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Rice is the Subject of Scott Gable's Work at CEPA

Untitled print from the series "Rice" by Scott Gable

Going with the grain

How does a country like China—population approaching one-and-a-half billion people—produce sufficient rice to feed its people using traditional extremely labor-intensive agricultural methods? Growing the crop in flooded paddies on terraces laboriously constructed level on level up and down mountainsides, watered by means of equally laboriously constructed irrigation systems (all of this infrastructure no doubt requiring constant mending and rebuilding). Planting the rice plant seedlings one by one in muck underwater. And then the harvest, equally labor-intensive, involving more—and more complex—operations: cutting, threshing, winnowing.

How to produce the basic grain crop for such a huge population on such agriculturally unpropitious terrain by such antiquated methods?

Part of the answer, revealed in photographer and videographer Scott Gable’s exhibit currently at the CEPA galleries: it’s not all done by traditional methods. Exquisite large-format photos focus on the flooded-terraces age-old methods, while a mesmerizing accelerated-action video shows huge-scale production on vast level plains not mountainsides and just about entirely mechanized, it looks like, from field to factories and off to markets. Imagery reminiscent of wheat harvest operations in Nebraska.

Gable doesn’t attempt or pretend to answer all the questions in full. Rather, as he says in his artist’s statement, he is fascinated by “disconnects” between food we eat and food sources.

The photos and video are the product of a somewhat obsessional curiosity about the matter, focusing on rice, “arguably the world’s most important staple crop,” as he says. He relates: “I traveled through six countries chasing the rice harvests from China, through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, and Thailand, to explore this globally vital crop and the experiences of those who grow it. I attended rice festivals with people from ancient agrarian highland cultures that have been using the same farming techniques since the time of the Roman Empire. I rode inside high-tech, hyper-automated harvesting machines in the lowlands where yield is king...” And what he learned, what he found: “Complexity—all the way down.”

Among the more spectacular photos—so basically about traditional rice-growing practices—is one showing two mountains cheek by jowl, the one capacity-jam-packed with level on level of flooded terraces stutter-step slotted into the mountainside, the other similarly jam-packed with similar levels and pattern of wood-construction worker dwellings. Another mountain subject photo recalls traditional Chinese mountainscape and sky and water depictions, that on close inspection reveal some minuscule sign or signs of human presence, sometimes actual humans, sometimes their architecture. Works that are at once about human insignificance in contrast to the majesty of the natural world, and significance—centrality even—as the consciousness that recognizes and registers the majesty. The eye that sees nature’s beauty, like the ear that hears the tree fall in the forest. You half expect to see elegant Chinese calligraphy and stamp seals—poems, comments, records of ownership over the centuries—tucked into border areas of some of these photos.

There’s a sense that even in the age of mechanization, traditional practices are not entirely cast off and abandoned. The video—so basically about modern techniques—begins with what looks like a spring season pre-planting religious procession through the countryside, in colorful costumes and with horns and cymbals musical accompaniment.

Seeing the contrast between the old ways and new, you wonder how they can co-exist. One image shows the tilling of the mud underwater in a paddy using an apparatus like a multi-component hoe, with tines like a hay rake, drawn by one man in front, guided by another man behind. Some paddy operations use ox power, but more basic operations—finesse operations, perhaps, or where an ox would be just too large and ungainly—stick to manpower.

This excellent exhibit continues through July 17.

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