No Small Terror: Edward Burtynsky

“For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”     
– Edward Burtynsky.
Highway #2, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003, digital chromogenic colour print on paper, mounted on archival Stonehenge on dibond, Collection of Museum London. Gift of the artist, Toronto, Ontario, 2019

As the cliché goes, a picture says a thousand words. When it comes to Edward Burtynsky, however, never mind that word count. One would need book-length space to talk about each and every photograph, so, what is that… 100,000 words per image?

Let’s just briefly discuss Highway #2, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003, which conveniently pops up for us on the museum’s landing page for the exhibit.

Burtynsky is likely Canada’s foremost internationally recognized photographer since Yousuf Karsh, or, presently alongside Jeff Wall, and he is surely an influence on a younger generation of Canadian photographers such as former Londoner Scott Conarroe.  No Small Terror presents a good survey of his work over the past 30 years, and if you are a newbie it makes a great introduction to his panoramic landscape photographs that have been called “exquisite pictures of ugliness.” I couldn’t be more pleased to see this exhibit in the newly re-opened Museum London, but to be met with the first arresting  Burtynsky image online, where you can expand and magnify its complexity, even before I re-entered a museum for the first time since the first lockdown due to COVID… well, more on that later.

So what do we see in Highway #2…? ? A tangle of twisted intersection lanes of highway in the cloverleaf configuration (lucky four leaf? Maybe –yes) as it reveals a mesmerizing amount of … just what I am not sure. But I stare at this image for at least half an hour. NB: the average gallery view of a painting, photograph, sculpture by an average gallery viewer is reported to be something like 6 seconds.

Burtynsky’s aerial shot of the cloverleaf handily beat that typical attention span for me, in other words.

Though Burtynsky is seemingly illuminating an everyday bit of human infrastructure, imposition on the landscape – be it from a somewhat unusual perspective, it’s tough to say what he wants us to see in this frame, the cloverleaf freeway intersection we’ve all negotiated a thousand times or more.

After staring at the photograph for half an hour, I have no conclusions. But the more you stare, the more it reveals. Stacked layers, ribbons of concrete and asphalt (are there six, impossible to quite tell….) Submerged below these layers are hidden parking lots, a copper clad commuter rail station, a bus terminal.

It is a mesmerizing mess, yes. No small terror, indeed. Perplexing in trying to distill its engineering — likely accomplished over time and growth of Los Angeles. And the closer you look, you might notice in the bottom quad that it may still be under construction. Is that a new commuter rail line being added now, through this tangled spaghetti of concrete?

After spending one year commuting across the north of Toronto on the 401, now one of the busiest freeways in the world, I had resolved to never live a life of driving to work in such a harrowing hell. This one image brings that resolve back to mind. And yet, that is not all it is either. Undeniably, there is a certain beauty laden in this crazed accumulation of engineering feats, a sort of modern cathedral, temple to our cult of cars, motion and transit.

Therein lays the beauty and the mystery of just one Burtynsky photograph. It illuminates, uncovers, and provokes. And raises a hell of a lot of questions about human construction, and destruction, on and of the fabric of geography we inhabit, and manipulate, and have been manipulating since the dawn of civilization ten or more thousand years ago.

It’s hard not to stare at this image and say there is an intrinsic wonder about it all, that human effort to stamp its footprints, our need to reorganize nature to suit human purposes. Anyone who has seen a Gothic cathedral in Europe knows that not all of our intrusions on the landscape are for ill. But that is where one such image of Burtynsky leads us to: just what are we doing to this planet… and have we now crossed a line, as suggested in Burtynsky’s films, Manufactured Landscapes, and Anthropocene.

No Small Terror features 17 photographs which were gifted by the artist to Museum London a few years back, and while we may have seen some of them in other exhibits or in the films, it’s hard not to say you wouldn’t want a few of them to adorn the walls of your own home.

But, why?

Oil Spill #13, Mississippi Delta, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010, 2010, pigment inkjet print on paper, laminated, mounted on dibond, Collection of Museum London. Gift of the artist, Toronto, Ontario, 2019

What exactly is the appeal here? A sky shot of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, uranium tailings pouring out of a refinery. The wasteland of the Canadian tar sands — do we want to hang one of those behind our couch, even if it matches the colour scheme picked out by our interior decorator?

No. And yes, because these are images to make us think and contemplate.

Still, is there a conflict in Burtynsky’s aesthetics, in creating what we might interpret as a beautiful image of disturbing human interventions, destruction of the earth, landscape, environment?

Curator Cassandra Getty notes that while this has been a charge levelled at the artist, she feels his work “has brought a lot of attention to issues of pollution, overconsumption, and climate change, though, and it’s important to know that his practice also includes publications and the documentaries, which provide context.” In a presentation note on the gallery wall, she elaborates:

Burtynsky photographs from great distances and dramatic angles, transforming nature into abstractions of vivid colour, form, and pattern.
Burtynsky’s photographs participate in the debate around art’s larger truth-telling and ethical role—especially as photography is believed to record reality more fully than other art fields. Associated with these are ideas of the maker’s voice and responsibility. Burtynsky’s work has been both praised and challenged. Critics ask whether the wide-angle views, intense detail, and lack of relatable elements—such as people—dilute the environmental message. Does his approach create enough unease to motivate significant change?

I asked a few local photographers familiar with Burtynsky’s work over the decades, and they pointed out some issues with his practice. Is he attempting to glamorize all that is nasty about the human footprint on the earth?  And, profiting by it?

One friend suggested that Burtynsky’s images, documentation of environmental destruction reminded him of Monet, who once took studious notes of his wife’s pallor, skin colour, as she lay dying.

Uralkali Potash Mine #6, Berezniki, Russia, 2017, pigment inkjet print on paper, mounted on dibond, Collection of Museum London. Gift of the artist, Toronto, Ontario, 2019

That is scathing, but I side with the curator on this point. No single image here should be considered on its own entirely. On its own, Uralkali Potash Mine #6, Berezniki, Russia, 2017 has a circular mandala-like image that lends itself to peaceful meditation. Understanding its creation in an underground potash mine leads to another contemplation, one more centered on our ravenous need for resources.

Equally, the still shot of the Chinese factory in Manufacturing #16, Bird Mobile, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China, 2005 misses the context delivered in the opening sequence of Manufactured Landscapes. It is only fair that we consider Burtynsky’s individual images in that broader practice. I particularly find that extended tracking shot from the film as eye-opening, and it gives background to the real costs, the social and environmental implications of the magical devices we find indispensable — like the iPhone in my hand, or the laptop on which I am typing this sentence.

Uranium Tailings #9, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada, 1995, digital chromogenic colour print on paper, mounted on archival Stonehenge on dibond, Collection of Museum London. Gift of the artist, Toronto, Ontario, 2019

Getty presents the images here with informative texts and quotes from the artist to build on context and intention. For Uranium Tailings #9, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada, 1995, her notes point to the source of the exhibit title:

Burtynsky’s photographs are seen as embodying an industrial or toxic “sublime.” Ideas of the sublime gained popularity in the 18th century, generally involving an emotional response that mixes horror with delight. Feelings of awe, even danger—based on the immense dramatic power of natural phenomena such as storms or the ocean—come together to  provoke “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling,” in philosopher Edmund Burke’s words, “no small terror.” A contemporary addition to the sublime entails the realization that humans are behind increasing natural dangers.

I am reminded here of a delightful, slightly comic but no less poignant take on our relationship with man-made ecological catastrophe presented by philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek in the Canadian documentary Examined Life. 

Here, Zizek visits a garbage dump servicing New York City and declares, in the midst of all the detritus and waste that “this is where we should start feeling at home.” But, he is serious: We are now so conditioned in our way of life that we expect to have all of our consumptions, extractions of nature and consequent waste simply “flushed away.” We want it to simply disappear from our world. Though trash, like radioactive waste from nuclear plants, doesn’t. And as to why we don’t do anything about it… Zizek’s answer is that we are really not wired for images of environmental or ecological destruction, and the way forward may be for us to embrace, mire ourselves in the terrifying truth. Burtynsky’s photographs and films seem to mimic that very logic.

No Small Terror may just be the perfect exhibit to bring us out of our lockdown mode and reunite us with the potency of art. A few weeks prior to Museum London’s reopening to the public, I may have actually dreamed of it – dreamed it into existence seemingly. As dreams go, the details may be slightly fuzzy, but I was clearly dreaming of the before-times, and I found myself entering the gallery on an evening that seemed taken from a previous warm June Nuits Blanche gathering. Inside, gallery goers, late night revellers enjoying martinis and DJ beats. The nightmare aspect: no one was masked! I escaped upstairs, to view an exhibit exactly where No Small Terror sits. In the dream, I couldn’t make out what was on the wall, but I did know that the art was critical to understanding, informing, edifying our place on a fragile planet – one fraught with hazards both natural, biological, and man-made.

So have no fear in taking in No Small Terror. Just remember to bring a mask.

Vincent Cherniak is a freelance writer, living in London, Ontario.

No Small Terror: Edward Burtynsky at Museum London until October 10, 2021


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