Art of the Monstrous: Burtynsky and the Anthropocene

The National Art Gallery in Ottawa currently hosts a sensational exhibition called “Anthropocene.” Edward Burtynsky and his associates Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier have created a multi-media mind-boggling representation of the transformation of the earth by humans. Their work has the shock-effect similar to the famous 1969 photograph of the earth taken from outer space, from far above. One recalls Carl Sagan’s equally famous description of the earth as that “pale blue dot.” Those words were uttered with hope glistening on its lips. Could we see how beautiful this whirling planet, ours, was from so far above? Isn’t it one world for everyone? Shouldn’t humanity encircle its collective arms around this pale blue dot and cradle it tenderly?

In the age of airplanes, most of us who inhabit this pale blue dot have been stunned by how awesome our view of the Rockies is from 30,000 feet above the earth. And we are probably aware that photography from above is not entirely new. It has been used for cartographic purposes. Now, many know Burtynsky’s earlier works such as Manufactured landscapes (2003), Oil (2009) and Water (2013)If you have never looked at any of Burtynsky’s big picture photographs, you may be in for  something akin to an electric shock. His photos of large-scale sites from high above (planes, drones, helicopters) stop us in our tracks. They grab our attention and demand that we think anew about the world humankind has manufactured.

Some would add—and ruined. Viewing Burtynsky’s photos triggers deep spiritual and philosophical thought. Nature photographs and paintings are never mere representations; they carry symbolic meanings. And, essentially, they press us to ask the big questions: Who are we as a human species? What is our purpose on this pale blue dot? What have we done to this beautiful place, whirling in an unfathomably immense universe? Where, when all is said and done, are we headed?

In Manufactured landscapes (2003) Burtynsky challenges our aesthetic and moral perspective on what humans have made (and are making) of this earth. The fiery orange tailings river snaking through the landscape near Sudbury, Ontario is sublimely and awesomely frightening. One is instantly reminded of volcanic eruptions. Dare we celebrate the beauty of Burtynsky’s photographs? Dare we marvel at the heroic efforts marshalled to extract oil from the earth? His photos are beguiling and seductive. For me, it is the sheer scale of his photographic revelations. Essayist Lori Pauli comments: “These huge panoramas outside of our normal range of experience, there is something unsettling, even alarming, about scenes that show such massive human incursion into the earth.” Can we even imagine how those cavernous quarries and mining pits were dug? Should we bow down before human ingenuity? How ghastly is it really to see men in shorts, standing dwarf-like slaving away in mud flats, in the midst of massive rusting and twisted shipwrecks in Bangladesh? Answer: very.

Manufactured landscapes divides itself into six different categories: railcuts, mines and tailings, quarries, urban mines, and shipwrecking. Burtynsky photographs a train barely visible against the sandy-coloured backdrop of a mountainside along the Thompson River in BC sliced through by an avalanche. Unlike other portrayals of trains puffing through a harmonious landscape (George Innes, The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856), serene countryside equally evident on both sides of the tracks, Burtynsky’s photograph suggests that the rail line is a mere intruder into an unimaginably dangerous landscape.

Plates featuring mines and tailings like the Anaconda Copper mine in Butte, Montana startle us with the immensity of its bevelled pit of light-brown, pale sand in the foreground, our eyes sweeping out to low, dark green hills in the far distance. The photograph of the Kennecott Copper mine in the Bighorn Valley, Utah reminds me of a gigantic Roman colosseum holding at its bottom a mysterious dark green pool. In the photographs of monumental quarries like the Italian Carrara Marble Quarries one can barely see a thin dirt path winding precariously along the quarry cliffs.  Michelangelo’s David was hewn from quarries like this 500 years ago.

In the section on Urban mines, Burtynsky photographed densified tin cans, now in large blocks, settled in amongst thousands of pieces of fragmented metal, densified oil filters, scrap auto engines, telephones, ferrous bushings (at first I thought they were rusty-coloured leaves), and discarded heaps of tires. These heaps of the detritus of industrial societies are usually hidden from our view. Now, they are in our face, reminding us that the stuff we use to take stuff out of the ground has to go somewhere. I am fascinated with the photographs of oil donkeys stretching out beyond normal eyesight and the oil refineries with their bizarre pipelines. The refineries look like the inner circulatory veins and arteries of the human body. Oil becomes the equivalent to blood keeping our bodies alive; human civilization needs oil or it dies a tortuous death.

Burtynsky’s Oil (2009) focuses all of its attention on oil as the life-giving substance that is the foundation, so to speak, of global civilization, giving shape to highway systems, the automobile culture and its cults, the location of our suburbs and industrial dumping grounds for dead cars and fuel for a capitalist economy. From plates of the spooky beauty of the Tar Sands of Fort McMurray in Alberta where oil is extracted at a hard price and the land is spoiled to photos of intricately designed networks of interwoven highways, with Houston, Texas in the horizon, we see vividly that global societies worship oil. It is our false god.

We worship cars, we pollute the air with their exhausts, we want to drive them and if that means the earth will be devastated and the air polluted, so be it. Hypnotically, we watch them zoom around tracks like the Bonneville Speedway in California. Burtynsky captures all of these intertwined, disturbing matters with considerable power. His photographs of the oxidized oil rigs and accompanying mangled mess in Baku, Azerbaijan by themselves should impel us thinking about where we are headed as an interdependent species in a world running off its tracks. But this god is a consuming fire.

Burtynsky’s Water (2013) completes my selection of three books as preparation for our discussion of the Anthropocene exhibit in Ottawa. If western civilization needs oil to fire its global economic infrastructure, it goes without saying that we, as homo sapiens, can’t live for long without water. Essayist Wade Davis, the well-known anthropologist who draws truths from ancient cultures, states that moderns have forgotten the “wisdom of our ancestors” who “recognized water as a gift of the divine.”

Stripped of the sacred and a sensibility of respect for all sources of water, our materialist culture diverts rivers like the Colorado in the US and builds unbelievably massive dams in China and elsewhere. World populations are growing and water is becoming no longer everywhere. In the US south-west, the ever-expanding building of homes in the desert require ground water. Lots of it. One of my favourite plates is a Navaho/Arizona suburb, where the lego-styled houses clustered side by side come to a sudden halt at a line demarcating Navaho territory. It is just scrubby desert.

Water has many resplendent photographs. Several of Burtynsky’s plates capture vast, circular irrigation systems. The circles have circles within them; I learned that a gigantic pivoting arm swings around the circle as it waters the surrounding land. Viewing the photos on circular irrigation systems reminds one of Paul Klee’s autumnal tones and circular images. Several plates of the Colorado River delta are uncanny. They could be photographs of the body’s capillary systems, fingering their way through the purplish mud flats. One doesn’t always know what one is looking at in this collection of Burtynsky plates. There is lots going on in Water. For instance, the section on “Waterfronts” confronts us once again with the vast scale of human manufactured landscapes. Shot from above, with the foreground as viewing entry port, his photographs of Florida suburbs like Cape Coral #1, Lee County reveal a radically homogenized, grid of clustered houses without any horizon.

If one thinks this is awfully crammed living space, then take a glance at Burtynsky’s plates on Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India. They include photos of vast tent cities, chaotic burial ceremonies cluttered with glowing fires, wood lots, scraps of wood mingled with orange flowers, and thousands huddled together on the river bank of Haridar, India. The photographs from above of Iceland are surreal abstractions. We marvel and are puzzled. What am I looking at?  I fumble to read the entry at the back of the book. One reads these selected texts and emerges with jangled nerves and disturbed spirit.

The Ottawa exhibit – Anthropocene – could be called the art of the monstrous. In one sense, it is the culmination of Burtynsky and film maker associates Baichwal and de Pencier’s work over the last decade. Entering the exhibit, one is stopped in one’s tracks. The photographs are the size of billboards!  In his interview with Paul Wells in Maclean’s Magazine, December 2018, Burtynsky informs us that the murals were “made with a special head that stitches a digital picture together using about 120 or 200 images, and you get this incredible resolution—it’s literally a billboard size, but you could walk up to it and see every leaf on the plant, which was impossible 10 years ago.” Burtynsky speaks of his work as a kind of “photographic Renaissance.” That is true. But daring to label the exhibit with the label “Anthropocene” takes his work into highly controversial territory.

Asked by Wells to define the meaning of Anthropocene, he points out that the word was coined around 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. “He determined that the planet is now shifting into a new epoch, and that we are shifting the human systems more than all natural systems combined. That’s never happened on the planet, where one species is the agency of change.. So, anthropo-,humans; -cene, change. The last time we had an epoch change was 12,000 years ago.” These large tableaus carry some familiar images from his published works. The experience of viewing these monstrous murals, however, intensifies and overwhelms our perceptions and understanding. For me, the photographs of landfill sites in Nairobi, Kenya, filled as they are with unimaginably mountainous heaps of plastic containers, bags, and tin cans, are hideous and captivating.

The Dandara Landfill, created in the 1970s and declared full a decade ago, now serves as a mining site for thousands of workers. Three film stills of Baichwal and de Pencier capture a man carrying a huge greenish-brown sack on his back as he treads along a muddy, wretched path cutting like a river through canyon walls of garbage heaps. One of the three film stills presents a group of shabbily dressed men sifting through sacks and bags, hanging like dead fruit from the banks of garbage.  One feels that one could take a few steps and be standing in this grubby landfill. In fact, Burtynsky’s murals of Lagos, Nigeria, shot from a drone, press our imagination to grasp the expansiveness of this fastest-growing city with millions of rusty, and occasionally blue, roofs in the world. To get us really up close, Burtynsky and his associates provide viewers with an app that places us in a film of the streets and sounds of Lagos. This is an uncanny experience. And brilliant.

Burtynsky’s murals of urban sprawl in Los Angeles accentuates and startles us with the sheer extent of the sprawl. The Santa Ana Freeway cuts through the sprawling neighbours. It highlights the magnitude of the critical infrastructure needed to keep cars moving and the goods flowing. Somehow, one cannot quite escape thinking that someone is defiling this space with a huge carving knife. The mural of tens of thousands of Hurricane Harvey storm-damaged automobiles stored on the Royal Purple Raceway, Baytown, Texas forces us (for a moment or two at least) to face the dire consequences of rising CO2 production, leakage of harmful chemicals into the air and waterways and use of synthetic fertilizers. Even the highways are made from petroleum products. Hurricane Harvey caused losses (to business and property) of around $125 billion USD.

Spain seems to provide Burtynsky with many terrific photographic billboards. His photo of an aquaculture in Cadiz, Spain is wonderfully symmetrical with hundreds of narrow river-like containers in the foreground and larger square blue ponds in the horizon. By the 1990s technological advances had pushed fish farming to an industrial scale. But the Bay of Cadiz’s bio-diversity–a natural park and heritage zone–is now threatened by poor maintenance and the drying out by sedimentation. Numerous photographs illustrate the way farming in places like El Ejido, Spain risk damaging the environment by building plastic-covered greenhouses at the foot of the mountains. The workforce is almost entirely comprised of migrant workers, mostly from Africa. Their living conditions are similar to a refugee camp. That is: lousy.

One of the axioms of the Anthropocene Age is that depth of human destruction of the environment.  Burtynsky photographs clearcut forests on Vancouver Island, BC. I’ve seen only a small part of clearcut forests up-close. The look from above reveals how devastating monstrous machines have invaded once sacred forests to rip through the forest’s entrails to get a few precious logs. Only useless and mangled sticks of wood remain. A photo of a clearcut of a Palm Oil Plantation in Borneo, Malaysia grabs our attention because of the sharp contrast between brown clearcut and the dark green surround forest.  The monsters are everywhere.

 One of the most stunning tableaus in the Ottawa exhibit is surely Burtnysky’s photo of oil bunkering in the Niger Delta. The local tribal groups, cut out from benefitting from the slipshod and reckless corporate exploitation of oil resources, have siphoned off oil into opalescent bunkers. Operating illegally, the pirates create make-shift refineries to turn the crude into low-grade fuel. But this dangerous work and broken pipelines leaks volumes of toxic materials and crude oil into the surrounding forests and waterways. And the legal work of companies like Shell Oil destroys vast reaches of old growth forest to get this dark stuff. Logging and burning ensue: more damage and ugliness. What a bloody mess!

Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s cinematic contribution to the Anthropocene is  provocative. One of the markers of the Anthropocene age is mass extinction of species. Since 1970, we are told, one-half of all animal species have seen a significant decline in numbers. In Kenya there were 167,000 elephants; now there are around 25,000. Baichwal and de Pencier reveal why: poachers murder elephants for their ivory tusks. The Kenyan government moved to stop poaching and, in 2016, one hundred and five tons of elephant ivory  went up in flames. Their fire, one commentator observes, was a “virtual sculpture” which “gives a visceral understanding of human-caused distinction.” Standing in front of this raging fire, one can hear the crackling and almost feel the demonic heat. It is a landscape of a battlefield. Two other AR installations draw attention to threatened species: Sultan, the last of the now extinct species of white rhinos and a massive tableau of “Big lonely Doug”, a single majestic Fir tree standing alone in a clearcut forest.

Living in the Anthropocene era means that humankind can no longer tell its story apart from a deep recognition of our on-going monstrous impact on the earth. Dipesh Chakrabarty (“The climate of history: four theses,” Critical Inquiry, 35, Winter 2009) states that: “The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of history.” This observation carries many consequences. As a historian, I can no longer separate geologic time from the chronology of human history. For centuries these two times have been unrelated. Many scholars date the Anthropocene from the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. That is the time, we recall, when some human beings shifted from wood to large-scale use of fossil fuels. But, Chakrabarty points out, “The mansion of modern freedoms [inherited from the Enlightenment age] stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” They can run out. So will our freedoms.

Our understanding of “freedoms” needs radical revision. We must also face how we will act when we humans are the “main determinant of the environment of the planet.” If this be so, then we cannot restrict our analyses to matters of justice for the poor and oppressed. This kind of analysis is limited; it won’t do anymore. If the human-transformed world—as manifest in Burtynsky and associates’ artistic work—destroys the fabric of life for all creatures, then thinking only of “justice for the poor” won’t do the trick. The poor will be dead and it will be too late for any justice to be done.

To be sure, we learn much from astute analyses of the unfolding of capitalism within the West and its imperial domination of the rest of the world. The Anthropocene exhibit provides plenty of artistic evidence. But the exhibit also provides evidence that monstrous and reckless industrialization connects to the “history of life on the planet, the way different life-forms connect to one another, and the way mass extinction of one species could spell danger for another. Without such a history of life, the crisis of climate change has no human ‘meaning.’”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.