic development.

Lining the walls of the four surrounding galleries are black-and-white photographs of the American railway landscape hung at eye level. With the exception of an occasional horse or a patch of cows dotting the landscapes, the images are largely lacking in animal life. Peopleless, they are shots of desolate industrial landscapes taken in states across the country, from Pennsylvania to Washington. The images capture the passage of industrial evolution in layered fashion, with highway overpasses shooting swiftly atop old railway tracks underneath. Steel and concrete inscribe lines both lithe and hulking, electricity and telephone communication as well as infrastructure past and present, such as tracks, railcars and highways. One finds towns old and new, those both left behind, such as Pittsburgh and Chicago, and newly anointed, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Baumgarten has brought together a variety of media and influences in this piece designed specifically for the DMA. His wall drawings bring to mind the sardonic and critical-minded Conceptual practices of Lawrence Weiner and John Baldessari. The monochromatic photographs are reminiscent of the work of Walker Evans and other artists of the dust bowl-era Farm Security Administration. He pulls together these influences in order to forge a message of his own, one that is clear but slow in coming. Patience is a must in viewing this installation; it is a meditative piece on the ravaging yet often beautiful, radical and hubris-causing transformations brought on by the modern development of the open frontier in the form of the railroad.

Through what he calls "the aroma of geography," he seeks to draw connections between sundry clashing forces, shedding light on the rationalizing thrusts of industrialization in the form of the locomotive as it ran headlong into a wild and untamed landscape. Yet his connections are both direct and indirect. Haunting these images is the history of a slave labor force of imported Chinese men who were deployed to "emancipate" the landscape by building rail lines. Conquering the West meant equally conquering natives. Implicit in Baumgarten's images is the story of impetuous--and often money-grubbing--settlers who violently took on native peoples in what would ultimately be a bloody decimation, the scale of which has been cause for current-day recriminations of genocide.

Baumgarten's message, however, is neither browbeating nor dumbing. Rather, it comes at you through waves of rumination and deliberative viewing, words and images massaging your brain in order to persuade. In keeping with this pattern of slow persuasion, the show initially comes across as tepid and safe. Before the subtle hit of Baumgarten's overarching message, the wordplay on the walls seems to lack poignancy. The references to the railroads through their names seem much more benign than what he's really getting at. Similarly, the black-and-white photographs come across as merely dull-headed journalism. Out of sequence and taken alone, the photographs might fall flat. But persistence pays off with Baumgarten's "Carbon," as the show's real reason for being--its subtle and levelheaded critique of "progress" and "modernity"--emerges in a quietly resounding fashion from the play of word and image.

"Carbon" gives new body and form to the age-old human sentiment of melancholy, bringing to mind the saturnine artist-figure of Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia" (1514) and the solitary man looking out over the vast unknown in Casper David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (1818). In creeping and silent fashion, "Carbon" casts a gloomy pall over the interiors of the DMA--an umbrella of sullenness that can only come from probing introspection. Feelings of Weltschmerz--romantic pessimism and sadness about the evils in the world--emanate from the show. Yet it is a profound sadness that might very well go missed. You can run roughshod through the images, viewing them as but narrative descriptions of heroic old bridges and railways. Or you can take your time, bringing together word, image and idea, pondering each distinct mode of expression and how they interweave to bring home Baumgarten's thesis on the storm and stress of modern life.

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