Edward Burtynsky best known an artist who’s medium is large scale photography. His focus is primarily earthscapes. The land that he has choses to shoot seems surreal; usually sites of massive industrial interventions by humans to repurpose the earth to suit our needs and demands. Taken aerially they initially appear to be abstract images. They look familiar and alien simultaneously. These are exploitation scenes. They are extraction sites, re-contoured and augmented, or entirely man-made, created with a stunning disregard for the integrety, beauty, the logic of the nature. The contrast between the importance of one of our most elemental needs to sustain life and the wanton maltreatment and degradation of same is shown in images rather than polemical rants. The images speak more eloquently than words. The distance needed to convey the vastness means that the details require close examination. It is then we see the seemingly ant-like evidence of the tools and equipment used to create these drastically altered landscapes. Burtynsky's work is breathtaking and eyeopening. He clearly cares deeply about his subject, man’s impact on our environment. His photographs speak eloquently, powerfully and mutely.
Watermark, a collaboration with an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Baichwal, is a logical extension of Burtynsky’s environmental concerns with the focus on water. The difference here is that while the vastness is also shown with aerial sequences we also are given closer human-eye views. It opens with a deafening screen filled with gushing, roaring, and powerfully surging water, which we soon learn is from China’s Xiaolangdi Dam. The aerial and closer views of the dam building site are terryfingly awe-inspiring and have a distopian quality.
He also covers the vast floating abalone farms in China, pivot irrigation sites in Texas, the dry river beds of the Colorado River, as well as showing humanity’s more natural interactions with water, such as surfing, recreation and the Kumbh Mela in India, the largest Hindu pilgrimage where some 30 million of the faithful go to bathe in the Ganges every three years.
Burtynsky’s documentation of the exploitation of the environment is as movingand important as Sebastiao Salgado’s exploration of mass human exploitation on an inhuman scale. Both are deeply felt and expertly expressed in images which cannot be ignored.
Review by Belle McIntyre