Artful Musing

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The beautiful, frightening world of Ed Burtynsky

Let’s hope that when the end of the world comes, Ed Burtynsky will still be around with his camera to make the hellfire and brimstone look pretty and less scary.

Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #3, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York.

Burtynsky is one of Canada’s most celebrated art photographers. He is a favourite of the National Gallery of Canada and top art venues abroad. He has won prestigious awards. Chances are, you can’t afford to buy one of his prints.

This photographer found fame shooting places most of us try to avoid: Toxic waste ponds, garbage dumps, abandoned quarries and, as we see with his newly opened exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature, everything to do with oil. We see oil being pumped out of the ground, refined and used by all kinds of vehicles. We also see the polluting graveyards of all those vehicles that burned oil.

Burtynsky’s images simultaneously repel and attract. He leaves us feeling guilty for admiring the brilliant sheen on some turquoise or scarlet pond that would kill any living thing that tries to taste those polluted waters.

And so it is with Oil, the exhibition that has been travelling the globe since its opening in 2009 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and has just landed in Ottawa. The 56 large-scale images are on view at the nature museum until Sept. 2.

In Oil, we see heaps of trashed helicopters that look like some dead, giant insects. We get a bird’s eye view of layer upon layer of shimmering, curving ribbons of steel and asphalt that comprise freeways filled with gas-guzzling, smog-producing cars.

Burtynsky claims that when it comes to his art, he is apolitical. That does not mean, however, that his art is perceived by the rest of us as apolitical. Is there, in fact, anything more political these days than oil, whether the topic be pipelines, the oilsands, or most every conflict in the Middle East?

Frankly, it is impossible to view Oil and not feel queasy about what we are doing to the planet. Who can be unmoved by scenes of barefoot Bangladeshi workers standing in oily muck while recycling oil? And closer to home, we can only squirm with discomfort as we see the massive, messy rape of the northern Alberta landscape in the effort to claim and process the oilsands.

Viewing Burtynsky’s images is a guilty pleasure. His images have a seductive aesthetic. They are also powerful and thought-provoking. If you only go to one art exhibition this summer, go see Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil. At the Canadian Museum of Nature until September 2, 2013.
$4, plus museum admission (free with admission for children under 12). 

~ Paul Gessell