Earth Day: Anthropocene

Installation view of the Anthropocene exhibition, National Gallery of Canada, 2018.

Installation view, Anthropocene, 28 September 2018 to 24 February 2019, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

This year 22 April is both Earth Day and Throw Back Thursday, so it is an ideal opportunity to reflect back upon a powerful exhibition presented at the National Gallery of Canada in 2018: Anthropocene. When I came to see the exhibition, it was as a visitor and I had not done any research, showing up instead with the approach “What are we doing today?” I was immediately confronted with images of a world seen from above, and this world was being consumed by our appetites – by my appetites. Although these images clearly left an imprint on my mind, I all too quickly slid back into the distractions of normal life. That is, until our current global health crisis.

Anthropocene presented works by the collective of Canadian artists comprising photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. These striking images, videos and augmented-reality sculptures invited reflection on the ethics of humanity’s exploitation of Earth’s resources. As the exhibition’s co-curator Sophie Hackett commented, we were “confronted with a world we inhabit but cannot easily see.” The artists captured it in such a way that we could see.  And how could the viewer not pause when looking at these images?

Edward Burtynsky, Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany,  2015. Pigment inkjet print

Edward Burtynsky, Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany,  2015. Pigment inkjet print, 148.6 × 198.1 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Take, for example, Burtynsky’s Coal Mine #1, a photograph of Germany’s largest open-pit mine – the Hambach mine. Surely the deep grooves in the earth are marks left by giants, not humans, Godzilla and Jack and the Beanstalk come to mind. And indeed, giants did cause this – they are called Bagger 291 and Bagger 293. These bucket-wheel excavators are some of the largest land vehicles in human history, removing 240,000 cubic metres of soil per day to extract the lignite coal beneath, which is considered a rather inefficient and contentious type of fuel. Now, as back in 2018 when I first saw this image, it ignites awe and disbelief – and sadness.

Part of the effect of Burtynsky’s work is that in his high-resolution aerial images we are lulled into the admiration of the beautiful geometric shapes of our industries. They make us think of the Nazca Lines, large geoglyphs lightly carved into the mountains of southern Peru – expressions of humanity’s creative spirit. The realization that Burtynsky’s images represent destructive processes in vulnerable ecosystems is gradual, delayed. In his Pivot Irrigation / Suburb, South of Yuma, Arizona USA, part of the Gallery’s collection, the green crop circles occur because, in pivot irrigation, the sprinklers rotate around a central axis. Part of what makes this photograph such an arresting image is the contrast of its formal elements; the lush green circles and barren yellow plain. How can these exist side by side? Water, lots of water. The image documents the enormity of resources devoted to the production of foods in an arid climate and the fragile nature of this industry, as the farms empty aquifers at an alarming rate.

Edward Burtynsky, Pivot Irrigation / Suburb South of Yuma, Arizona, USA, 2011. Chromogenic print

Edward Burtynsky, Pivot Irrigation / Suburb South of Yuma, Arizona, USA, 2011. Chromogenic print, 121.1 × 162.4 cm. Gift of the artist, Toronto, 2014, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Why did the artists choose “Anthropocene” as the title of the exhibition? It has been proposed as the name of a new geological epoch dominated by the activities of our species at the peril of the rest. This through such actions as mining, urbanization, agriculture, biodiversity loss and the presence of materials including plastics and concrete.

One statistic collected by the Anthropocene Project team and by researchers really stands out for me: “In 2015, it was reported that, by weight, there would be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.” At a time when the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy is blowing up the Internet with its survey of the fishing industry’s impact on the health of our oceans, reading this statistic reminds me that the important conversations about our legacy as a species and the health of the planet are far from new. Perhaps, as we contemplate our own fragility in the face of COVID-19, we also become more attuned to the vulnerabilities of the planet.  

When the pandemic hit, we pumped the brakes on the economy and on our lives. It has also made us come face to face with our parasitic presence on this planet and showcased the opportunity we clearly have in collective action and the scale of change required to move the dial on climate change.

At a time when some may be asking themselves about the value of art during a global crisis, remembering Anthropocene and looking again at Burtynsky’s photographs reminds us that art can be a call to action for the greater good. The exhibition held up the mirror, not to our lives, but to our choices. So, on this Earth Day, we can make an appeal to tread lightly upon the Earth.


Anthropocene, organized by National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, in partnership with Fondazione MAST, was on view September 28, 2018 to February 24, 2019​ at the National Gallery of Canada; the catalogue is available at the Gallery's Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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