Sur/real

20 October 2018 – What do you do when the real keeps crashing into the surreal? If you are Edward Burtynsky, you document it.

This Canadian photographer & artist has been doing so for a while, mostly recently with his enormous multi-media project, Anthropocene — in collaboration with Nicholas de Pencier & Jennifer Baichwal — now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I have loved Burtynsky’s large-scale, high-resolution photographs of human impact on the earth (“built landscapes”) since I first saw a show of his works at the AGO during its 2008 expansion — and as a result decided to become a Gallery volunteer.

Here he is again.

The show is epic. And it deals with an epic new stage in human history. As Burtynsky points out on his webpage devoted to this project:

The Holocene epoch started 11,700 years ago as the glaciers of the last ice age receded. Geologists and other scientists from the Anthropocene Working Group believe that we have left the Holocene and entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Their argument is that humans have become the single most defining force on the planet and that the evidence for this is overwhelming.

When your skills and technology allow you to view our impact at something approaching its true scale, real does indeed merge with surreal.

I walk about, disoriented once again by the way large-scale destruction can often look so beautiful.

Is this a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting?

No. It is Phosphor Tailings # 5 near Lakeland, Florida.

Is this a Renaissance tapestry?

No. It is waste at the Morenci copper mine, Clifton Arizona.

Are these snail shells?

Again, no. This is Uralkali Potash Mine #4, Berezniki, Russia.

Other confusions are also possible, and more charming.

My one-time AGO colleague and continuing good friend Cyndie joins me. She leads me to this video of coal trains coming & going.

A visitor told Cyndie about standing here with her young son, someone who had heard his parents discussing jazz giant John Coltrane. “Look!” cried the child. “Coal train!”

The technology on display, and the skills of those using that technology, are staggering. Huge scale, huge depth of field, and razor-sharp focus. Here’s another sweeping view of the land and a phosphor trailings pond near Lakeland, Florida …

 

and, look, here is a croc, sunning himself at pond-edge.

Sometimes, the team is able to document “good anthropocene.”

Take this short video sequence shot by Baichwal and de Pencier in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island.

Before …

and — boom! — after.

All good.

So-called “danger trees” — ones that through age and other frailties pose danger to workers and visitors — are routinely exploded. Their debris settles back to the forest floor, hastening the return of their nutrients to the soil.

More good anthropocene — a thriving coral reef lying more than 18 metres underwater in Komodo National Park, a World Heritage Site in Indonesia.

As we walk out, I tug Cyndie over to the huge work hanging by the exhibition entrance, one I have always loved in the AGO’s permanent collection.

With that coral reef still dancing in my mind, I suddenly know why this glorious work by Québécois master Jean-Paul Riopelle …

is such an appropriate visual introduction to the show.

 

 

 

The Crab & the Golf Ball

15 September 2017 – For just one giddy moment, I want you to imagine a crab playing golf.

Now you must relinquish that image.

There is no golf ball in today’s adventure. Even though Frances instructs me to meet her “in front of the golf ball.”

She means this.

So I take myself off to the front doors of the building that punctuates the east end of False Creek, and faces Main Street, just beyond — the Telus World of Science, known locally as “the golf ball.” (And how chuffed am I, to learn this bit of slang!)

Not only am I denying you a real golf ball, I’m copping out on any real crabs as well. We are now going to march right up Main Street — up-up-up, northward through Chinatown, Gastown, the downtown Eastside — to tiny Crab Park, smack at the end of the road, on Burrard Inlet.

 

As consolation, let me offer you a lion and some giraffes, enroute.

The lion is one of several on the overpass over the railway tracks and Waterfront Rd., which curls us down into the park. He, and the rest of his stone pride, are a 1995 gift from the Shanghai Port Authority, to mark the sister-port relationship between these two cities.

The giraffes … What, you don’t see the giraffes? Look just left of the lion’s head.

More slang, this time perhaps unique to my friends Jai and Guninder, whom I visited recently in North Van. We were at Lonsdale Quay at one point, looking south to downtown, with Jai pointing out some of the buildings — along with the orange “giraffes,” i.e. the cranes that lift containers on and off the cargo ships.

I teach “giraffe” to Frances. It is the least I can do, in return for the gift of “golf ball” and a first trip to this magic little park. Just 2.5 hectares, caught between the tracks and the harbour, relatively unvisited, and so a peaceful spot from which to observe a busy harbour and North Vancouver just across the way.

Later, I learn that I am piling not-real upon not-real.

The real name of Crab Park is Portside Park, and even at that, it is not really a park (says Scout Magazine), it is green space on long-term loan from the Port Authority. And… and … the “crab” is no reference to crustaceans, it is an acronym honouring the Create a Real Available Beach committee that hounded the city into creating this little oasis, back in the early 1980s.

We don’t know all this at the time, Frances & I, we just enjoy the peace & the beauty, this sparkling fall day. Looking back west on the downtown side, for example, with the “sails” of Canada Place anchoring the view.

Right in front of us, all those busy little boats; beyond them, the orange giraffes and the containers, stacked up like LEGO in this container terminal. One giraffe full upright; two with long necks bent to the task at hand.

I stare at the containers. As once I trekked across the highlands of Iceland, agreeing with the colleague who murmured, “We’re walking through a Lauren Harris painting,” now I murmur: “That’s an Edward Burtynsky photograph.”

And that, immediately above, really is a Burtynsky photograph — an example of one theme this renowned large-format Canadian photographer has pursued in his continuing exploration of human activity and its consequences for the land itself.

We head back across the overpass, with one last look at the terminal …

a look at the railway tracks below …

and a sudden halt. To read, and respect, what happened right here, on 3 June 1935.

All peaceful now.

Gentrifying, in fact, rather like Toronto’s Port Lands. Where once those desperate young men milled about, grabbing at boxcars, we now see tiny verdant oases, their green curtains climbing high on adjacent walls.

Frances peels off that way; I carry on this way, somewhat at random, but overall zigzagging myself south and slightly west-ish. My route brings me to Cathedral Square, opposite Holy Rosary Cathedral at Richards & Dunsmuir.

And … to another piano!

Two young women playing this one, to a backdrop of café tables with human bottoms in almost every chair. (“Enjoy the sun,” I overhear one doleful soul tell his companion. “It’s gonna rain for seven months.”)

I do enjoy the sun. I turn from the piano/tables south end of the Square, and sit on a bench facing north. I blink lazily, the way my beloved Racket-cat would blink when particularly pleased with life, taking in the sight of the water, the sound of the water, and the dramatic shadows cast by that soon-to-disappear sunshine.

It is all very nice indeed.

Bonus! 

Your philosophic thought for the day, courtesy of this mural at Manitoba & West 3rd, which I discovered while heading for the golf ball.

The last few words are obscured by shadow. It says:

Every exit

is an entry

somewhere else

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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