Tuesday, November 24, 2009

PHOTOGRAPHY: Edward Burtynsky's 'Oil' at the Corcoran, part two

Edward Burtynsky's photographs about our reliance on oil (on view now at the Corcoran) include a kind of trap. The pictures are beautiful. A Burtynsky picture of the landscape near extraction facility outside Fort McMurray, Alberta, looks like a classic Western landscape, complete with big sky, a reflection of a just-right cloudscape and endlessly unfolding hills.

But look closely: That sky isn't reflected in water, it's reflected in a pool of something that isn't nearly as pure. There's an oil refinery
in the distance. Other photographs nearby show the gross, toxic process by which oil is freed from bitumen deposits. The beguiling, deceptive beauty in Burtynsky's photographs is effectively a metaphor for our fascination with, our at-almost-any-cost pursuit of, la belle vie. We're hooked.

Once Burtynsky hooks us on his work, he shows us how the black gold has enabled our lifestyle. The Corcoran exhibition starts with Burtynsky's pictures of how we get oil:
Pumpjacks in the California desert, extraction from oil sands in Alberta and pictures of refineries. Then it shows us how we've used oil, how oil has helped us transform our landscape: Pictures of bizarre, artificial-lake-surrounding Las Vegas subdivisions, the Sturgis motorcycle rally, a NASCAR race and more. (I think that the NASCAR pictures is the one around which the show spins.) The exhibition ends with a section called 'End of Oil' that chronicles what happens to places and things after they're used up. These pictures include a spent, abandoned oil field in Azerbaijan andshipbreaking photos from Bangladesh. The Azerbaijan pictures complete a rhyme: Abandoned oil fields leave pretty reflected skyscapes too.

There are obviously a hundred other ways oil has impacted us and a hundred more ways in which our pursuit of oil has impacted the planet. Showing all of them would be impossible, so consider Burtynsky's project an introduction to an enormous subject. Burtynsky's inability to document the totality of all-things-oil should not be considered a fault of his project, but a reminder of how thoroughly oil suffuses human life on Earth.

Regardless, there's a particular cleverness to Burtynsky's approach: He has mixed the traditions of landscape art -- scale, beauty and grand vistas -- with the conceptual rigor of the New Topographics, the photographers who found smart ways to show us how humans were impacting the land. Burtynsky's pictures are huge -- four-by-five feet each -- which helps to enable the detail that draws the viewer right up to the surface of the pictures. Photographs by the New Topos were typically much smaller, measurable in inches.
IndustrialParkBurtynsky.jpgIt is a connection that Burtynsky seems eager to encourage. Included in the Corcoran show is this picture, Industrial Parks(2007, at left), featuring a development in North Las Vegas, Nevada. The picture seems like a direct tip-of-the-hat to New Topo artist Lewis Baltz, whose The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California
(1974) is one of the landmarks of 20th-century photography. Burtynsky's intent is to show us not just what we've done, but to use beauty and scale to show us how massively we've done it, how we're at the point of no return. It's depression by seduction.

The last galleries of the show drive home the point: They include pictures of the third-world work-sites and workers who break up the giant oil tankers that ship crude around the globe. The conditions are nothing short of disgusting. They are ultimately lethal. It is possible, even likely, that the people in these pictures are dead. Burtynsky's shipbreaking pictures are an appeal to conscience: Look what oil has enabled, but also consider the human cost of our reliance.

The exhibition's final picture, installed just outside the suite of galleries in which the show is installed, is of oil that appears to have seeped up onto a beach in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The oil is in the shape of a
footprint, a kind of literal, poisonous carbon footprint.
Related: In the NYT, Ken Johnson found the beauty of Burtynsky's pictures to be problematic.

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