Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Edward Burtynsky, OIL, AGA, until Jan 2, 2011

Photographing across the world from Shanghai to Azerbaijan to the industrial sites all over Canada and the United States, Edward Burtynsky has been large-format documenting the physical impact and patterning of heavy metal industry for close to 30 years. Grouped together for an exhibition that traces the life cycle of oil, from extraction to car culture to the landfills and abandoned extraction sites since the late 1990s, Oil takes an even wider angle on the developments of the energy sector of the last 10 years.

A Burtynsky photograph is immediately recognizable. Technically perfect and vast, they are emotionally reserved and boldly confronting representations of beautified intrusions against nature. Always, a Burtynsky is distanced, removed, startling and cold.
Image credit: Edward Burtynsky Suburbs #3, with quarry
North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2007

There is a gasp in blurring what is supposed to be horrific with what is supposed to be beautiful.
The bright orange and red sulfuric lines come together and make a pattern, visible only on this type of scale, and they are truly visual wonders of our contemporary culture. And in looking at this content that tie together issues of witnessing, access, beauty and an unstoppable industry, I am left wondering: what is the point of this exhibition?

The photographs are technical marvels, and Oil's accompanying book of the same name fittingly won the 2010 And/or Book Awards as the series reads as an ultimate coffee table book, filled with gorgeous photographs on a topical subject matter. But like most coffee table books, they leave hardly an impression.

At first glance, the scope of each photograph carries the weight of wonder. But wonder evaporates into a search for something deeper, and after five years of what seems like the same show over and over again, I am still unsure as to what the artist is trying to say, if he's trying to say anything at all. The pipes and cars and life of each photograph are pristine to the point of abstraction. The scenes cease to inspire thoughts of any depth about the issue of oil beyond consumption.

Image credit: Edward Burtynsky SOCAR Oil Fields #3
Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006
So while we all know oil is a major issue of the day, do these photographs of oil culture—many of them void of people, taken from gas guzzling helicopters—speak to anything beyond postcard witnessing? I am not confident in describing these images as even bearing witness, as they appear free of any morality-driven impetus which is a marker for witnessing as action. These photographs are clinical, and the world documented is hardly one that is recognizable as inhabited for anything beyond production and consumption.

It has taken Burtynsky years to identify with environmentalism, and one can understand his hesitation as his photographs do not necessarily share the same mandate, though readings can certainly apply.

The photographs in Oil are not chronologically placed, and so the suggestion of a life cycle of start to finish is only a visual narrative, as in fact, the latest photographs come from the extraction and refinement phase shot mostly here in Alberta.

There is a unrelenting persistence in Burtynsky's method that seeks over and over for that composition of such exquisite colour patterns and cinematic lighting that keeps him one of the most recognizable photographers. But more clearly than ever, it is the formal quality of a Burtynsky that rises to the top, and certainly not the subject matter that inspires additional thought or feeling.

As part of The Festival of Ideas, photographer Edward Burtynsky, Tim Flannery, best-selling author of The Weather Makers, and Tom Siddon, former Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, will be discussing how truths can be lost and lies perpetuated on both sides of the oil-versus-water debate.

Thu, Nov 18 (7 pm)
Oil and Water: Beyond Debate?
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Theatre
(9828 - 101A Ave) $18 – $28

First published in Vue Weekly

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