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Friday, July 2, 2010

Today, it says that millions of birds are set to fly into the oil mess. I wish more people had seen Edward Burtynsky's work:

Edward Burtynsky: Oil, Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, DC,October 3 – December 13, 2009, Traveling through 2012.

Since his “oil epiphany” over a decade ago experienced while driving a car powered by gasoline and partially constructed with petroleum products on a tarmac road, photographer Edward Burtynsky has been traveling the globe steadily chronicling the soup to nuts of what he calls the “key building block of the last century.” From extraction and refining, to the car culture—and the freeways and mind-numbing suburban landscape it has promoted—to oil’s denouement in the form of tanker salvage, abandoned oil fields and vast dumps filled with automotive detritus, Burtynsky explores it all in his large-format color photographs that are haunting meditations on the real cost of oil.

Regarding these surreal landscapes transformed by man, we realize how totally disconnected we are from what actually happens in oil production. Like Upton Sinclair before him, Burtynsky pulls off the veil, showing us things we weren’t meant to see. These otherworldly landscapes of mind-boggling scale compel us to consider the flip side: nature and our relation to it.

Burtynsky is an artist on a mission, he wants to highlight oil’s collateral damage, but his work is not preachy. He neatly finesses that balancing act between message andmedium, letting his eloquent images do the talking. Burtynsky admits he’s conflicted and says his photographs are metaphors representing the dilemma of our modern existence: we depend on nature to provide the raw materials that support our lifestyle with all its attendant conveniences, yet we’re in an uneasy position because our demands place the planet’s health (and thus our own) in jeopardy. And it’s not just First World denizens and the environment Burtynsky is concerned with, as his series on oil tanker deconstruction attest. Here, young Bangladeshi men scrape crude oil out of rusting hulls, working sometimes neck deep in the ooze. The show’s final image, crude-filled footprints, speaks poignantly to the human toll such employment costs.

The photographs are gorgeous with crystalline focus and color that can be both subtle:Oil Fields #27, Bakersfield, California, USA, 2004 and arcade glitz bright: Breezewood, Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. I happen to be a sucker for work that combines beauty and ugliness. It’s why I love Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie and, of course, Andreas Gursky, who like Burtynsky uses subject matter not known for its beauty, oversized scale, repetitive pattern and splashy color to comment on our contemporary world. There’s a real frisson in a challenging image that’s rendered so exquisitely. Oil Refineries #22St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, 1999 a dramatically-lit nocturnal shot of pipes and ducts that evokes both Mondrian and Sheeler is a favorite; I love Burtynsky’s dump series where mountains of tires, oil filters, drums and other automobile cast-offs are both beautiful and unsettling images.

Burtynsky’s arresting photographs articulate grave and complex concerns about the oil industry and its fallout, providing the perfect response to the avaricious and simplistic “Drill Here, Drill Now” attitude. After seeing how oil transforms the world into something untenable thanks to Burtynsky, I for one, don’t want drilling anywhere near “here.”

Artillery 4.3 (2010):52

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