The First Transcontinental Railroad is believed to be an essential part of the history of American western expansion. The railroad’s completion 150 years ago brought hordes of people, goods, and agriculture across 3,000 miles of American terrain, creating new cities and states in their wake in the intervening years.
To commemorate this historic feat’s 150th anniversary, the Nevada Museum of Art featured Zhi Lin’s collection of art highlighting the sacrifice and grit that thousands of Chinese workers endured while building it. Using mixed-media canvases, a documentary video instillation, and a set of seven small watercolor paintings, Lin memorializes the estimated 12,000 Chinese workers who helped construct the railroad as well as the 1,300 Chinese workers who lost their lives in the process.
Born in 1959 in Nanjing, China, Lin studied fine art in the state-run China National Academy of Fine Arts and in 1989 was a graduate fellow at the University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art, where he decided to use his art to raise social and cultural awareness.
The Nevada Museum of Art exhibit features an 1869 photo in which white men are posing and hanging off trains to extol the finished railroad displayed alongside a canvas upon which a short documentary, Chinaman’s Chance, can be viewed. The film recreates the celebratory scene from the May 10, 1869 bash in Utah lauding completion of the railroad. In this 2015 small production, Lin sets the scene from the onlookers’ viewpoint, as if the audience members are the Chinese workers, conveying a semblance of what they might have been feeling as a result of being excluded from the celebration, uninvited to be in the photo, and standing in the grass along the tracks (below).
The canvas itself is divided into two parts. The top is a bright white blank canvas upon which the documentary images of the white men rejoicing are projected. Illustrated just below the footage is a line of gravel (the type that is commonly seen buffering railroad tracks) that stretches the length of the canvas and gives the illusion of the scene the Chinese workers were witnessing. A landscape of grass and plants are painted in gray at the base. A closer look at the canvas reveals that the names of the thousands of Chinese railroad workers are written in tiny, red lettering.
On the next wall hangs Lin’s collection of seven watercolors. The most treacherous part of the railroad construction was the Sierra Nevada terrain near Donner Summit, which led to countless accidents and avalanches. Small black and white paintings depict sketches of tunnels, bridges, rivers, and towns where Lin found traces of Chinese railroad workers who once lived and worked in the area.
“In his ongoing series of watercolor paintings, Zhi Lin reminds us how easy it is to overlook places where tragic historical events have occurred,” reads a sign alongside the paintings.
The final two pieces of art in the exhibit are mixed-media pieces that span almost an entire wall. Bloody Summer, Cape Horn, California, 1865 (top) was created with Chinese ink and colors on Chinese paper. Lin employs deep red, blue, and purple hues to portray blood along the tracks to bring to light the forgotten 300 fallen men who worked on the treacherous cliffs of Cape Horn that summer. The second piece, Burn Flat China Camp, CA, 1866, also using Chinese ink and paper to combine gray, white, and brown colors to look like soot, depicts a campsite where Chinese workers lived while working on the cliffs of Cape Horn. Many workers lost their lives during the explosions, and almost all would return covered in dirt, ash, and dust after a day of explosions.
Lin’s captivating and thought-provoking exhibition is showing at the Nevada Museum of Art until Nov. 10.