by David M. Roth
If you’ve ever wondered about the connection between oil and civilization’s demise, Oil, a photo exhibit by Edward Burtynsky, connects the dots in a searing indictment of heedless consumption and all the justifications behind it. The genesis of the project, says the 58-year-old Canadian artist, was an epiphany that struck in 1997: “All the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued” over the past two decades, he writes, “had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine.” For the next seven years he set about photographing every aspect and consequence of oil’s discovery: its extraction and refinement; the sprawl of superhighways and subdivisions made possible by the automobile; the vast scrap industries devoted to cars, oil tankers and military aircraft; and the tribe-like gatherings at motor sports events. The results of this monumental exploration constitute one of the most aesthetically sophisticated, morally persuasive photo exhibitions you’re likely to lay eyes on.
Many artists and photojournalists have undertaken similar journeys. In the early 1970s the New Topographics photographers documented the suburbanization of the West. Sebastiao Salgado, for decades, has exposed the harsh conditions of workers in dozens of industries throughout the world. David Maisel has made several exceptional series of high-elevation shots of ravaged environments in the western U.S. Richard Misrach, in Petrochemical America, photographed the 150-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley”. And over the past decade, National Geographic published at least 10 major articles about oil, many of which contain museum-worthy photos.
Thus, only a handful of those that line the walls in Oil show us things we haven’t seen. Burtynsky, however, isn’t concerned with novelty. He is a realist who aspires to the grandeur of history painting, and his large-format film images of ruined landscapes reveal a level of detail whose evidentiary qualities reclaim for photography its one-time role of truth teller. Most of his pictures are shot from a high angle, and that viewpoint imparts a sense of authority, as well as a feeling that you're standing (safely) at the edge of a precipice. Size also plays a key role. Though modestly scaled by today's standards, the images are large enough to provide an immersive experience — one in which you can travel throughout the frame and zoom in on any detail. The only obvious spin imposed by the artist is his decision to expose most of his images in overcast light; yet somehow, the pictures never look dull. They give off a radiant beauty, a toxic allure that has been a consistent feature of Burtynksy's work. As such, Oil is about clarity and consistency of vision, about evoking and redefining romantic notions of landscape, and, about inducing a visceral recognition of how the unchecked consumption of oil is killing the civilization it helped build. While that last point may be obvious to anyone who’s glimpsed the headlines of the past 20 years, Burtynsky strives to push our understanding of it further by making us feel the consequences of our choices.
I felt them about a third of the way through the show, when, after becoming absorbed in pictures of refineries, where pipes and ducts form dazzling labyrinths, I came upon two images of equal and opposite force. One was of a gargantuan freeway interchange in Shanghai; the other was an aerial shot of LA on a preternaturally clear day. The first reminded me of the futuristic universe depicted in The Jetsons, where airborne vehicles wiz around skyscrapers; the second brought back claustrophobic memories of my first trip to LA, when I realized there was no apparent end to it, no vantage point from which I could get a fix on it all. Looking at that picture — and at dozens of others that achieve a similar sweep — I heard, banging around my head “The horror, the horror” – the phrase uttered by Mr. Kurtz as he motored upriver in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
This simultaneous evocation of beauty and terror is what animates Burtynsky’s project. His bird’s-eye view of oil fields in Belridge, Calif., for example, shows an array of insect-shaped machines sucking at the Earth’s core; stretching from the foreground to a distant horizon, they intimate the vastness of the enterprise needed to feed a global addiction. High angle shots of oil sands in Alberta, Canada show reflective black pools stretching for miles, as if a network of subterranean pipes had coughed up the planet’s liquid innards. Pictures of spaghetti-like freeway interchanges (LA), suburban sprawl (Las Vegas), immense, phalanx-shaped car lots (in China and Houston) and aircraft graveyards (Tucson) all show havoc wreaked at an epic scale. The latter stopped me cold. Parked wing-to-wing against a mountain backdrop, the fighter jets, even in obsolescence, stand as ominous reminders of American military power, always at the ready to keep the oil spigot wide-open.
Burtynsky makes two departures from unpeopled landscapes. The most significant are the those that detail “The End of Oil”, where workers without health or safety protections engage in shipbreaking – tearing apart of obsolete tankers. In these pictures we see Bangladeshi men, some barefoot and bareheaded, laboring in pools of black muck, dwarfed by the split-apart hulls of decommissioned tankers. Exposed under overcast skies and lit in lustrous, supersaturated tones, these hellish scenes are worthy of Dante or Bosch. They signal the death of an old order.
Other pictures where people figure prominently deal with sporting events: auto races, truck shows and a motorcycle rally that takes place each year in Sturgis, S.D. Their message: cheap oil enabled something no one could have imagined when the auto was invented: working class decadence.
From a historical perspective, Oil adds a fresh, disturbing spin to the old notion of the
sublime, replacing the “ecstasy of terror” once aroused in man by natural forces (fires, floods, earthquakes) with a terror of technological forces we can’t control. Such a reorientation might necessitate a fresh pictorial approach as well; but as Paul Roth, curator of photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art where the show originated points out, Burtynsky “has marshaled all the elements common to representation of the sublime: obscurity, darkness, silence, vacuity, magnitude, vastness, infinity, difficulty, magnificence.”
The difference is that Burtynsky’s visions of the “technological sublime” wield their power through a “revelation of consequence,” giving shape to our collective dread, and “to a suppressed realization of what our lifestyle has wrought,” says Roth. “They articulate a secret truth,” a truth that like objects reflected in a mirror, is a lot closer than we think.
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Edward Burtynsky: “Oil” @ Nevada Museum of Art through September 23, 2012.