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.

 

 

 

  • WALKING… & SEEING

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