Reviews Performance Published 19 June 2012

Burtynsky: Oil

Photographers' Gallery ⋄ 19th May - 1st July 2012

Oil and Earth.

Carmel Doohan

We are being shown our world from another perspective; viewing it as visitors from another planet or perhaps the Heavens.

Burtynsky’s high resolution 50 x 60” photographs fill the walls of the top two floors of the newly renovated Photographes’ Gallery, many taken from aboard a helicopter. The sense of scale achieved by the distant viewpoint gives an epic quality to everyday industrial processes and these vast vistas of man-made landscape chart the narrative of oil on planet Earth- its extraction, use, waste and future.

His previous collections were also taken from this vantage, studying quarries and nickel mines  to create works that were more like abstract paintings than documentary photographs. Open pits and dredged moats become markings on the canvas, the scars of human action on the land reading like brush strokes.

Born in Ontario, Canada, these landscapes are the ones Burtynsky grew up with. Before studying photography he worked in heavy industry and labored in the gold mines of Red lake, Naniamo. Motivated by a sense of awe at the ambition and progress they represented, he began documenting these industries until he had what he calls an ‘oil epiphany’ five years ago -“It occurred to me that all the vast, human altered landscapes I had pursued and photographed for the last twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil.” Now, using oil production as a lens through which to see the world, he is telling our story back to us, but it no longer looks like one of progress.

Oil Fields #19a and b are a diptych of just that, in Belridge, California. As far as the eye can see, on dusty, desert-like terrain, metal creatures appear to graze. These drilling machines are livestock on a parallel planet and we, the alien visitors wonder what such animals might do and what they are for.

The answer is found in bird’s-eye views of LA and Shanghai’s highways. The futuristic scenes from our past, these concrete roller coasters lead to places like the scene of Breezewood, Pennsylvania, where everything in sight is a fast-food drive thru or a petrol station concourse; a city built for cars, not people. A landscape made for and from the use of oil.

We are then taken far from the roar of the city, to the silence of enormous still reservoirs; a clouded sky and line of mountains are reflected perfectly in a lake of oil like a gentle Magrittesque joke. Another is reminiscent of Dali; something like an old Singer sewing machine stitching along a doubled up landscape of mountains and pines. A series showing the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is more surreal still; the sea is on fire, a rainbow rising up from the flames and fumes, the natural order turned completely upside down.

Beneath Burtynsky’s gaze waste becomes sculptural; crushed cars and jet engines fill entire photographs, miles of land covered with strange artifacts. Where is this land? As on entering a world devised by Ridley Scott, we must ask ourselves, what kind of beings live here and why did they unendingly make, discard and recollect such objects?

In an industry founded on destruction, Bangladeshi ship breakers take apart once powerful naval vessels. Beached and rusted, these elephantine structures stand like the remains of an unknown city and a long departed civilisation. As  the sun sets behind them, the landscape feels like one of Turner’s; hazed sunlit shapes depict the contest between the man made and the natural, showing the sublime and terrifying power of both.

How does this narrative end- do these topographies foretell the post apocalyptic planet we will leave behind? Burtynsky’s photograph force us to step outside of the world we are creating and view it as History one day will; drawn in steel, fire and sand, we are looking at our legacy.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.