Edward Burtynsky’s Water exhibition at the Flowers Gallery London is a visually epic exploration of the stuff that’s essential to our lives
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, an image-maker who has transformed the notion of Environmental Photography into something much more expansive. “Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work,” he writes in his artist’s statement, “I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning.”
The Water exhibition at Flowers gallery in central London. It follows Oil (which tours for five years), Manufactured Landscapes (touring from 2003 – 2005), Before the Flood (2003), and China (toured 2005 – 2008). See a pattern? The flat tone of the exhibition titles tell us that Burtynsky photography is cataloguing, documenting, logging visual data. On the Water app you can buy from the iTunes store, the sections are broken down into Gulf of Mexico, Distress, Control, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Source. The show visualises the various ways in which we experience, organise, distribute and harness water.
Not any particular image, just the moment you walk into the gallery, seeing the scale of these photographs. Burtynsky has this skill to locate the distance of the camera to a point where the figurative merges into the abstract – you’re not sure whether you are looking at something ‘real’ or an extravagant pattern. As you look at images such as the Greenhouses in the Alimira Peninsula Spain there’s a threshold in perception between order and chaos, between seeing the image as a realistic picture or as an arrangement of shapes. In any case there’s no decisive moment in that that these images all connect with each other in different ways – perspective, subject matter, theme – to evoke the bigger picture that shows how in the world of energy production and consumption everything is connected. Photography as a visual and informational switching point.
The more I see of Burtynsky’s photography, the more I am excited by his mapping of our modern ecosystem – that’s what he does. With his photographs he maps an ecosystem between industry, technology, landscapes, transport, energy distribution systems, climate. It might sound like an odd thing to say, but the great pleasure of Burtynsky’s work is that his photographs enable us to see spaces, landscapes, buildings with a truly fresh eye, an eye that doesn’t even feel human! It’s not just that his camera is positioned on a plane, on a crane, getting weird perspectives, it’s that what his eye picks out feels like how an animal or a bug would pick out the nuances of the landscape. It would be so easy for his work to become a prisoner of its scale, repeating the impact of its size. Burtynsky’s work is a unique kind of map-making.
Which Image, Which Room?
I would choose Pivot Irrigation Suburb in Arizona, and would hang it in the conservatory, a quick reference point in reshaping our garden to make it look like a Home Counties’ Pivot Irrigation Suburb as seen from a helicopter. The image is part graphics, part mathematical equation, but very much real. That’s the great thing about Burtynsky – just because we see the world, nature, out of habit, in one particular way doesn’t mean that exactly how it is. He really makes us rethink the ways in which we see the world and because of that, the images help us re-imagine our relationship to it.
Visually, Burtynsky’s work occasionally echoes the Land Art of someone like Robert Smithson – except it’s a ‘found image’ rather than the landscape being created by the artist. Most of all just because these images are maps, they are not without sentiment or feeling. As a viewer, you join the emotional dots between amazement at the photographer who conceived and planned this image, and then a sense of awe at the environment he depicts.
One question for the image-maker?
There’s a part of me that would love to interview you Edward Burtynsky, to find out about process, research, mechanics, wider inspiration. But the thing is…these pictures are, as you say “open in their meaning”. They are so visually, ecologically, sociologically stimulating, your explanation would demystify the images, get in the way, close them down. There are too many familiar dead-ends in debates around sustainability and these pictures open up different possibilities, offer us an escape route for new thinking.
Water is on at the Flowers Gallery London
Burtynsky – Water is published by Steidl
The Burtynsky Water iPad app is available here
Watermark, a movie collaboration between Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky opened in theatres in October.