Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes: Unnatural beauties

Unnatural beauties

Oxford Tire Pile #8, Rock of Ages #15 and Oil Fields #13
Photo: Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky's landscapes make nice with industrial pillaging

Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes currently exhibited at the Musée d’art contemporain are virtually unmanipulated in the development process. Contradictory to the exhibition’s title, you may think? Not really, since all of the St. Catharines-born photographer’s landscapes have as their subjects the areas of nature that are manufactured by man: quarries, dumps, mines, refineries.

The beauty of his works is the first thing that strikes you as you meander through the galleries. He works in medium-to-large formats: 30" x 40" or 40" x 50" prints that sit proud on a wall. They are powerful in a way akin to the early natural landscapes of Carleton Watkins or Eadweard Muybridge, who in the mid- to late-19th century strove to honour the majesty of nature through their photographs, choosing viewpoints that purposefully dwarfed man under the immensity of rolling mountains and the like in the forefront. Burtynsky’s scenes are similarly awing for the sheer size of the objects or locations he photographs; his images of comparatively diminutive trains cutting across vertiginous, humongous precipices in Ontario or of miniature workers taking apart giant defunct ships in Bangladesh demonstrate the smallness of the human race.

One main and essential difference, though, is that the very subject of these works is the fact that man has seized power over these places. None of the locations he chooses as subjects are so-called pure, unadulterated nature; they are all areas particularly dominated by people purposefully striving toward economic gain. The striking vibrancy of the fluorescent orange nickel streams left over by a mine in Sudbury, Ontario, exist as photographed because they were extracted and left there by man. The mesmerizing geometric patterns made by the striations in the earth’s marble shield in Italy exist because man has cut through it that way to sell it in portions. The giant tire mountains of California, or the crushed metal compounds, exist because of what man has made, used and disposed of from the oil he’s sucked out of the earth or the metal he’s pillaged from its soil.

Burtynsky’s natural scenes are the most manipulated of all, but illicitly so. He states in a filmed interview shown at the end of the exhibition that he doesn’t work on his photographs digitally; he uses more classical development procedures and only goes to digital for the printing process. It shows his interesting relationship with the notion of authenticity; he aims at representing the locations he captures as unmitigatedly as possible, leaving their innate grandeur to speak for itself. And yet their greatness itself comes from the impressive nature of their human manipulation. It’s a thought-provoking contrast.

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The whole month of October is blessed with La Centrale’s sixth Mois de la performance. Simply pass by their new window front au pif to see what you can catch, or do some research on their website (www.lacentrale.org) and schedule your opportunities to eat freshly baked bread and dance in the gallery, in the street and in the park with Vancouver’s Margaret Dragu; get your hair (softly) combed by Helsinki’s Essi Kausalainen; participate in the fabrication of a shimmering 10 km-long beaded thread with Marja Mikkonen, also from Helsinki; participate in a ritual for peace with Aiyyana Maracle from Vancouver; have your birthmarks drawn and exchanged with Montreal’s own Sylvie Cotton; see green leaves installed by Havana’s Glenda Leon appear, when all the others are turning orange and falling; or participate in flashmobs with local Tagny Duff.

Manufactured Landscapes

At MAC until January 9, 2005