A Truly Terrible Beauty: On the Photographs of Edward Burtynsky

by Brandon Chow

iceland

Edward Burtynsky, Markarfljot River #1, Erosion Control, Iceland, 2012, chromogenic print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist, © Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary

A few years ago, a nimbler, more tender version of myself went on an adventure around the Fraser River sawmills in Richmond late one night. As I clambered up lanky metal frames for a better look at the landscape, a fascinating scene spread out before me. Large spotlights illuminated a mammoth of modern engineering, built of cranes, trucks and bulldozers. Like a people sized ant colony, everything worked in efficient mechanical step to draw large sticks out of the water and off for manufacturing. It really was a remarkable process to watch—the grandiose scale, mechanical precision and enormous volume of consumption taking place. And when do we really get a chance to look at these behind-the-scenes operations anyways? They’re so far removed from the public eye that this juxtaposition between the greatness of human enterprise and the magnitude of our audacity truly calls to mind the dichotic title of Edward Burtynsky’s Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit: A Terrible Beauty. What started as a night of harmless juvenile escapism, ended as a glimpse into a hidden landscape.

tailing

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #6, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, 1995, chromogenic print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist, © Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary

Good movies and books do this too; like a talented author or director, Burtynsky’s photo collection of natural and man-made landscapes plant visions of unseen worlds into the minds of his audience. In A Terrible Beauty, the horrifying domains of mankind’s hubris that we so neatly tuck away into the night are brought to the forefront. Many of the photographs feature local settings such as old mines, railways and shipping ports across British Colombia, others include the industrial underbellies of China, Bangladesh and other North American cities. Along with this globally conscious perspective, his work travels 3 decades, with particular focus on the rapid growth and transformation of China in the last ten years. While some photographers find beauty in the purity of earth’s landscapes, Burtynsky finds it in its tragedy and corruption. He makes his statement by placing nature’s innocence next to humanity’s venality, her vast physical beauty against our monstrous capacity to destroy it. Each photograph is skillfully composed, with rich colours and careful consideration of perspective to make his message both beautiful and meaningful. The highlight of the exhibit though, turned out to be a video documentary of his work. In it he toured China’s industrial uprising, visiting a colossal hydroelectricity dam, an entire fishing community built right on top of the water, and rural villages rapidly refit as urban developments. The size of the Vancouver Art gallery’s projection screen was fitting not only to capture the enormity of Burtynsky’s subject matter, but the life-sized implications of his message.

Dryland Farming

Edward Burtynsky, Dryland Farming #7, Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010, chromogenic print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist, © Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary

A Terrible Beauty unwaveringly lives up to its title, both as gorgeous artwork, and as an exhibit of humanity’s cruel collection of hunting trophies. This isn’t Burtynsky’s only success though. We’re so used to images of melting tundra’s, and devastated rainforests as the habitual call for sympathy, that his work in contrast is raw and pointed. Good art should be skilled, contemporarily relevant, meaningful and original; all four qualities can be found in this exhibit.

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