Tip-toeing across the void

Edward Burtynsky talks to the Journal about art, industrialization and the future of the planet

Nickel trailings in Sudbury, Ontario, currently on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Nickel trailings in Sudbury, Ontario, currently on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Supplied Photo by Edward Burtynsky/Mongrel Media
Labourers organize at Cankun factory in Zhangzhou, China.
Labourers organize at Cankun factory in Zhangzhou, China.
Supplied Photo by Edward Burtynsky/Mongrel Media

Edward Burtynsky will tell you that we’ve moved into a planetary crisis.

He may also say the federal sustainability discussion in North America is “maddening,” the rapid and destructive industrialization of China is “dire,” the Conservative government is destroying our reputation in Europe as well as our ability to produce culture and that electing John McCain to the White House would be, for the devastation of our environment, like saying “forget the brake pedal and slam on the gas a little harder.” But as for his internationally-coveted photographs—they speak for themselves.

Burtynsky is one of Canada’s most celebrated living artists. He won the 2008 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, the inaugural TED.com prize in 2005—which he accepted alongside Bono—and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was the subject matter of the critically acclaimed documentary Manufactured Landscapes, and his life’s work since 1985—a body of breathtaking industrial landscapes now on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre—has captivated viewers around the world and, wherever exhibited, fostered discussions on sustainability and the negative effects of rapid industrialization.

To anyone who speaks with him—and our conversation was no exception—his stance as an environmental advocate is clear. Even when asked about the subject matter of his photographs, Burtynsky agreed his ability to show, quite paradoxically, the dark side of industrialization in such most accessible element of his work. But he draws the line at ascribing to his work the role of activism. “Politically, there is a political element to the work, there’s a political element to any work, but it is only one of the handles, I don’t see it as the only handle,” he said. “I think there are many ways in which one can inflect off of the work and move into a discussion. You can have a discussion about geology and the kind of conditions that had to be there to form the minerals in the first place; you can have a discussion on our techniques of extraction; you can have a discussion on art history and predecessors to this type of work through the history of art—because I’m not the first nor the last—or you can enjoy it just for its formal elements, its formal qualities and how it makes you feel.”

Burtynsky said the interpretation of his photos was integral to the success of his art.

“The piece is actually completed by the viewer by what happens in their perception and their mind, what they’re seeing and their discussion,” he said. “I find it’s better not to actually politicize the work upon entry of seeing it. Leaving the narrative more open allows a discussion to ensue. So whether you’re right or left, a corporate leader or student, each one can have a reading from that and can be able to contribute to the discussion based on their knowledge of the world.

“That is a healthier way to approach the issues we are dealing with as opposed to what’s happened before where it was rock throwing across the void where no one is listening on the other side. I think that kind of behavior is over and everyone has to come to the table and say ‘this affects all of us, the decisions we make will definitely affect the lives of our children and their children. If we choose to do nothing we’re relegating them to a very miserable future.’”

Since 1985, Burtynsky has been visually documenting humanity’s relationship with nature in its most conflictual settings. He has, quite appropriately, spent much of his time in the developing world.

But perhaps his most famous relationship—one which has been a source of great acclaim in recent years—is with the far corners of commoditized China.

Beginning in 2000, Burtynsky began researching visually what he had been told intellectually for decades: that China is the manufacturer of the world, that its work force is so concentrated that whole towns are dedicated to one type of product and that its power, founded in its rise as a new industrial nation, is immediately palpable and profound to those who visit the little-traveled areas of the country.

His photographs were some of the first high-quality images of this new industrial revolution. But, more personally, they allowed Burtynsky to bear witness, in ways not many others do, and give visual clarity to the scale, complexity and force of China’s manufacturing sector.

His experiences prompted him to give a presentation to Chinese bureaucrats while there, emphasizing the unsustainable amount of environmental stress China has been allowing, even before Western corporations invited themselves in.

“I think the [China] question is still unfolding. I think we haven’t heard of the full down side of this kind of rapid expansion, and … I’m sure we’re going to start hearing the stories—whether the stories are people getting sick and dying from pollutants and bad water or the collapse of water systems because it’s being drawn down so rapidly and with such lack of forward consideration or regulation,” he said.

“It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. … Put it this way, they’ve already built so much and its all inefficient—there’s no central air, cars aren’t very efficient, they’re making them really cheap, they don’t have a lot of the things domestically that we demand in our cars, and they’re building a dirty coal plant every week—so there’s going to come a point when the air will be impossible to breath, the water impossible to drink, and those kinds of conditions are dire.”

Dire conditions aren’t unique to China, Burtynsky is quick to point out, nor are they necessarily self-wrought. They’re with us in the oil fields of Alberta—which he has documented extensively with the Globe and Mail to create awareness—weak federal initiatives or the useless lip service politicians give the environment.

“The current flavour in Ottawa as well as Washington—although they’re both up for re-election—has been as little policy in that direction as possible, business as usual,” he said. “And if you look at what is happening in the States, I think ‘drill, baby, drill’ says it all. And then there’s not a lot of incentive for our guy from Alberta to do anything to slow down what’s happening [there] and the fact that it’s making it very hard, almost impossible, for Canada to comply and reduce its CO2 footprint.

“Which is very, very sad, because I think for anyone who is following it closely and looking at the reality of what we’re facing, the timing of the issue, every decade is another nail in the coffin and the chance of reversing what we’re doing becomes a lot less likely,” he said

“[Oil] is a great gift for us, this can make Canada a very desirable and a very rich country, the second largest known reserve of oil after Saudi Arabia, with a guaranteed market. For the politicians and corporations who are exploiting it, its nirvana, they’ve hit the jackpot. But that being said, there’s a price of being exacted for it—I’m not so naïve to think that anything or anybody can stop that development from happening. It’s going to happen, it’s happening. The only way we can hope to do it is in the most conscientious way possible.”

Burtynsky said he’s aware that environmental destruction is necessary, in some sense, and his ambition is not to deter this but educate and initiate productive discussion.

“Species have always had to rely on other things, whether it be herbivore or omnivore or beavers who cut down trees,” he said. “All living things interact with their environment.

“With China, I’ve shown the origins of where things are made. And then in my earlier work in the 90s, I’ve been showing quarries and mines, so these are all in the first, second or third histories of anything we would engage with as consumers. Understanding that each image comes from those ideas, I think the work then becomes very unified over the 20 some odd period of years when you understand that’s what I’m trying to do.” But beyond photography and documentaries, awards and speeches, politics and polemics, Burtynsky’s concern—for his daughters’ and his planet’s future—is clear.

“There are 6.5 billion people trying to reach for the same materialistic, middle-class lifestyle and there’s just not enough for the world to go around,” he said. “I think that is what interests me about the material world. It is that we live within a finite system, and there are only so many minerals, so many trees, so many fish that can be taken without causing damaging future effects—we’re testing the outer limits of sustainability.”

Edward Burtynsky: Material World will be exhibiting at the Agnes Etheringston Art Centre until October 19. Burtynsky will be delivering a public lecture in Ellis Auditorium on October 4 with a public reception at the Art Centre to follow the lecture.

For an extended interview, refer to "Burtynsky Extended Interview" in the Arts and Entertainment section.

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