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Monday, October 24, 2011

Hidden Costs

Last night I re-watched the elegiac Manufactured Landscapes. The documentary follows photographer, Edward Burtynsky as he travels through China documenting factories, quarries, recycling yards, mines, dams, the epicenters of the country’s massive industrial revolution. The images are both beautiful and repellant. The scale is jaw dropping with the landscape transformed on a magnitude to rival Mother Nature. I admire Burtynsky because he forces to confront what is normally hidden.

I first became acquainted with Burtynsky’s work at the Corcoran where his show, Oilwas on view. Oil has been a major focus of Burtynsky’s 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. In chronicling the soup to nuts of what he calls the “key building block of the last century” Burtynsky has traveled the globe exploring everything 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.His stunning, large-format color photographs of this netherworld 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 and medium, 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.

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.”

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