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Sublime Tar Sands?

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Issue: 48 Section: Arts Geography: Canada Alberta, Fort McMurray Topics: tar sands

October 31, 2007

Sublime Tar Sands?

Edward Burtynsky's photography and Canada's extractive industries

by Sylvia Nickerson

Some of Burtynsky's photographs of the tar sands.

For over 20 years, Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky has photographed some of the world’s largest sites of resource extraction and processing. He has documented uranium and nickel mines, stone quarries, oil fields, oil refineries, “urban mines,” including massive tire piles and compacted metal waste, giant factories, the recycling of single-hulled oil tankers and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China-—the world’s largest hydro-electric project. As part of this quest, Burtynsky has also documented the oil industry in Canada, including the Albertan tar sands. However, there is a noticeable difference between his work in Canada and his work overseas. When Burtynsky takes his camera to Bangladesh or China, he reveals human labour as the driving force behind the landscapes of these industrial mega-projects. Human beings are what define these landscapes. In his photographs of the Albertan tar sands, however, the human figure is absent. Why did Burtynsky choose to remove people from his portraits of Canadian industry?

The history of landscape painting and photography may help explain his choices. If people appeared at all in traditional landscape images, they served to show the overwhelming vastness of the subject. In Burtynsky’s pictures of mines, mine tailings, quarries and urban mines from the 1980s and 1990s, he follows this tradition. People, or their residue in the form of tire tracks, parked cars, ladders, or abandoned backhoes, are used to reveal the vast scale of these extraction sites.

Burtynsky has said that he aspires to create sublime landscapes for our time. The sublime landscape in the nineteenth century symbolized the overwhelming power of Nature over Man, represented by a vast and pristine vista of land. It reminded the viewer that Nature can be simultaneously threatening and beautiful. Burtynsky has imagined the twentieth-century version of the sublime as a landscape transformed through human power into something equally beautiful and frightening. His photographs of mines and quarries shock the viewer with their otherworldly appearance, especially once one realizes that they are portraits of a land made unrecognizable through intensive industrial activity.

By eliminating people from the Canadian landscape, Burtynsky shares something else with his nineteenth-century peers. When British painters came to Canada, literally removing Canada’s aboriginal people from the picture served the British agenda of colonization. In his photographs of other countries, Burtynsky has put people back into colonized or capitalist landscapes, but by keeping them out of images of Canada, the agenda he is serving has come into question. In his Canadian photographs, the subject of the immense reorganization of land is the landscape, not the people. The images do nothing to challenge the prevailing Canadian ignorance about the enormous environmental and social consequences that will be the legacy of the Alberta tar sands project for generations to come.

For most of his career, Burtynsky has studiously avoided politicizing his work and he has come under attack for his relentless pursuit to aestheticize his subject and render it ambiguous. However, this ambiguity is what draws viewers in again and again. It is both pleasurable and disturbing to see these transformed landscapes. But the works cannot be labelled “eco-propaganda,” nor do they clearly glorify the industrial practices they present. Sometimes it is even difficult to tell what the subject is. The hundreds of black hills of processed earth that have been photographed with the same sensitivity one would expect from a postcard of the Grand Canyon turn out to be Oil Fields No. 24, Oil Sands, Fort McMurray, Alberta (2001). What looks like a vibrant river of fire is actually the enduring liquid waste of a nickel mine. In this way, Burtynsky masterfully presents the most distasteful industrial wasteland as one of the most spectacular places on earth. This ambiguity allows a myriad of different meanings to be read into his photographs: industry CEOs choose them for their walls; activists point to them as evidence of environmental catastrophe. This is both the potential power of his pieces and the largest point of political criticism of them.

Recently, Burtynsky has started to dispel some of the uncertainty of his environmental views by speaking publicly about the industrial processes he has spent his career documenting. He has collaborated with Jennifer Baichwal on the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, a poignant portrait of what industry is doing to the people and land in China, and he recently wrote an article for The Walrus, in which he decries the resource extraction taking place in Canada. In the article, he calls for the Canadian government to mandate sustainable practices in the extraction and sale of Canada’s natural resources, including the Alberta tar sands. However, a letter to the editor sharply noted that, despite his undisputed talent as a master photographer, "Alas, as an environmental activist, he is a failure."

Indeed, while Burtynsky’s photographs of Canadian industry make for great art, they operate within the Canadian political mainstream and do little to shake up the consciousness of a public content to keep looking away from the social and environmental degradation that is taking place in its own backyard.

Edward Burtynsky’s photographic works can be viewed online at www.edwardburtynsky.com

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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