Edward Burtynsky is best known for his photography of “manufactured landscapes,” and its role in the documentary of that title directed by Jennifer Baichwal. His work focuses on landscapes that have been wholly transformed by industrial activity, like quarries and strip mines, landfills, or the Three Gorges dam in China. The exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature draws from his book Oil, with its images of the many links in the chain of oil extraction, processing, and consumption–what Burtynksy calls the “lifecycle” of oil.
In the book, Burtynsky describes his reason for these visual studies of oil: “In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil and the mechanical advantage of the internal combustion engine. It was then that I began the oil project. Over the next ten years I researched and photographed the largest oil fields I could find. I went on to make images of refineries, freeway interchanges, automobile plants and the scrap industry that results from the recycling of cars. Then I began to look at the culture of oil, the motor culture, where masses of people congregate around vehicles, with vehicle events as the main attraction. These images can be seen as notations by one artist contemplating the world as it is made possible through this vital energy resource and the cumulative effects of industrial evolution.”
His work is not particularly controversial, and one could say that this is its most controversial aspect. Burtynsky tends to show without telling, to present these oilscapes in a neutral frame. Much like the series Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, the focus is on the aesthetics of the sublime, and the overwhelming scale of human interactions with nature. Whether this has the political effect of raising awareness, or rather obscures the social and historical dimension of those interactions by making them seem like natural processes, is an open question. It’s a particularly important question given that Oil is being displayed at the national museum in Ottawa. Canada’s relationship to dirty oil production through the Alberta tar sands has led to a tense political climate throughout the country, with many debates divided between those for and against an economy based around heavy pollution, environmental racism, and unsustainable oil extraction. Canada has been one of the nations least amenable to international regulation of carbon emissions, and many Canadians are struggling against the political manipulations that come with Big Oil. In this sense, Burtynksy’s show seems symbolic, but of what?. One wonders how critical a oil exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature could be in this particular political “climate,” or whether aestheticized neutrality is the sine qua non. As Burtynksy says himself, it’s not a political piece, but “ more of a poetic lament over the last 30 years of the loss of nature.” Regardless the photography is spectacular and ominous, and Burtynksy’s work is worth seeing for anyone interested in the industrial transformation of nature and the aesthetics of ecological catastrophe.
Reviews of Burtynky’s Oil can be found through the links below: