Saturday, March 20, 2010

Benoit Aquin's "Chinese Dust Bowl" Reviewed in the Globe and Mail Today!

Benoit Aquin - Camion en feu, Mongolie intérieure, Chine 2006

A fair examination of China’s vast dustbowl
By Gary Michael Dault

Benoit Aquin at the Stephen Bulger Gallery $3,000-$6,000. Until April 10. 1026 Queen Street West, Toronto; 416-504-0575,

"Benoit Aquin notes that, as a photographer, he tends to work very intuitively. “I like to make images,” he says on the phone from his Montreal studio, “that look like nothing ... and yet have something very strong in them.” What he’s after, he says, are photographs that possess “a strong quietness.”

“A strong quietness” aptly characterizes the works making up his exhibition, Chinese Dust Bowl, now at Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery. Culled from three different trips to China by Aquin – accompanied by writer Patrick Alleyn – in 2006, 2007 and 2009 (partly funded by the Canadian International Development Agency), these magisterial photographs do not so much document as embody the devastation wrought by the rapid erosion of China’s steppes, from Inner Mongolia to the western provinces.

In a handsome book about the project, Far East, Far West, published last year by les editions du passage (Outrement, Quebec), Alleyn sets their epic journeys in context: “From Beijing to Urumqi, from east to west, the K43-T69 train crosses China’s great northern steppes before following the legendary Silk Road. Cutting through 3,343 kilometres of dusty grasslands, dried-up riverbeds, threatened oases, and deserts both ancient and new, the train could be dubbed ‘the desertification train’.”

Aquin was awarded the Prix Pictet for 2008 for this body of work. This prestigious prize, sponsored by the Geneva-based private bank Pictet & Cie, is the world’s first such prize dedicated to photography and sustainability.

Most of the photographs in the Bulger exhibition – like the beautifully composed Bayannur, Mongolie-Interieure (shown here) – are suffused by a pervasive golden light. The omni-directional radiance seems magical at first. It doesn’t seem quite so magical, however, when you realize that the hazy, golden glow hanging in the air is actually a suspension of lung-raking dust particles, a kind of perpetual creamy-beige dust cloud that never goes away.

Aquin and Alleyn are invariably fair to China. They clearly saw their task as one of revealing, not condemning. They both document attempts at remedy as well as examples of flagrant ecological irresponsibility.

Alleyn notes that passengers on the K43-T69 “can also observe something equally spectacular [as opposed to horrifying examples of desertification] from their windows: everywhere on the vast desert horizon, the sight of troops of farmers arriving in old trucks wielding shovels and saplings, and row upon row of trees standing brave against the wind.” He comments on how passengers also witness “the most significant environmental restoration effort in history,” going on to describe how this 4,500 kilometre Great Green Wall tree barrier “is intended to protect the fragile earth from erosion.”

Whether the barrier succeeds is a matter of anxious rumination. Benoit Aquin’s masterful photographs – both exquisite and unsettling – are wonderfully poised on the cusp of seismic change in China, and therefore in the world at large. This poise, this moment of acute hesitation before any future tumble into environmental healing or ecological disaster, is, I feel sure, what he means by a “strong quietness.”

-Gary Michael Dault

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