Model Railroading as Installation?

The title suggests that I’m making a bold leap to elevate model railroading from hobby to high art.  Rest assured, that’s not what I’m up to.

Last night, I was poking around the interpipes and I checked out Mike Cougil’s site again.  Mike does some very nice modelling, and I also like the way he thinks.  In his October 30th blog post called The Power of Empty, Mike writes that by “[…] not cluttering the layout with endless features that add nothing, I’m allowing the elements that are there to speak with greater clarity.”  Click on the link and read his post and the subsequent discussion in the comments.  It’s good stuff, and it will serve as an fitting backdrop to this post.

The Power of Empty resonates strongly with some things I’ve been considering lately.  My previous post outlined how a recent relocation has landed me in a new home with an unfinished basement in which to build a layout, so I find myself thinking a great deal about what goals I might set and how I imagine getting some measure of personal satisfaction.  I predict that a relatively high degree of realism would contribute greatly to my continued satisfaction is such a long-term project.  This leads me to consider the gap between the scale reproduction of a railroad scene and the scale representation of a scene.

Like Mike, my vision for a layout is informed, at least to some extent, by an interest in design and fine art.  I’ve been captivated by some specific works of visual art that are grouped under the general rubric of contemporary realism.  Mike cites some other works, but one of the works that comes to my mind is Beach – Goa by John Miller.  The power in Miller’s painting seems to come from the way he reproduces the contrast between shadow and glare. His approach is minimal (not to suggest that his works are minimalist) in the sense that he creates realism by presenting a setting that is strikingly spare.  This painting cannot be described as empty, though it certainly is not cluttered.   I find Miller’s painting to have a realistic affect, which is what I would like to accomplish with a model railroad. 

Another way to put it is that, like any good writer or any good painter, we have to make choices when we’re building a scene on a model railroad.  We choose the things to be included and those to be dismissed.  Writers who lack the discipline to make these choices in their works end up with unpublishable manuscripts that are mired in distracting details.  Skilled writers can create a gritty realism by including enough banal details to engage the reader’s imagination, which then refers to its own repertoire of landscapes and experiences.  In this way, the writer respects the reader’s intelligence, and perhaps even seduces the reader into imagining that the details inserted by their imagination were actually written into the words of the text.  Hemingway is often lauded as one of the most capable English language writers in this regard.

I’ve present three artists (a painter and two writers) whose works are realist, and are generally devoid of distraction.  My point is that I’m attracted to visual and mental landscapes that are realistic by virtue of the fact that they present the subject within the context of the banal. These works are not so much trying to depict a scene as much as they are trying to induce or seduce the reader (viewer) to engage in a kind of active deja vu, where the banality of the scene makes it almost instinctive for the viewer to participate. This would be the opposite of a spectacle.

I believe that the most effective model railroads are those which are devoid of distractions, which is not to say that they are not detailed.  To paraphrase Mike Cougil, when distractions on a layout are removed, the banal becomes engaging.  This is a nice way to paraphrase what I hope to accomplish if I start to build one.

Of course, the visual art style of contemporary realism is only one of many styles.  Model railroad approaches of all styles have analogues in art and design.   I’m not trying to elevate any one over the other.  I’m just working some stuff out here 🙂


5 thoughts on “Model Railroading as Installation?

    • Great point. I guess I was bracing for the potential for people who might not read the post very closely, and then accuse me of being an elitist who draws a distinction between prototype and freelance models, or between custom built or painted models and factory products.

      I don’t support any attempts to create two discrete and mutually exclusive categories in the hobby. I think we all stand to gain more from talking about the hobby in an inclusive way.

      I used the term “high art” with at least a modicum of sarcasm because I’m skeptical about many things related to entire notion. The obvious corollary is that there must be a group of art that is other than high. What would that be, low art? My problem with the idea of high art is this: what do these terms mean and who gets to define them? Presumably, a group of elites decide who is permitted to be a member of the high art community, and which works of art should be considered legitimate contributions.

      Advancing from that position, I believe it’s entirely possible to imagine all of our hobby pursuits as artistic production. After all, we do create cultural artefacts in the form models and layouts. If I can make that concession, then by that logic, model railroading can certainly be viewed as art. Likewise, many people in the hobby have abilities that are undoubtedly artistic.

      This is a long winded way of agreeing with the notion that model railroading can be described as art, but also explaining whey I use the term “high art” in a derogatory way.

  1. Funnily enough I was just reviewing some pictures o my current project. The original back scene was very abstract but I replaced it with a photographic back scene. I’m not sure I don’t regret the change. The abstract version was inherently theatrical yet somehow more “honest” about the fact this is a layout in a box.

    • Thanks for the comment James. You raise an interesting point.

      I know you’re not looking for my advice, but your comment adds to my rhetoric. A backdrop that I would deem effective is one which causes the viewer’s attention to be diverted back to trackside details, by which I mean rail, ties, weeds, rocks, ditches, trees, cast-off pieces of infrastructure, and trash (and a train when it enters the scene). A backdrop with lots of detail, or one that has a jarring mismatch in perspective, might detract by drawing the viewer’s attention, not unlike extraneous foreground buildings.

      Disclosure: I have absolutely no experience with photo backdrops, so my comments are entirely speculative.

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