The Scars of Our Connections: Edward Burtynsky's 'Water'

Words by JILL ENSLEY.  All photographs copyright EDWARD BURTYNKSY.

Words by JILL ENSLEY.  All photographs copyright EDWARD BURTYNKSY.

As a Gulf Coast resident, it's not easy to look at "Oil Spill #10," (above).   The photograph's deceptive beauty comes from its vibrant, emerald water streaked with jagged rivulets of black oil.  Taken out of context, it could be a close up of of raw gemstone, yet the horizon gives it away, pushes you back and you see the quiet horror of our collective actions--or inactions--in those dark rivers.  Personally, living in Louisiana, on the Gulf Coast, it's hard not to go into Edward Burtynsky's new exhibition of photography, Water, without preconceived notions about oil and water, the result of being surrounded by each one, both threatened and sustained by each.  It's hard not to view such industry with a critical eye when you live so close to the largest man-made environmental disaster the United States has ever seen.  Yet, most of the world lives near water, it's human nature, it's survival, it's necessary, it's primal.  And unlike oil, we need it to live.  That's the uneasy part of the work, of nearly all of Edward Burtynsky's catalog, his "inverted sublime" worlds, the upside down-ness of resource mining on a grand scale. Water simply brings us to the new frontier, the new commodity and future industrialization and scarcity of the very resource that covers 70% of our planet.  There are companies at this very moment looking into the logistics of shipping pure Icelandic water--from melting glaciers, no less--to areas that have tainted their own supply.  According to UNESCO, "By 2025, an estimated 60 percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed conditions, and a similar proportion will be without adequate sanitation."  This is the next big business.

Yet Mr. Burtynsky will be the first to tell you that "the viewer completes the image."  He is not making judgments.  You bring all your opinions and baggage with you into a gallery, into each piece.  What may look like a horror of industry, mismanagement and overpopulation to one person could seem like the wonders of modern civilization and technology to the next.  Yet, as he stated a walkthrough he led, "if these landscapes are disasters, then our cities are disasters," and intentional disasters at that.  There were no surprises when the Colorado river was dammed, there are no surprises when chemical plants are allowed to exist near large bodies of water or giant man-made rigs dropped into our deep waters, or our wetlands ravaged by deep cuts and leaking oil.  It's the price we pay for the life we want to live, for our sheer numbers.  Water, and the rest of his photographic works, Oil, Railcut, Tailings, China, are nearly all centered on industry and landscape, and are as much about population as they are about environmentalism, manufacturing, and production, or, yes, beauty.

Phosphor Tailings Pond #2, Polk County, Florida, USA

And yet, as you wander among the images, which flow from the local, loaded with the trappings of oil production, through the heartlands and the West with agricultural earth marks, up to the source, to purity, you cannot help but be taken in by their surface value, their unadulterated flat, abstract beauty.  A calculated move, the pieces often mimic paintings both in their sheer scale (often as large as 6' x 7') and in their composition.  The words of another photographer, Richard Misrach, come to mind, “I’ve come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas.” These are difficult ideas, displayed beautifully with a painter's eye for composition and color and a journalist's eye for context and meaning, meant to draw you in and help you understand our world in a relatively unseen light.  Most of us would never, will never, be able to see our world in such a way, to see the grand marks we, as a species, have left on the earth from above, with a bump of color and contrast, better than the naked eye.  Maybe that's why these images are so shocking, so hard to believe they are not from an alien planet or a painter's palette.  Sometimes we feel so powerless individually that it's hard to believe that on such a grand scale, we have so much impact.

Oil Spill #15 Submerged Pipeline, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010

It's the kind of exhibit that stays with you like a good film, working its way through your subconscious until you're thinking about it randomly.  These images will stick, will summon a desire to research and learn more about our home.  Or force you to think about it when you're attending a flood protection forum and John Barry nails it home by saying, when it comes to Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan, "if it weren't for BP, we'd be out of money."  Think about that.  We've gone so far down the oil well that it takes a large man-made natural disaster (or two) to fund the system that is supposed to rebuild and protect us all from another natural disaster. And you remember all those perfect, straight lines, cut through our wetlands, sliced deep like wet cake, that familiar fact, "We lose a football field's worth of wetlands every 45 minutes," ringing in your ears like a black mantra.  And then, by chance, you stumble across an article about a sperm whale washing onshore, dead from plastic consumption, much of it emanating from the greenhouses of Almeria near the Mediterranean.

 GreenhousesAlmeria Peninsula, Spain, 2010

And then you remember that this photo, as daunting as it seems, is only a fraction of the full picture, literally and figuratively.  The greenhouses of Almeria cover close to 20,000 square hectares and supply fruits and vegetables year-round.  It is so large, it can be seen from the International Space Station.  And then you look further into those greenhouses and aside from the plastic (maybe from China) and the petroleum (maybe from our Gulf) and the fact that the reflective surface is actually cooling the whole region, you might think about the manpower and the conditions of the people inside.  Before you know it, you're lost, down the rabbit hole forever changed, forever associating future incidents to these pictorial monuments of our numbers.  All from a few photographs.

And yet it's the photographs with people, the largest peaceful human gathering in the world, Khumbh Mela in India for example, that truly overwhelms.  Maybe it's the sheer number of human faces, more easily relatable and internalized than massive greenhouses because they are looking back at you, no longer abstract and moderately indiscernible.  Maybe it's the fact that you just heard about stampedes and some of those faithful losing their lives to be near that sacred water. 

Kumbh Mela #1, Haridwar, India 2010

Whatever it is, these images, though focused on land and water, are  inherently human and a perfect document of our lives on this planet, and perhaps a fair and just warning for the future.  They are a visual portrait of our desire to be near water, of our need for it, our abuse and maintenance of it, of the absolute necessity of it.  Because in the end, these images are all about people, about our collective mark-making, all 7 billion of us with tools and needs.  Like the copper mines that Edward Burtynsky photographed in the 80's, this is about our connection, to each other, to this planet, through the copper in our devices and our homes, through the manufacturing and agriculture that feeds our desires and our bellies, through the oil that powers our cars, through the very water we all depend on. There are human faces in every image, whether they are looking back at you or not. The land and the water bear the scars of our connections.

Jill Ensley is an art-maker and sentence-constructor living in, and unconditionally loving, New Orleans, LA.

Water runs concurrently at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center through January 19th, 2014.

Can't make it to see the exhibit in person?  There's an app for that.