Edward Burtynsky : OIL at the McCord Museum


Once again I’m late to the party. The exhibit was up from October 6, 2011 to January 8, 2012. I’m just realizing now, how backlogged those rhymes about the Triennale Québécoise and other things made me. Like Marie Chouinard’s The Golden Mean (Live) I saw it at the end of November, 2011. Jeez! It’s a good thing that there is a history of reviewing shows that you can no longer see, otherwise y’all would think that I am one of the most irresponsible people in the known universe. But before I go find a whip so I can flagellate myself, we gotta get to the verse:

Ed Burtynsky takes really big photographs.
For the most part I don’t think he does anything by halfs.
Big political statements
I hear they cost many many cents.

Mostly on concerns about the environment
Places with natural resources and the changes they underwent.
I really liked the images of the refineries,
Sometimes you gotta think duodecimally and not in binaries.

His pictures of highways were also very impressive,
The Golden State Freeway, like La Joconde is something I won’t outlive.
But condemning Talladega and Sturgis
Is where, from my beliefs, he diverges.

They’re images designed to make you pause and reflect,
I think it is the earth that he wants you to protect.
But it is possible to be too politically correct.

Yes, big photographs are good. I still get weak in the knees thinking about the Andreas Gursky show I saw back in 2002 in Chicago. Big (for the most part) is synonymous with good, especially when talking about photographs.

But this one raised more questions than it answered. The first one being, that it was sponsored by Scotiabank. The very same Scotiabank that has a mutual fund of $170 million dollars invested in “equity securities of Canadian resource based companies, including companies that operate in the oil and gas, gold and precious metals, metals and minerals, and forest products industries.” – The One Sheet (pdf). Does this mean that Mr. Burtynsky is allowing himself to be used for greenwashing purposes? Or is he just willing to take money from whomever without thinking about their ethics? Or something else? I dunno, as I said his show raises more questions than it answers.

The second question that came to my mind as I was looking at it, was how much oil did Mr. Burtynsky use in order to get his pictures? There are shots that could have only been taken from a helicopter. There are other ones where he went to rather obscure places (Sturgis, South Dakota, Walcott, Iowa, Baku, Azerbaijan, Chittagong, Bangladesh) which would have either required some serious long distance driving or flying. And while I’m fairly certain that in order to take his pictures he doesn’t travel alone, I gotta think that he has a rather large carbon footprint.

The reason I ask questions like these, is because according to the press release the images in the show “deliver a social and environmental message that is both disturbing and thought-provoking.” So I can’t be accused of being the only person linking the concern for the environment and the images. What’s that line about glass houses and stones?

But enough about the theoretical questions, what are the pictures like? ‘Cuz isn’t it possible to appreciate them aesthetically without giving one good gosh darn hoot about any political message that Mr. Burtynsky is trying to make? Short answer: For the most part they are very good. As I mentioned up above “Big (for the most part) is synonymous with good, especially when talking about photographs.

The longer, nuanced and more detailed answer is as follows: Spread over two floors, it presents something like four or five dozen images that vary in size from 68″ x 78″ to 29½” x 36½”, with most of them being 51″ x 63″. Organized thematically, they span three of the four sections that he lists on his website; Extraction & Refinement, Transportation & Motor Culture and The End Of Oil (somehow Detroit Motor City section didn’t make the cut at the McCord, I can’t understand why).

Now while I don’t know too much about photography, there was the aforementioned Gursky show I saw in Chicago and if my memory serves his teachers at art school were Bernd and Hilla Becher. Don’t quote me on this, but if they weren’t the first people to take large pictures of industrial things, they definitely were the folks who made it hip. Mr. Burtynsky definitely owes them something. What I’m not sure. Because he doesn’t copy them (at least as far as I can tell) but at least as far as recognizing that he is mining a field that they were instrumental in making.

Mr. Burtynsky, does them one better, his are larger and in color. Have I mentioned that big is good, when it comes to photographs?

For the most part his images are very formally set up. If I were to make a gross generalization about Mr. Burtynsky’s landscape photographs, I’d say that the picture would be taken from a high vantage point, if not a helicopter, some sort of scaffolding was used, there would be an immense foreground, taking up something like ¾ of the image. There would be mountains in the background, or something mountain-like taking up the other ¼ of the image. The sky (and this is where my knowledge of photography is woefully lacking) is completely washed out, to the extent that I would make a pinky bet that Mr. Burtynsky’s skies are very familiar with Photoshop (or Gimp).

AMARC #3 Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006 Courtesy edwardburtynsky.com
AMARC #3 Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006 Courtesy edwardburtynsky.com

The foreground is some kind of large collection of something industrial. Endless repetition of form with minor variations since each object is distinct. And since they are so large and there are so many objects in the picture it’s quite easy to literally get lost in it. On one side that’s the fun part. On the other, once you realize that there is a formula it kind of makes me think that while Mr. Burtynsky is making some sort of commentary on 20th century industrialization, he is at the same time being very mechanical in how he makes his pictures.

Oil Fields #10 McKittrick, California, USA, 2002 Courtesy edwardburtynsky.com
Oil Fields #10 McKittrick, California, USA, 2002 Courtesy edwardburtynsky.com

You get the picture.

One other thought that occurred to me as I was looking at the pictures. Not a single one was signed, and there was no information on how many prints had been made. Not that that would detract from the image itself, but it’s just that if I want to buy into the concept that the images Mr. Burtynsky makes are art and not just some mass produced industrial object that happens to look pretty, it would be nice to have his John Hancock on it and know that there were only XXX copies made. But I would guess I’m in the minority here. Or maybe he signed and numbered them on the back.

As I wrote in my notes, there really is no movement in the pictures. There was also a distinct lack of people in the pictures. While I didn’t keep count, there couldn’t have been more than half-a-dozen people. I wonder if Mr. Burtynsky has ever done portraits, and if he has, I’d love to see them. I’d guess that he would ask his subjects to dress in tuxedos. (ba-da-boom!) His images are that formal.

I always find it a tad awkward when I come across an exhibit that has an agenda, like this one does. Even if it is an agenda that I agree with. I find that trying to force an idea on someone by using an art exhibit extremely difficult. In order to do so, the the exhibit, for the most part, has to be incredibly simplistic. It tends to be repetitive as well, and I find that in order to make their point they end up being dumbed down to the point where the idea that they are trying to promote becomes more suitable for five year-olds than adults. As you might have guessed, I’m not five years-old.

But enough of that, and lets concentrate on the pictures. As I mentioned in the ditty, his pictures of highway interchanges are quite cool.

Highway #5 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2009 courtesy edwardburtynsky.com
Highway #5 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2009 courtesy edwardburtynsky.com

I think part of the allure comes from the fact that he is using something like a helicopter to take the pictures. The pictures he gets are not the type of pictures that are available to M. & Mme. Tout le monde. And that I think is something incredibly significant. That sense of discovery, seeing something for the first time, is a sensation that shouldn’t be ignored. If he took similar pictures, as formal in their composition but from the perspective of a driver, they would not be one tenth as powerful.

Beyond that, if you are in London, England, I think that’s where the show is now, and it is probably going to continue touring and making more people aware of Mr. Burtynsky’s name. The catalogue for the show won some kind of award, but I’m not clear on how it is awarded, so I guess I should assume that it is legit, and not something where you toss the organizers some cash and you get a medal.

Being aware of Ed’s name is a good thing. It makes people aware of Canadian art just a little bit more. I just hope wish that he would push the envelope a little more, instead of playing it safe. He knows how to handle a camera, I’d like to see some images from him that prove that.