Human-altered Landscapes: Visions of the Anthropocene
It was two years ago, while hovering over the Niger Delta in a two-dollar-per-second rented helicopter that Edward Burtynsky saw an oil-soaked scene of apocalyptic scale. Images of oily waterways flicker in dull rainbow hues; landscapes shine black and are littered with scorched trees; a boat speeds away from the helicopter. He had heard about oil theft in the petroleum-rich Nigerian delta, but looking at it from this vantage point, he knew it was something the world hadn’t yet seen.
“They are really tough images. They speak to a very challenging situation,” Burtynsky says. Nigeria has substantial petroleum deposits, with oil and gas pipelines dissecting the delta. Locals siphon oil from pipelines and crudely distill diesel and gasoline – profitable, marketable products. But over half of the crude oil needs sophisticated refining to be turned into anything useful. “They didn’t have a refinery. They couldn’t do anything with it. So they just poured it off on the landscape,” Burtynsky observes. It is unclear how much oil gets siphoned off, but the Nigerian government estimates 250,000 barrels daily, over half of which gets dumped. “These landscapes have oil just oozing out of them.”
The images Burtynsky made that day are one story in The Anthropocene Project, the third collaboration between Burtynsky and documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. (The two previous collaborations were the highly acclaimed Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark.) The project forms the basis of the National Gallery of Canada's multimedia exhibition Anthropocene, which brings together large-scale photographs, twelve film installations and integrated video displays, high-resolution murals and immersive Augmented Reality (AR) sculptures. A simultaneous, complementary exhibition is being held at the Art Gallery of Ontario and another showing will take place at the Fondazione MAST in Bologna next year, all being accompanied by a publication and TIFF 2018 premiere screenings of the film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.
The project describes the Anthropocene epoch: when human activity has reached such scale as to permanently etch ourselves in geological time. The Holocene epoch began after the last glaciers retreated, and has coolly supported modern humans as we flourished over the last 11,000-plus years. Now scientists are debating, however, whether the Holocene is over and the Age of Man, the Anthropocene, has begun. Humans have more impact on Earth than any natural system combined. New molecules are entering the stratum, and man-made objects called technofossils and plastic-filled rocks called plastigomerate will be the fossilized leftovers of our age. “Our dominance is a fact,” says Baichwal. “It is what we do with that influence that is up to us. Are we going to have a good Anthropocene or a bad Anthropocene?”
Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier didn’t start out to make a trilogy of films; each grew naturally out of the last. As the topics increased in scope the collaboration deepened, and the mediums evolved. It kept expanding until the photographer was directing a film, the filmmakers were producing museum exhibits and a book, and now even the museum visitors get turned into protagonists. In the exhibitions live virtual sculptures push the boundaries of lens-based art, placing viewers in the scene. The three artists have always resisted being prescriptive, working instead towards experiential understanding. In this exhibition, they challenge viewers to wrestle with issues through a combination of the omniscient view and human-sized details.
“One of the ways the films always worked is a dialectic of scale and detail. It’s about letting the small piece illuminate and give meaning to the wide view,” Baichwal says. “Like [the mural of] Lagos, you get this feeling of, ‘Wow, this is a huge tent city.’ But then you hold up your phone and trigger the film extension – all of a sudden you’re on the street with somebody on the back of a Moped ducking through the traffic in the busiest market on a Saturday.”
Tension between scale and detail naturally fits with Burtynsky’s trademark rendering of vast industrial scenes as beautiful landscapes. He positions himself to find an omniscient perspective that we never get in real life. Viewers see dynamic compositions, and then realize they are looking at an industrial worksite. And then they notice a very small human and understand immensity.
Playing with perception and composition is how Burtynksy communicates scale, but it is also perhaps a nod to his early fascination with classical abstract expressionism. “I remember doing an art history class, and all of a sudden seeing this image of a shipwreck caught in ice in the high north (it was Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich). It was that scale of nature being the omnipresent, sublime force; a ship being dwarfed by this huge pile of ice. To me there was something powerful about that. I was really interested in the idea that nature was a sublime force, and we were still dwarfed by it,” he says. “The notion of sublime at that time was not only fearful, but awe inspiring – of being diminished by a force greater than oneself.”
The images in the Anthropocene project are nearly the opposite of this: humans have become the dominating force. The ephemerality of the AR sculptures on view in the exhibition is part of their meaning. They speak of human caused extinction. Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros who died this spring, is standing in the museum space, dwarfing the viewer even in his death. The same applies to the 105 tonnes of elephant tusks that were burned in Kenya two years ago – a grand gesture to poachers given the ivory was worth over $100 million on the black market. “One of the AR sculptures is the biggest tusk pile before it was burned. But now it’s gone. There’s nothing left of it,” Baichwal observes. But this sculpture preserves them in some way. “Even just that the burning represented the death of somewhere between 7000 to 10,000 elephants to make stupid little trinkets that people put on their mantelpiece.”
In the 1980s when Burtynsky began photographing mines in Sudbury, he made a choice to stop looking at other work for inspiration. Instead, he would use only the results of his work to tell him where to go next. He would look at the best images from a shoot and ask, why does this work? Then he would go back and try to improve on them, develop the film and ask, did I beat it or didn’t I? “I thought that by following what was working in the work, I would find an original place that maybe someone else has never gone to,” he observes.
His body of work is the result of deliberate choices, each project building on the one before, only ever emerging from where he just was. The culmination is eerily parallel with the emergence of the Anthropocene epoch. Some have called his work disaster aesthetic, but after thirty-odd years of following industry around the world, Burtynsky disagrees. “These aren’t disasters, this is business as usual,” he says. “These are all intentional landscapes. They’re following a set of rules, they’re using technology, they’ve got licenses to operate – this is the only way we have cities, because of these holes. And maybe these are disaster landscapes, but they are consciously made disasters.”
If it is confusing whether one is looking at a disaster or a success story, the artists suggest it is our job to work it out. “Visually, we are showing you exactly what the scientists are talking about, so you deal with it. Wrestle with it,” Burtynsky says. “I would argue that the ambiguity of Ed’s work is precisely where its power lies,” Baichwal adds. “Yes, it can hang in a board room of a massive corporation, and it can hang in the environmentalist’s office who is fighting against that corporation. You can look at it and go, ‘Wow, we’re capable of that.’ And that’s O.K., we do have that capacity – which means we have the capacity to shift the damage we are causing to get the things we need. I am convinced we have the intelligence to do that.”
Anthropocene is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from September 28, 2018 to February 24, 2019. The Ottawa Premiere of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch takes place on September 27, 2018. See the NGC Public Program for a full listing of related events. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.