Boats at Wushan, Yangtse River is a photograph depicting several large ships by a dock, with buildings and a hilly landscape in the background. While the foreground is shown very clearly, the background is suffused with a pale, dense mist that makes it difficult to discern its details. The photograph has been taken from the deck of a boat, high above the water level, as is evinced by the set of white railings that are visible in the immediate foreground. The ships seen beyond this are mostly white, with some prominent areas of green and blue, and a set of sun loungers on the top deck of the boat in the left of the scene suggests that it may be a commercial ferry or cruise liner. The few people present in the photograph appear in the distance as small shapes – two on the top deck of the ship on the left, and others walking along roads on the shore. The dock and the roads that run towards it on the shore are lined with what appear to be ramshackle, makeshift buildings, and in the background are several very large, densely arranged tower blocks that exhibit various modern architectural styles. The hilltops are obscured by mist, but there are some indications of trees and buildings below them, and the row of hills is broken by a valley running between two of the hills just to the left of the centre of the composition.
This photograph was taken by the German photographer Thomas Struth in 1997. It is a cibachrome print on a single piece of glossy photographic paper adhered to a sheet of plastic that is approximately 5 mm thick. As its title suggests, the picture was taken in the town of Wushan in the Chongqing municipality of China, and the body of water depicted is the Yangtze River (also referred to as the Yangzi or Yangtse River). Struth took the photograph on his second trip to China, after an initial visit in 1995, producing a number of works during both trips (see, for instance, Jiang Han-Lu 1995, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, and Zhou Xing Fa 1997). Although no further details are known about the making of this work, in 2013 Struth stated that when he works on landscapes and urban scenes, he usually only takes photographs after a period of ‘location scouting’ that lasts ‘around three weeks, during which time I travel daily by car, often on foot, and am always systematically curious’ (Struth in ‘Thomas Struth: Now You’ve Made It’, The Talks, 18 January 2013, http://the-talks.com/interviews/thomas-struth/, accessed 9 March 2015).
This photograph was taken during the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam further east along the Yangtze River from Wushan in the province of Hubei. When Struth made this work, it had already been decided that Wushan would be permanently flooded as part of the construction project and the town relocated higher up in the hills, although it is unclear whether the artist was aware of this at the time. The curator Charles Wylie has nonetheless argued that by combining symbols of modern industry such as the ships with an architecture that ‘follows the terrain’ of the riverside area, this photograph invites reflection upon the relationship between the natural landscape and ‘human intervention’ (Charles Wylie, ‘A History of Now’, in Dallas Museum of Art 2002, p.153).
Struth’s photographs of China from the mid-1990s indicate a shift in the artist’s practice in that period, in which he increasingly produced photographs containing an extremely high level of detail. He has stated that this was initially inspired by his first visit to China in 1995, when photographing very crowded street scenes catalysed an interest ‘in the idea of more dense pictures … pictures you cannot completely decipher’ (Struth and Prince 2011, p.2). As well as depicting a large area featuring much detail, Boats at Wushan, Yangtse River gains a feeling of density and indecipherability through the thick layer of mist that permeates its background. The art historian Norman Bryson has argued that due to its visual richness, Struth’s work from this period ‘slows down’ the viewer’s experience since ‘it is impossible for the eye to take it in all at once’. Furthermore, Bryson claims that this photographic approach operates against ‘the permanent “now” of technocapitalism’s image-stream’ – the tendency for popular media to quickly present and recycle images, rather than offering their subjects in detail in a way that can be experienced over time (Norman Bryson, ‘Not Cold, Not Warm: The Oblique Photography of Thomas Struth’, Parkett, no.50/51, December 1997, p.157).
Thomas Struth: Still, exhibition catalogue, Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art Contemporain Nîmes, Nîmes 1998.
Thomas Struth, 1977–2002, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 2002, p.153, reproduced p.135.
Thomas Struth and Mark Prince, ‘Paradigm Shift: Thomas Struth Interviewed by Mark Prince’, Art Monthly, no.347, June 2011, pp.1–5.
Supported by Christie’s.