A Terrible Beauty: Edward Burtynsky's Water

By Lizzy Hill on November 19, 2013

Edward Burtynsky, Phosphor Tailings Pond #2, Polk County, Florida, USA, 2012. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg Gallery, and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York

Edward Burtynsky is hovering over frozen cliffs in Mount Edziza Provincial Park. Below him lies a dormant volcanic landscape connected to five pristine freshwater lakes. Four of these lakes feed into British Columbia’s Stikine River—a 610-kilometre-long body of water stretching as far as Alaska. It’s an unusual topographic area, featuring rocks stained white, bright red, yellow and purple by sulphurous mineral waters. Accessible only by an old overgrown roadway, it’s an isolated wilderness with a distinct topography that few Canadians have actually seen for themselves.

When capturing the austere beauty of this watershed last year for his latest project, Water, photographer Edward Burtynsky admits in this interview for NGCMagazine that the words “Are we safe?” did occur to him. “There were some moments when I was sitting up in the mountains in B.C. and the chopper was being bounced around like a ping pong ball,” he recalls. To get the perfect shot, the Toronto-based photographer sat with the helicopter door wide open, while fierce winds buffeted the small aircraft. “You’re getting pitched all over the place, and it’s 10 below zero, so you’re freezing at the same time,” he says. “There’s always a lot of trust.”

Burtynsky concedes that he spent a lot of time hovering in tiny aircraft at 400 feet above the ground—not exactly the safest practice. At that height, “If your engine goes, you don’t have a chance to recover; you’re going down and smashing,” he says matter-of-factly. His trip to Western Canada was just one part of his latest immense and ambitious body of work—the result of an epic globetrotting journey that took the photographer through 10 countries in five years, exploring our relationship with one of our most precious natural resources.

Edward Burtynsky, Xiaolangdi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg Gallery, and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York

Burtynsky’s photographs of our planet’s water worlds are featured in a 228-page book released this fall; a travelling exhibition—which kicked off at Toronto’s Nicholas Metivier Gallery (5 September to 12 October)—and Watermark, a feature-length film co-created with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier. The film premiered at Toronto’s International Film Festival this fall, and is now playing commercially in various cities across Canada.

In his exhibition, the artist takes us on a journey from the unusual beauty of a dried step-well in Rajasthan, to the vein-like tributaries of the Colorado River Delta, to a striking tapestry of clay-coloured lands divided up for dryland farming in Aragon, Spain. What is striking when viewing his works is how aesthetically pleasing they are, even when depicting unsustainable or depleted water systems. His dried-up, forgotten step-well, Stepwell #4 (2010) may allude to a burgeoning water crisis in India, but one can’t help but stare in awe at the complex human architecture. Similarly striking is his 2011 juxtaposition of the Arizona desert with the neighbouring Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, dotted with the swirling patterns of turquoise swimming pools and lush treelined streets. “When I look at my art, I believe that I’m trying to tie into a universality of human desire to be in the presence of something that has an aesthetic,” explains Burtynsky.

Yet the subject matter—no matter how attractive—often reveals just how strained our relationship is with the natural world, and just how near the brink of environmental collapse our ecological systems really are. “There’s another deeper, probably more troubling story just below that surface. That’s what I feel that I’ve always wanted to do with my work: to put you in that unstable position of being drawn to it, yet at the same time recoiling a bit at what it means and what it represents,” says Burtynsky.

Many of Burtynsky’s landscapes feel quite alien, as we’re used to looking at the world on a human scale. “It’s been like that for a while, where I’m pulling farther and farther away from the landscape for an elevated view,” he says. “For this project, I lifted all my restrictions, so I’d just be wherever I needed to be to make the shot… It’s been an interesting adventure.”

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Spill #5, Q4000 Drilling Platform, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg Gallery, and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York

His bird’s-eye view is like shock therapy whereby viewers remove themselves from the landscape and see how interconnected each system is. “That elevated viewpoint describes how we divide up the land, and our bigger infrastructure projects, where we’re driving roads through or building aqueducts or dams or anything,” he says. “When you get up and away from it a bit, it begins to reveal itself in a way that’s impossible when you’re standing on it.”

Burtynsky’s works—which the National Gallery of Canada has been collecting for some time—are far from didactic, however, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions. He admits that he must embrace a certain level of objectivity to get access to many of the sites he shoots. “What I’ve done is not, you know, framed myself [as] what one would call a ‘card carrying environmentalist,’ in that I have to walk a delicate walk in the kinds of ways that I access some very sensitive areas,” he says. “And I have to have a fairly straightforward, but at the same time sophisticated position on it because a lot of my work is on the other side of a corporation’s barbed-wire fences—they have to [want to] let me in.”

“What I do kind of bristle against,” he adds, “is a very easy and not useful polemic of corporations are bad/environmentalists are good—so, you know, they start throwing rocks at each other, and that conversation hasn’t really solved much.” Yet it's clear that a deep environmental sensibility thematically links the diverse projects in his oeuvre—whether he's photographing nickel tailings just outside of Sudbury, Ontario, the Alberta tar sands, or open-pit coal mines. “I care about what we’re doing to the planet, as everybody should care, because if we destroy it then it’s going to be the next generation that’s going to pay the price.”

A sense of guilt often lingers after viewing his work. Burtynsky draws attention to the fact that many of our daily activities are connected to a bigger picture of environmental devastation, as everything we’ve grown accustomed to—“getting in a car and going on vacation… and the food that you’re eating, your toaster”—is mined from the natural world.

“I think a lot of people, when they finish hearing my talk or see the work, or see what I’ve seen, and my presentation, a lot of them do feel like we’re real schmucks,” he says with a laugh. Then he adds, in a more serious tone, “I think people do feel a little bit horrified.”

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Click here for exhibition information

By Lizzy Hill| November 19, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.


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