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Manufactured Landscapes: A meditation on man-made spaces

I don’t recall where I first came across the work of Edward Burtynsky; it could have been at the library, the bookstore, or one of those coffee shops with actual coffee table books. All I remember was being drawn to the front cover image of his collection of photographs, to the intense fluorescent shock of orange lava snaking through charred lands: A beautiful and awesome volcanic landscape. Only when I read the title, half immersed in the river’s glow, did I realize something was amiss.

Manufactured Landscapes. As I flipped through the book, the beauty that I saw and the awe that I held for the landscape fell away, replaced by a swell of alarm and disbelief. The river wasn’t lava, the setting wasn’t volcanic, and nature had nothing to do with the creation of this particular landscape.

One of the most powerful things art can do is challenge us to examine the assumptions we hold about the world. Burtynsky’s photographic forays into industrial shadows pushed me to confront my own notions on beauty and ugliness, the value judgments I held on the natural and the artificial, as well as modern civilization’s role (and by extension, my own) in the construction of these landscapes.

Synopsis

Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes Shipbreaking Plate 58

Shipbreaking series, plate 58. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

Published in 2003, the book version of Manufactured Landscapes is the first major retrospective on work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The oversized volume contains three essays and an interview with Burtynsky, along with six distinct series of his work broken down into specific landscapes: Railcuts, Mines and Tailings, Quarries, Urban Mines, Oil Fields and Refineries, and Shipbreaking.

Like other art-focused Ekostories, I think it would be more appropriate to let the photographs speak for themselves and let you, the reader, discover the stories they have to tell. I do have a few questions that may or may not be useful as guides:

Questions:

  • Do you see these landscapes as beautiful or ugly?
  • Do these photographs convey any type of story or message?
  • Which aspect of these landscapes impress you the most?
  • Did these images make you aware of anything you were previously unaware of?

 The Scale of Industrial Civilization

Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes Quarry Plate 19

Quarry series, plate 19. With permission from  www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

To me, many of Burtynsky’s photographs initially seem picturesque and unremarkable until my brain registers the sheer scale of the landscapes, after which they take in a whole different dimension. Vast granite quarries reduce mammoth excavators to tinker toys. (p.84) Entire oil fields of pump jacks extend beyond the Californian horizon. (p.121) Tire piles tower like canyon walls (p.113), and ruined hulks of tanker ships sit silent on Bangladesh beaches, monolithic monuments to the industrial age. (p.141)

Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes Oil Field Plate 47

Oil Fields and Refineries series, plate 47. With permission from  www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

It is often very difficult to convey the magnitude at which a global civilization of over seven billion people operates. The world, especially for North Americans, can appear so expansive that it’s hard to imagine humans can actually have significantly impact it.

Yet we do. In an interview, Burtynsky speaks of the awe he felt seeing skyscrapers of sixty and eighty stories for the first time along with his subsequent realization that “there has to be something equally monumental in the landscape where we have taken all this material from.” (p. 49) In Manufactured Landscapes, he captures the scope of these consumed or discarded places – the mines, the quarries, the oil fields, and recycling centers – to stunning effect, reminding me of industrial civilization’s ability to shape and transform landscapes (and by extension the oceans and the atmosphere) on a global scale.

Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes Tire Pile Plate 42

Urban Mine series, Plate 42.  With permission from  www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

 Between Aesthetics and Conscience

Manufactured Landscapes Book Cover

When I realized that the orange river and charred lands were man-made creations, byproducts from nickel mining and smelting in my country, an internal tension between aesthetics and ethics arose within me. While the beauty I saw in the landscape prior to my realization had not lessened, the visceral wrongness of its existence overwhelmed everything; it became extremely difficult to appreciate the art solely for its own sake.

As regular readers of Ekostories may have to come to know, I generally dislike associating natural landscapes as “good” and man-made landscapes as “bad”. Yet in this instance, I could only see the image as an indictment of the wanton carelessness of industrial exploitation. As Kenneth Baker wrote in his exploration of Burtynsky’s work, “enjoyment depends on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble.” (p.40) Despite it being probably the most beautiful photograph in the collection, I simply could not bring myself to think about and enjoy it.

How Things Are

“They are not overtly political. They do not assign any blame, neither on society as a whole, nor on the companies that operate mines or refineries. The images force us simply to contemplate our imprint on the land.”

– Lori Pauli on Burtynsky’s photographs, p.22

What I find particularly intriguing and effective about Burtynsky’s work is its inherent lack of expressed outrage. His photographs are provocative on many levels (many of which I’m not familiar with), but they never come across as didactic or heavy-handed. In an analysis of his work, Lori Pauli suggests that Burtynsky adopts a viewpoint that is more “anthropological rather than critical.” (p. 10)

Burtynsky’s cool camera eye, as detached as it may seem, is still a biased reflection of reality. I’m not sure if I agree with George Orwell’s assertion that “all art is propaganda”, but by choosing what to focus on and what to exclude, Burtynsky nevertheless creates intentional and unintentional messages about humanity’s relationship with our environment. With the orange river, even he concedes that it “carries with it a lot of ideas and difficult ones at that, including where we are going with all of this technology.” (p. 22)

Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscape Shipbreaking Plate 59

Shipbreaking series, plate 59. With permission from  www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

Despite my negative reaction of the orange river, I struggle not to succumb to the kneejerk response of associating industrialization with ugliness. The appeal of Burtynsky’s images is that they reveal unexpected (even if it is at times shocking and perverse) beauty in these intentional landscapes, presenting them as they are as the signs of our times. By doing his best not to preach or moralize through his art, Burtynsky seems to speak on a more subtle and accessible level: “Like it or not, this is how things are.” The landscapes are allowed to exist without judgment or justification. How we interpret and react to their existence is left to us.

Conclusion

If there is a universal message in the photographs of Manufactured Landscapes, I believe it is perhaps that every great human achievement has a reciprocal shadow on this planet, even if it is hidden away and unseen. Burtynsky’s work highlights the inextricable linkages between human achievements and the resources consumed that make them possible. To be made aware of this simple but often forgotten fact can hopefully help us, as Burtynsky notes, “learn to be more conscientious custodians of the resources that we have been given.” (p.50)

I will end with a trailer for his newest documentary, Watermark, in collaboration with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. (I’m going to be going to a screening of it tonight.)

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Related Ekostories:

Reference:

Burtynsky, Edward (2003). Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Caplan, U., Pollock, D., & Martel, D. (Ed.) Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.

Feature Image – Mines and Tailings series, Plate 14. With permission from www.EdwardBurtynsky.com

25 Comments

  1. Pingback: Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal didn’t want to drown in Watermark | canada.com

  2. nannus says

    Seen as structures, these pictures are beautiful. When you add the semantic dimension, realizing what they mean, they are terrible.

    • The movie version is haunting and really drives home a sense of scale of how we humans alter the world to our own ends. I remember my reaction being a mixture of shock, morbid fascination, and awe. It’s a bit of a wake-up call in terms of realizing the end result of our collective actions as a species and thus I feel it’s good viewing for everyone to get a broader perspective.

      • I was listening to the Q&A last night at the screening for Watermark in a completely packed house, and Jennifer Baichwal recall a very specific change she made after making Manufactured Landscapes: No more loot bags at the Dollar Store. Paraphrasing, she said to see firsthand the painstaking efforts that go into the creation of things that we treat as utterly disposable made it impossible for her to buy them anymore.

        Another interesting thing she noted was that her films and Burtynsky’s work in general explicitly avoided having a message. She said polemic in some documentaries is powerful and necessary, but she wanted her work to exist as a space for raising consciousness. I personally think about this stuff a lot, but many others don’t, and it’s good to have works like these to really open people’s eyes.

      • nannus says

        A really interesting question.
        I think there is something like structural beauty. Some things, like that red river, can look beautiful as long as you don’t know or don’t think of what they are and what they mean. This is a beauty that arises on a low level of perception before interpretation sets in. Once you understand what you are seeing, it is pushed to the background by other feelings like disgust, anger, or grief. Mostly such things make me sad. Some give me a feeling of horror. However, I am still able to access this feeling of beauty underneath the other feelings, so yes, it is still there because that part of my brain that produces this feeling does not know what it is seeing, it is only doing lower level processing of visual structures, like discovering lines, triangles and circles.
        The same is true for art. In purely abstract art, you only have this structural aspect. When the artist adds meaning, what he or she is expressing might be totally horrible.
        The beautiful and the good, it seems, are not the same. There seem to be good things that are not beautiful and beautiful things that are not good. I have not thought about this before, but it looks like beauty has a dark side. We are used to thinking of beauty as something good (and the tradition of western philosophy since Plato connected the two) but maybe that is not so. Beauty is low-level, pre-semantic and therefore it lacks empathy. In itself, outside the mind of an empathic human being, it might still exist. A psychopath might be able to feel beauty although there is no empathy in such a person.

        • Thank you for the very thought-provoking response. I have no formal training in art appreciation or philosophy, but the concepts you articulated speak to me. Beauty operating on a primal, reptilian brain level, beauty as a quality that is beneath (or beyond) morality are very interesting notions.

  3. – Do you see these landscapes as beautiful or ugly?

    Neither, but beauty comes closest to what I feel. A horrific kind of beauty though… morbidly fascinating is more like it.

    – Do these photographs convey any type of story or message

    Yes, precisely what you say here:

    If there is a universal message in the photographs of Manufactured Landscapes, I believe it is perhaps that every great human achievement has a reciprocal shadow on this planet, even if it is hidden away and unseen. Burtynsky’s work highlights the inextricable linkages between human achievements and the resources consumed that make them possible. To be made aware of this simple but often forgotten fact can hopefully help us, as Burtynsky notes, “learn to be more conscientious custodians of the resources that we have been given.” (p.50)

    – Which aspect of these landscapes impress you the most?

    The scale of homogeneity: just one element (like old tires, sand, or granite quarries) being so dominating and absurdly repetitive in each landscape.

    – Did these images make you aware of anything you were previously unaware of?

    Maybe not that I was intellectually totally unaware of, but the visual impression deepens my awareness of the magnitude of these “resource harvest deserts” and how real they are.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Mados.

      1.) Morbid fascination, terrible beauty – those are all terms that capture the experience for me, I think.

      2.) Homogeneity – very interesting! That’s the essence of human efficiency, specialization, and control isn’t it? Monocultures of stuff, organized, categorized handled. There is both strength and weakness, both beauty and ugliness in that sameness imo.

      3.) Interesting distinction there, between intellectual knowledge and a deeper type of knowing. They seem to be two very different things.

      • That’s the essence of human efficiency, specialization, and control isn’t it? Monocultures of stuff, organized, categorized handled. There is both strength and weakness, both beauty and ugliness in that sameness imo.

        Precisely… Just look at agricultural monoculture VS the diversity of wild nature. But then again, look at the relative homogeneity of the Savannah VS the diversity of many urban backyards… that is the other way around! Then again again, invisibly behind the urban backyards are the plant schools and the tool manufacturers and

        Interesting distinction there, between intellectual knowledge and a deeper type of knowing. They seem to be two very different things.

        I totally agree.

  4. In my dim memory I thought Burtynsky is from Alberta…a great “inspiration” for any oil industry related imagery and how vast unlimited prairie space becomes a commodity for man to manufacture his dreams.

    • I think he was born in St. Catherines, Ontario. In the Q&A session for Watermark, Burtynsky did mention they were going to explore Alberta’s tar sands, but Petropolis was already doing it, so they decided to look at Bangladesh and tanneries instead.

  5. Oscar, thanks for sharing this post. I was unaware of Burtynsky’s work, and I’m always interested in seeing how artists and others creatively and provocatively find ways to bring awareness to the unintended consequences of industrialization. Having worked with many manufacturers, I can see beauty in manufactured landscapes and products, while also realizing that we need to mend and heal many ecosystems around the world. Karen

  6. Fine post Isaac. I struggle with many of the issues and questions you and others brought up in this discussion because I often wonder in my own work…am I guilty of making garbage seem attractive? From my riverside perch, I see the world and its artificial junk freely mixing and it neither one thing or another, but both.

    • I don’t think I get that out of your work. For me, your work strikes a delicate balance of whimsy and melancholy. I never get a message from it’s ok to litter so you will have more material to work with. Rather, I am blown away by the creativity while gaining a sense of awareness of how much disposable stuff we actually generate and forget about.

  7. Thank you Isaac, very uncomfortable with these images yet grateful to be made aware and to see that terror and beauty can be so connected .
    The first impression is of destruction,waste and rigidity; the emotion is awe replaced quickly by sadness.It makes me concerned as an artist, even though I use mainly fiber, the process of obtaining materials creates pollution and waste. Is any attempt to portray beauty in art another way of creating ugliness?
    Perhaps the lesson is that the shadow is always present as a necessary balance. Extremely confronting at times but always there to make us aware that every thing has the potential to be both creative and destructive, pure and contaminated However Nature uses the cycle of creation and destruction to recycle purposefully, to create anew,replace and improve whereas many of these images portray wanton greed, and the potential for infinite damage to the environment and to well being of all creatures and the planet.
    Allowing the tag of beauty perhaps allows this process of industrialization and pollution to have validity and to change mindsets to regard ugliness as the benchmark,in that case I fear.

    • I don’t think you should cling onto the guilt too much. You are creating beautiful works with intent and awareness, and I think acknowledging that we all have impacts and shadows just by existing is a healthy and necessary step. It’s when we become thoughtless of our actions and sheltered from their consequences that we get into trouble.

      I also don’t think attaching the notion of beauty to these manufactured landscapes will make people more inclined to consume more.. at least I hope not!

  8. Pingback: Exploring Nature in the blogosphere | Ecology is not a dirty word

  9. Amazing landscapes made me pause and take a very deep breath. We need visions such as these, to shake us up into a realization that the very land that sustains us is being slowly destroyed by our constant consumption of its non-sustainable resources.

    I find wall to wall technology exhausting and depleting, through its constant bombardment of our external senses with TV, digital phones, radio, computers, etc. While we can’t live without them, we must place our personal engines on idle for short periods of time – if only to experience silence, to move into a more relaxed alpha brain wave state, and to focus on the peaceful beauty of the natural world.

    • I think of those people in the shipbreaking series of photos, working on tearing apart giant rusting tankers day after day with hand tools and bare hands. Do they have see beauty there, face to face with the sheer scale of these objects? Do they realize the connections between the extractive industries and their day to day lives? Do they have time to find beauty in the natural world?

      I would like to hear their stories and perspectives to accompany the pictures, I think.

  10. My first reaction was a kneejerk one. I totally applaud your featuring this book though, because it shows another side to the story. I also believe that people are inherently creative–hence skyscrapers and other manmade landscapes. But as with many good things, they sometimes fall into ruin (hence many derelict buildings and other abandoned aspects of the industrial revolution).

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