Back in 2012 I went to see Burtynsky’s Oil Exhibition and wrote a review about his work on my blog, note the opening line said :
I was introduced to Burtynsky’s photographs (note photographs not the man)
I can now say that I have met the man :oD as there was an opportunity to go to a private showing and book signing at Flowers Gallery on 15 September 2016. The work on display was from his latest body of work Salt Pans, and a cross section of earlier work.
Images from the Flowers Gallery website: Installation views.
Realising the importance of taking into consideration how and where work is displayed I made sure I took note of the gallery setting and how it was curated: large white room, tall ceilings, directed lighting, uniform frames-black, uniform size prints, large space between each print.There are no explanations of any kind beside the photographs, allowing them audience to focus on the subject and wonder- that is if they aren’t aware of his work already. Main exhibition down stairs, earlier work – Essential Elements-in the upper gallery photographs from: China, Manufactured Landscapes, Quarries, Oil and Water:
Mapping the human transformation of the landscape, and documenting the residual destruction stemming from industrial processes and manufacturing, Burtynsky’s photographs present a contradiction of aesthetic seduction and ecological concerns, functioning, as he sees it, as “reflecting pools of our times”.
These images remind me slightly of the work by Bernd and Hilla Becher who also photographed the architecture of industrialisation against grey skies, concentrating on shape and form, structures placed centrally within the frame. He admits to having been influenced by Abstract Expressionists.
To quote the website again, in Salt Pans:
Burtynsky conveys both the sublime aesthetic qualities of the industrialised landscape and the unsettling reality of depleting resources on the planet, through a series of geometric compositions photographed from the air above the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India.
Every year for eight months over 100,000 salt workers live and work at the Little Rann of Kutch, extracting around one million tonnes of salt a year from the floodwaters of the nearby Arabian Sea. Burtynsky has documented this traditional way of life before it vanishes forever; under threat due to receding groundwater levels and declining market values, this is a way of life that has existed for four hundred years.
Surprisingly, Burtynsky came across the salt pans whilst looking through Google Earth!
A few months later I was in a Cessna flying over them, trying to capture this incredible terrain before it disappears.
Artist: Edward Burtynsky
I particularly liked this image as the detail fills the frame, the vibrant green squares reminiscent of a tiled wall, and I found the vast scale of the project breath taking. Unlike some of his other aerial work I found it difficult to find details within the images that gave an indication of this.However, if you take the time and look close enough you can just about make out tiny figures, here and there, which “communicate the sense of enormous scale.” Burtynsky takes great pleasure in doing this, hiding the clues:
You should have to dig in with your eyes to work out what’s going on.
Artist: Edward Burtynsky
Others, like the one above, are slightly more subtle in tone – like a water colour painting, the pans themselves resembling watercolour palettes. The other leading lines, the ghostly outlines, have been produced by pans which have been allowed to go fallow or by the dust trails left by the trucks going endlessly to and fro.
During the evening I managed to meet the man himself, shake his hand, crack a joke or two and got him to sign my book, another ;oD – I treated myself to Essential Elements which also contains some previously unpublished images- he was really approachable and friendly but as it wasn’t a “talk” it was difficult to commandeer his attention for a long period of time. Some people managed to ask some photography based questions and I tried to eavesdrop, but a lot of it was very technical and about how he avoided camera shake when hanging out of a circling plane… We did discover what he is currently working on though – a five year project on the anthropocene (I had to look it up – the pending name for the present geological age in which humans have had a discernible impact on the environment) A friend of mine, who also came along, took several photos of the evening – I will have to see if I can purloin a few.
Having only a quick flick through the book I find myself in agreement with Oliver Wainwright, who wrote the Guardian review, that it is “like touring the landscapes of late capitalism, tracing the supply chains of our consumer culture back to both ends – where the stuff came from and where it ends up” with “…shiny motorbikes [is] paired with a heap of tyres, an iron-ore mine with a ship-breaking yard.”
Four years have passed since I last saw his prints up close and whilst Salt Pans doesn’t seem to have the immediate visual impact of some of his bodies of work, with the subtle colour palette and subject matter, after several viewings and more in-depth knowledge I find it is growing on me more and more. These days art critics seem to be less focused on his ability to turn such dystopian subjects into things of beauty and acknowledge more and more his potential to raise public awareness to the dreadful impact we are having on the planet, although he would rather be seen as a mediator than an environmentalist campaigner.
As Burtynsky admits, his images would be equally at home on a Greenpeace poster or the cover of an oil company’s annual report. “The work asks more questions than it answers,” he says. “Which is what artists are there to do.”
So what have I learnt from this exhibition of new and old work and finally meeting him?
That I liked the person he presented to the public, he didn’t hide behind a table but wandered the room freely giving his time and attention to whomever approached him. He was more than willing to sign books, DVD’s postcards etc etc. He didn’t look 61!
On a more photographic note I learnt: you can still capture images within the same topic yet alter your creativity and sustain your photographic practice. Burtynsky has embraced new technologies such as Google Earth, selfie sticks and drones to assist with taking images.
Don’t let yourself be limited in your research, look at other disciplines for inspiration for example painters and writers.
Images are more successful if the message isn’t totally obvious and the viewer has to work slightly.
Captions and explanations aren’t always necessary but a little background information is helpful.
Use a team if you have one! I have found bouncing ideas off my colleagues within the art department really helpful this week. They are also nagging me to make sure I am still doing… note… art dept have just acquired a drone…hmmmmm
More will probably come to me after I hit ‘publish’ but then I shall just add it to the list.
Gallery, F. (2016) Edward Burtynsky – salt pans | essential elements – exhibitions. Available at: http://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/view/edward-burtynsky-essential-elements (Accessed: 21 October 2016).
INFO (no date) EDWARD BURTYNSKY. Available at: http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/ (Accessed: 21 October 2016).
Wainwright, O. (2016) Edward Burtynsky on his ravaged earth shots: ’We‘ve reached peak everything’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/15/edward-burtynsky-photography-interview (Accessed: 21 October 2016).
written and Harding, C. (2016) The negative sublime of Edward Burtynsky’s corrupted landscapes. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/10/the-negative-sublime-of-edward-burtynskys-corrupted-landscapes/ (Accessed: 21 October 2016).