Continuing through February 25, 2023
John Berger, the Marxist art critic, suggested in “The Success and Failure of Picasso” (1965), that the aged artist, a worldwide culture hero, leave his cosseted celebrity existence on the French Riviera to visit Africa. This would repay a stylistic debt that Picasso owed from the Cubist era to ethnographic sculpture, and to recharge his by-now flagging batteries. Delacroix and Matisse had found inspiration in Morocco; why not the great synthesizer, too? The Spaniard did not accept the challenge, and his later career, as a result, with its withered, dwarfish protagonists embarrassingly confronted by nubile models, lapses too often into self-parody.
Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian artist of Ukrainian descent, photographed the “pristine landscape” of his native Ontario as a boy, and he has continued for five decades to document, with stunning composition, color, pattern and detail, the effects on the natural landscape of human agricultural and industrial culture. His epic large-scale landscapes captured from airplanes, helicopters and hovering, ‘parked’ drones (which allow for multiple-capture photo mosaics), constitute a global history of our Anthropocene [human-shaped] era, combining the abstraction-in-nature formalism of Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins and Edward Weston with the panoramic vistas of nineteenth-century landscape painters such as Bierstadt and Turner. The bird’s eye view can become a god’s-eye view if we choose, but no overt political or polemical intent is intended. In the lavishly illustrated 208-page Steidl catalogue that accompanies the show, Burtynsky writes:
“There are certainly shades of documentary and photojournalistic aspects to the work, but I am drawn to and excited by the act of creating large, highly detailed, expressive imagery; trying all the while to be conscious of keeping the two doors open through which a viewer can enter the work: form and content … I see these two strands of the work as balancing each other.”
Burtynsky saw the recent beginnings of industrialization in Africa, funded by extensive Chinese investment, as analogous to what happened in China twenty years before, when he documented the socially and economically transformative industrial revolution of the “Three Gorges Dam” (2004) and the “Belt and Road Initiative” (2013), nicknamed China’s Marshall Plan.
“At the time,” Burtynsky writes, “heavy machinery was literally being unbolted from concrete floors in Europe and North America, then shipped and refastened to the floors of gigantic facilities in China. This represented a paradigm shift of industry, and it seemed obvious that China was rapidly becoming a leading manufacturer for the world. I realized even then that the African continent was poised to become the next, perhaps even the last, territory for major industrial expansion.”
During the past seven years, the photographer has explored the landscapes of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Senegal, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, Tanzania, and South Africa. On view in the gallery are nine works that present a representative sampling of the chapters: Landscape (Flamingos, Salt Dunes), Salt (Salt Pans, Salt Flats), Extraction (Tailings Pond, Oil Bunkering), Agriculture (GERD #7, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), and Settlements/Organization (Saw Mills), with sub-chapters devoted to items of special interest.
While the nine large-scale prints seem a mere appetizer, considering the scope of the entire project, the work on view in the temporary second-floor gallery (the fifth-floor gallery having felt the effects of our December deluge) present a micro-macrocosmic portrait of earth in the 21st century, nature contending with culture in humanity’s ancient homeland of two thousand centuries ago. As I wrote of this engaged and engaging artist’s equally stunning “Anthropocene” exhibition in 2016, “Burtynsky continues to boggle the eye and needle — subtly — the moral conscience” of the developed world.” He still does.