Featuring the work of:
Mary Ellen Carroll
Center for Land Use Interpretation
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman
O. Winston Link
Michael A. Smith
Sze Tsung Leong
Jan Theun van Rees
Xu Xixian and Xu Jianrong
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the ’50s, someone told me how I could get onto the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctured by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. — Minimalist artist Tony Smith recounting his sheer awe of the built environment during the transformative drive that made him reconsider the entire meaning of art.
Robust infrastructure has become a defining characteristic of modern civilizations. It enables the economic productivity that drives prosperity and confers the public safety that citizens of the developed world have come to expect. Indeed, a state’s (or regime’s) legitimacy and competence are often measured in large part by the sophistication of its infrastructure, as the manifestation of a government’s efficacy. The inadequacies of New Orleans’ levee system exposed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, compounded with a federal response that left much to be desired, undermined public confidence in government at many levels. On the other hand, often awe-inspiring in its colossal scale and technical complexity, infrastructure sometimes serves as a functional monument to national accomplishment, attracting curious and faithful pilgrims to even the most remote sites. In this way, the modern state is both literally and figuratively constructed through infrastructure.
Certainly, political actors in control of public finances have frequently used infrastructure as the cornerstone of national renewal. Adolph Hitler, for example, was responsible for one of the largest infrastructure improvement projects in German history. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to reinvigorate the economy during the Great Depression through large power generation projects, including the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired otherwise unemployed workers to build and maintain the country’s roads, bridges, and dams, and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) paid photographers to document this progress, with an eye toward conveying optimism. More recently, in an effort to rev up the sluggish economic recovery, President Obama has proposed billions in spending to improve the nation’s roads, airports, and railways.
The social dislocations associated with large infrastructure are sometimes commensurate with the scale of the projects. The Three Gorges Dam in China, praised for providing much of the country’s electricity and alleviating the threat of catastrophic regional floods, permanently submerged 1,200 cities and villages and displaced more than a million people.
Public Works examines geographically and chronologically diverse examples of built infrastructure captured through the lenses of mid-20th century to contemporary artists. Modern infrastructure shares with photography a peculiar history, as the medium is particularly well suited to documenting the grandeur of large public works. Cumulating from the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s permanent collection and the Midwest Photographers Project, as well as from external loans, Public Works includes works by more than 50 international artists. Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards collection and Merle Porter’s 1950s postcards of the Dwight D. Eisenhower interstate highway system draw our attention to how public infrastructure became tourist spectacle in the postwar era. Frank Breuer’s photographs of tangled and antiquated, but still essential urban power lines in US cities, along with Tyagan Miller’s astute observations of trees that have been pruned or dramatically truncated to avoid the telephone and power lines, stand in striking contrast to prevailing assumptions about this country’s technological sophistication. Tim Davis photographs the desks of Washington’s political insiders, oftentimes the decision maker for public-funded infrastructure projects. Video and performance artist Chen Qiulin makes poetic films of the chaotic dismantling of cities for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and of the effects of modernization on the multiple generations living in the Sichuan province of southwestern China. Armin Linke has photographed major infrastructure projects all over the world, including the workers on a prayer break at the Ghazi Barotha hydroelectric plant in Hattian, Pakistan. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research organization based in Culver City, California has filmed the Houston Petrochemical Corridor, whose massive petroleum refineries and shipping yards inspire contemplation. And adventurous artists expose the public to hidden infrastructure systems that most people take for granted, as Gina LeVay goes 800 feet below Manhattan to document Sandhogs—the miners tunneling bedrock to create the 60-mile-long city water tunnel that will provide fresh water to New Yorkers. Generally regarded as profoundly boring, infrastructure, we see through this work, has complex political, economic, and social dimensions.
—Natasha Egan, Associate Director and Curator