Edward Burtynsky . . . from page 1
Burtynsky’s images are contemporary portrayals of a subject that has its origins intimately tied to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Great Britain. Several decades before machine manufacturing replaced toil by humans and animals, the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke presented definitions of the sublime and the beautiful in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics. While Burke codified emotions elicited by the sublime in a number of scenarios, he wrote his treatise before anyone began to link the words industrial and sublime together. Yet almost from the onset of the Industrial Revolution, images of the industrial sublime were created: drawings, lithographs, and paintings such as Philip James de Loutherbourg’s 1801 harrowing "Coalbrookdale by Night" – a nightmare of smoke and flame choking the night sky behind the Bedlam Furnaces of the Coalbrookdale Company – quickly documented the rise of industrialization in England. Technological developments spread quickly, both in the creation of new industries and in the geographic spread of industrialization. Swift and massive change ensued, impacting almost every level of human existence tied to industrialized communities.
We are still documenting and grappling with the Industrial Revolution today. Concurrent to Burtynsky’s exhibition in Ogden is the Canadian exhibition Songs of the Future: Canadian Industrial Photographs, 1858 to Today at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. In contrast to Burtynsky’s contemporary global view, the AGO’s exhibition of over 100 works “highlights the ways in which the photographers' perspectives on industry have shifted along with those of society at large, as celebratory images of human domination over nature give way to more critical views of industrial impact.”
Burtynsky’s concern with multitudinous manufacturing and the industrial sublime is well documented: his Canadian heritage and passion for his country’s vast and relatively pristine lands led him first to photograph untouched landscapes. A trip to Pennsylvania caused him to rethink his focus, however, and concentrate on photographing landscapes altered by people. Several of Burtynsky’s early photographs from North America are included in the exhibition, such as "Rock of Ages #26, Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991" – a surreal façade of vertical and horizontal lines that betray little sense of real space – to "Oxford Tire Pile #5, Westley, California, USA, 1999", a surreal juxtaposition of hills constructed by disused automobile tires in shadow, offset by the beautiful shimmer of afternoon sun on a California hillside.
From North America, Burtynsky traveled to Bangladesh to document the dismantling of some of the largest ships on our planet. While the exhibition includes several photographs from this thematic ensemble, I was continually drawn back to contemplate" Shipbreaking #4, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000." The photograph’s foreground is populated with workers, many of who stare fixedly at the viewer, setting this one photograph apart from all others in the exhibition. This work links industry and humanity in a personal, almost poignant manner as the connection made to us through gaze binds us to the worker’s plight, yet separates us at the same time through the secret relief that their plight is not ours.
Burtynsky’s work from his visits to China in 2005 and 2006 present us with human movement on a monumental scale. There, he documented the creation of the Three Gorges Dam through the deconstruction of thirteen cities in that region, the rebuilding of displaced cities, and domestic factories that employ tens of thousands of employees. The rigid formalism of the photograph "Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China, 2005" (reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s tight film shots) echoes the rigidity of the factory workers’ plight. Cities such as Shanghai have whole neighborhoods constructed almost overnight through mazes of buildings and skyscrapers, as we find in "Urban Renewal #5, City Overview From Top of Military Hospital, Shanghai, China, 2004." Burtynsky’s focus on density and the overwhelming number of both people and objects in China – the subject matter of so many of his great photographs – was in turn the subject of the award-winning 2007 documentary by Jennifer Baichwal, Manufactured Landscapes. The film (available on Netflix, at local libraries) unfolds over the course of 90 minutes, bringing to life Burtynsky’s artistic thought and process.
Comparisons of photographs in the exhibition can be made across continents, content, and time. "Nickel Tailings #31, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, 1996" presents us with unnaturally colored, undulating patterns of water and refuse, creating a futuristic, barren landscape. When the Italian Renaissance master, Leonardo often compared the rivers of the earth to the veins in our bodies, writing poetically: “Veins arise from the bed of the seas and intersect the world and ascend to the mountains and travel back again to the rivers and return to the sea.”* It was far beyond his scope of knowledge to imagine a landscape such as this. When in China, Burtynsky created "Bao Steel #8, Shanghai, China, 2005" – a masterful study in linear perspective composition in the style employed by Italian Renaissance painters in an attempt to create three dimensional space while directing the viewer’s gaze to the focal point of their work. In this case, the focal point is a colossal pyramid of steel, sharply delineated by sheer mass and by the haze of polluted air which forms the background.
It is difficult to look at some of these photographs, but it is imperative we see them. Exiting the exhibition recalls "Mines #22" the first work on display. Burtynsky’s realistic representation of Kennecott’s mine is in stark contrast Robert Smithson’s drawing "Bingham Copper Mining Pit – Utah / Reclamation Project (1973, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), his rendition of a massive earthwork placed at the bottom of the mining pit, consisting of a spiraling wheel design. Smithson’s drawing was created on the heels of his proposal submitted to Kennecott Copper Corporation in 1972 to turn the Bingham Copper Mine into an earthwork. The Corporation turned down Smithson’s proposal, yet through many land reclamation projects and proposals, Smithson’s vision remained unwavering: “The artist, ecologist, and industrialist must develop in relation to each other, rather than continue to work and produce in isolation…The artist must accept and enter into all of the real problems that confront the ecologist and industrialist.”
Burtynsky and Smithson both approached industries in the hopes of enacting change through the lens of the artist. While their artistic creations differ from each other, they both acknowledged dialectical situations presented through their work. Burtynsky wrote of his photographs:
These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
In 2005, Burtynsky won the prestigious TED Prize for his body of work. During his acceptance speech, he posited the impact three wishes could make, if granted. While his work can be interpreted as critical of industry or humanity’s plight, his three wishes were affirmative, practical solutions to contemporary concerns. He wished for (one) increased positive communication and conversations about sustainability, especially through sites such as worldchanging.com (two) adults engaging children in the practices of recycling and sustainability, and (three) the ability to reach new audiences through large-scale films, such as IMAX. While this last wish drew laughter from the crowd, Burtynsky’s large-format photographs of immense landscapes would be staggering in an IMAX theatre.
Artists are able to grant us access to landscapes we may never be able to visit, let alone comprehend. Through vision and visionary ideals, their creations can alert us to what is on the horizon, as Smithson did with his land reclamation projects, which are now gaining traction, or lead us to contemporary solutions as we create a more sustainable existence. Here is hoping that Burtynsky’s wishes come true, so that the industrial sublime is eventually relegated to the pages of history, instead of existing as it does today: an urgent issue for us to see.
||also on this page: The Heel Toe Project
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Constraint and Release
Jared Clark's Bild opens at Locals Only Gallery
If you've been inside the Salt Lake Art Center any time this year you've noticed the cosmetic and structural changes: the brightly painted signage that steers you from one gallery to the next; the video screens on the lobby walls; and the Street Level Gallery's new access point that makes the space readily viewable and enticing from the front desk. This month the Center unveiled its newest change, the transformation of the previous library space, located at the front of the building, into the new Locals Only Gallery.
For its inaugural exhibit, the LOG presents Jared Clark's janus-faced installation of refuse, building materials, and used appliances. Clark calls these installations "bilds" and he has been creating them all across the U.S., from Utah, where he grew up, to Virginia, where he went to graduate school, and at points in between.
The bilds might rise up on a vacant lot, built from the discarded materials found there; or they might be tightly squeezed into a uniform cube inside a gallery. They've even been embedded into walls. Impromptu bilds have risen up in unlikely places, like the wall-like structure that was built up between two trees along a stretch of the Utah County section of I-15 in 2009.
Clark's materials consist of just about anything he finds at hand: bricks, stone and discarded wood, appliances, suitcases, cassette tapes, Styrofoam and children's toys. Anything that might make its way to a landfill might also make it into a bild. For one bild Clark "rebuilt" a crumbling brick wall using bars of soap.
Compared to deserted roadsides and crumbling backyards, the Locals Only Gallery is a tame, institutionalized setting for one of Clark's pieces, a fact the artist seems well aware of and eager to lodge between his tongue and cheek. Seen from the Art Center's lobby, Clark's Bild is a flat surface of appliances and lumber, piled up to resemble the grid structure of a Mondrian (without the primary colors). If the Bild looks familiar, if it calls to mind Mondrian and other twentieth-century artists who made the grid a hallmark of postwar art, it is supposed to. As the artist said, with the Bild's facade he wants to call to mind the "privileged plane of painting" in Modernist discourse.
Step around to the back of the installation, though, and Bild explodes into long fractured planes. Here, where doors, microwaves and everything but the kitchen sink spill into the exhibition space, all has been painted a uniform white so that this face of Clark's work resembles an uncorked Louise Nevelson.
If Bild's "front" has more structure, attention to detail and form, its postmodern "rear" contains more surprises, juxtapositions and complications. Neither, in other words, is as simple as they seem. And each depends on the other.
Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
The Heel Toe Project
A Photographic Project On Walking In Someone Else's Shoes
In a society where everything seems disposable, photographer Shalee Cooper looks for alternative perspectives. Over the past seven years Cooper has collected twenty-five pairs of used cowboy boots. By buying used Cooper keeps her environmental impact low, but that doesn't explain the "obsession" that began with a single pair of boots. “When I bought my first pair, I felt more confident when I wore them. It was almost like the person who had them before me left a part of themselves within the boot.” Each pair of boots represents a unique personality and history, albeit unknown, that Cooper finds particularly intriguing. Wearing each pair of her boots, Cooper has felt attached to the previous owner while also knowing that she is simultaneously expanding the story of the boots, the human story. This concept, that by walking in someone else’s shoes—literally--your experience becomes an extension of another person’s vis-à-vis the boots themselves, has given birth to Cooper's current endeavor, The Heel Toe Project. If we are each the summary of our experiences, The Heel Toe Project offers the opportunity to recognize the connection that we have to each other through shared stories, and thus acknowledges our common humanity.
Having photographed all the boots, Cooper has now decided to part with her collection…well sort of. The boots, twenty-five pairs in total, varying in size, color and condition, will go on sale on September 16th, at 7pm at Misc. Boutique, located at 272 South 200 East in Salt Lake City. This is an exclusive one-night-only sale, after which the boots will be available for purchase online. Each $75 purchase will include a disposable camera for photographing the boots’ journey through the eyes of their new owner. The participants are then required to mail the camera back to Cooper who will process the film and select several images from each participant. These, along with Cooper’s limited edition black and white gelatin silver prints, will appear in an exhibit at Kayo Gallery on November 16th. Through the project, Cooper gets to empty her closet while continuing her relationship with the boots that have obsessed her for the past seven years; the new owners get to walk in someone else's shoes, and show the world how it feels.