Landscape Time: Floating the Grand Canal with Philipp Scholz Ritterman

Time and the river run at Blue Sky Gallery

By MARK FELDMAN

China’s Grand Canal, the longest artificial river in the world at over 1,000 miles, organizes and animates Philipp Scholz Ritterman’s fascinating and eclectic photo series “Emperor’s River.” The Grand Canal (also called the Emperor’s River) is hundreds of years old, runs north-south, while China’s major rivers run east-west, and has long been an important transport artery for rice and other goods. This slow flowing waterway unifies Ritterman’s panoramic, large-format color photographs of contemporary China.

The best of these photos are strange and dense and seem to uneasily combine multiple times. They offer a meditation on contemporary China that moves beyond the visual clichés of immensity, rapid change, and extremes of wealth. Those are present, but so too is a more complicated and uneasy understanding of history and time along with an attention to people and the pleasures of everyday life that is often lacking from such photographs (here I’m thinking of such work by Edward Burtynsky and Michael Wolf).

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 1

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 1

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 2

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 2

Zhang Zeduan, “The Spring Festival Along the River” Figure 3

Zhang Zeduan, “The Spring Festival Along the River”

A pair of bridges provides a starting point for this body of work that seems pointedly to have no set order. “Zaochuanchang Bridge under Construction, Grand Canal, Jining, Shandong Province, China (PRC) (2010)” (Figure 1), is an illuminated night scene of a bridge (Ritterman is particularly good at nocturnes). It’s thoroughly contemporary and looks like it could have been designed by Santiago Calatrava. But where does the bridge go and who will use it? The photo raises but does not answer these questions and in that way it can stand in for broader mysteries: where is China headed? What will the costs of that transformation be?

Others, such as “Stone Bridge & Lumber Barge, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China (PRC) (2009)” (Figure 2), capture what might be scenes from long ago. A sturdy yet graceful stone bridge spans the water and a barge hauling wood occupies the foreground. Elsewhere are graceful willows, stone pagodas, and walled compounds with traditional buildings. You have to look to the very edges of the photo to find signs of the 21st century.

Ritterman’s horizontally formatted riverscapes made me think of Zhang Zeduan’s “The Spring Festival Along the River” (1085-1145), a panoramic scroll painting chock full of details of the built environment and everyday life in the Song dynasty (Figure 3). The most famous painting of the Song dynasty it has been frequently copied and reinterpreted; photographer Hong Hao has created scroll and book versions of “Spring Festival Along the River,” and there was even a large, animated digital version created for the Shanghai expo in 2010.

But there are other ways that this is a very contemporary image. “Stone Bridge” and all the photos in “Emperor’s River” were created through multiple exposures, taken from the same camera, and then assembled digitally. This achieves startling all over focus and depth. Like much contemporary photography it exceeds our perceptual capacities. Especially in the largest photos, the viewer is left to choose what to focus on at a given moment and the photos can’t be taken in with a single glance (unless you’re quite far away and then you lose many of the details). Ritterman explains: “This approach allowed me to craft expansive, temporally and visually layered images, capable of holding the complexities of the scenes I encountered.” It also seems to call attention to the limits of vision, to make seeing seem problematic.

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 4

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 4

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 5

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 5

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 6

Philipp Scholz Ritterman, Figure 6

To my eye the most interesting, unusual, and rewarding photographs use the meandering river to organize the composition, to varying degree. For example, “Passing a Coal Laden Barge Team at Daybreak, Hanzhuang, near Tai’erzhuang, Shandong Province, China (PRC)” (2010) (Figure 4) shows an older man and younger woman sitting on the deck of a boat, looking upriver as they pass a string of coal barges. This photo (and other river photos) seems to curve as it recedes into the distance, creating interesting visual distortions. As well as being formally engaging, rivers have long been metaphors for history (recall Heraclitus). They’re also examples of how natural forces can be harnessed to human ends—we need only to think for a moment of the mighty Columbia River.

Less compelling—at least to me—were the photographs of construction and scenes of labor. “High-Rise Apartment Blocks under Construction, Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China (PRC)” (2010) (Figure 5) is awesome in its scale. But its omniscient view point, the lack of people, and its similarity to other contemporary photos of Asia made it feel cold and detached, especially when compared to many of Ritterman’s other photos.

Among the group portraits, I found the night scenes of leisure most interesting. “Neighborhood Music Performance, Grand Canal Park, Weishan, Jining, Shandong Province, China (PRC)” 2010 (Figure 6) offers a sort of fishbowl view of musicians, spectators, and people simply walking about. The scene is ordinary enough, but for the green and purple LED lights. Here we see a refreshing view of contemporary China: it’s not just environmental destruction and economic boom; it’s also taking a walk at night, having a snack, listening to some music, and seeing the sights.

Tamas_Dezso_017_166_260

Ritterman’s concern with connection, flow, the teeter-totter of permanence and transience, and the layering of time became clearer when seen alongside Tamas Dezso’s “Here, Anywhere.” Dezso’s photos of “people and places left behind during the post-communist transition in Hungary” show disconnected, orphaned places. “Ruin (near Budapest)” (2011) (Figure 7) with its crumbling arches is a sort of bridge to nowhere. For me, admittedly knowing very little about contemporary Hungary, there’s not that much that anchors these photos to a particular place; rather they seem to belong to an international family of photos of beautiful decay. To put it another way, looking at these photos doesn’t let me learn much about Hungary, although they are certainly beautiful and moving.

It is quite fitting given the subject matter and series title that Ritterman’s photos tend to flow. The canal flows and the large, horizontal images flow into distance and depth. Many of these photos seem anchored in the past, while flowing into the future. I was also struck that Ritterman’s flowing photographs usually include bodies we can identify with or provide spaces where we can imagine our own body moving and inhabiting. I suppose this is a way of saying that these photographs are human and humane and that they strike a range of emotions. They let you at least begin to see, feel, and imagine one trajectory through contemporary China, along the Emperor’s River, floating between the past and the future.

NOTES

Philipp Scholz Ritterman’s “Emperor’s River” is on view at Blue Sky Gallery until April 28, 2013, along with Tamas Dezso’s “Here, Anywhere.”

Mark Feldman is a writer and communications consultant with a particular interest in the intersections of art and environment. As a principal of Writing Works he helps organizations and businesses communicate effectively and creatively. Born and raised in New York City, Mark is currently working on a book, “Urban Ecology: New York City’s Visionary Urbanism,” about how artists, landscape architects and educators are reimaginging the city, greening the streets and changing perceptions of nature and urbanity. Prior to moving to Portland in Fall 2012, he taught writing and oral communication at Stanford University.

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