Exhibitions

Coal Porters

Yangtze Remembered, The River Beneath the Lake

On view January 22, 2005 to April 24, 2005

Located in the: Special Exhibition Galleries

The legendary beauty of China’s Yangtze River and the effect of a massive dam project on the river and its people are the focus of a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake is composed of more than 30 photographs selected from the touring exhibition by the Cleveland-based artist Linda Butler. Between 2000 and 2003 Butler made eight trips to the Three Gorges, an area of the Yangtze revered by artists for centuries for its stunning landscape. Butler took photographs of the river and its people before, during, and after the dam’s construction. The results are powerful images that capture the intersection of sublime beauty, human resilience, and the drive toward progress. Yangtze Remembered opens Jan. 22 and runs through April 24, 2005. Clark Worswick served as consulting curator of photography for the project. Bruce MacLaren, PEM's assistant curator for Chinese art, is coordinating curator of the exhibition.

In June 2003, the first stage of the Three Gorges Dam opened, creating a reservoir measuring 390 miles in length. More than a million people were moved. Cities and towns, ancient temples, as well as burial grounds and other historic sites, are now submerged. New cities have cropped up, dotted with high-rise apartments, boasting running water, toilets, and electricity. The dam project is considered the largest in the world to date. It will use eight times the number of workers that created Boston's Big Dig, at twice the cost. When completed in 2009, the reservoir is expected to supply nine percent of the electricity in China and give relief from the constant threat of flooding. It will be decades before the merits and costs of this colossal venture can be objectively evaluated.

Butler's photographs provide a portrait of a place thriving in the midst of "serenity and chaos." In the introduction to a handsome book that accompanies the exhibition, Butler writes she "was astonished by the rapidity of change" caused by the dam. The landscape "changed so dramatically that it was barely recognizable: large hills were removed, and rivers were filled with rubble." Her richly defined black-and-white images give a sense of the majestic nature of the Yangtze River and the culture of the people who have inhabited its banks for millennia, despite the rugged terrain. The artist tracks the seasonal change of the valley's appearance and the permanent changes wrought by the reservoir. We see images of loss, destruction, and renewal against a backdrop of human fortitude. But Butler also gives us pictures of efforts to save traditional structures, including temples, homes, and architectural details. In one photograph, the curving lines of a preserved Buddhist temple are juxtaposed against the taut wires and concrete towers of a new bridge. The effect is a vivid symbol of the region's transformation.

Butler used a number of cameras, including a large-format 4"x 5" view camera, in combination with computer technology to create her images. In some of the landscape compositions, she brought together several negatives to create a 180-degree expanse in order to capture the grandeur of the landscape and immensity of the dam project. The photographs, produced in silver gelatin format, measure from 11"X14" to 32"X 40".

An internationally recognized photographer, Butler has over the past 25 years created a body of work distinguished by its sensitivity to the connections among time, place, and people. Her published photographic explorations include Inner Light: The Shaker Legacy (1985); Rural Japan: Radiance of the Ordinary (1992); and Italy: In the Shadow of Time (1998). Butler has had more than 40 solo exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Japan. Her work has appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Yokohama Museum of Art. After the exhibition closes at the Peabody Essex Museum, it will travel to a number of institutions, including UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University and the Museum of Art, University of Michigan.

Further Reading