Welcome to Slate’s first “Gallery.” To supplement our regular art criticism, Slate is introducing a monthly feature that will showcase art we think is worth taking a look at. The slide show will be selected by Mia Fineman, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum who writes regularly for Slate. (We’ll have some guest curators, too.) This gallery will be wide-ranging, but we’re hoping to emphasize exciting new video and digital art—the kind of art that is hard to reproduce in print magazines. Take a look and see what you think.
Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer whose midcareer retrospective opens next week at the Brooklyn Museum, is the Ansel Adams of the ruined landscape. Like his famous predecessor, Burtynsky uses a large-format camera to produce exquisitely detailed, classically composed, sublime studies of outdoor spaces. But where Adams was inspired by the grandeur of nature unsullied by highways, train tracks, and electrical lines, Burtynsky takes the opposite tack, seeking out places where industry’s devastation of the land is at its most dramatic.
Over the past 25 years, Burtynsky has photographed rail-cuts in the mountains of British Columbia, oil fields in Southern California, copper mines in Utah, marble quarries in Italy, and the Day-Glo residue of nickel-mining in Ontario. He has traveled to India and Bangladesh to document the toxic process of ship-breaking (dismantling decommissioned oil tankers to salvage scrap metal). Most recently, he chronicled the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, a project that destroyed 11 cities and displaced 1.2 million people. (This work is the subject of his forthcoming book, Edward Burtynsky: China and a solo show at the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York, opening Oct. 6.)
Judging from these subjects, you might get the impression that Burtynsky is an environmental activist. In fact, his position on the moral and political implications of his work is studiously neutral. He doesn’t point fingers or call for change; instead, he accepts industry’s exploitation of the land as the inevitable result of modern progress. “We have extracted from the land from the moment we stood on two feet,” he said in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “The entire 20th century has been a revving up of this large consumptive engine. It’s not a question of whether we are going to stop consuming. It’s not going to happen … ”
Burtynsky’s large-scale color photographs are unabashedly beautiful—but are they too beautiful? Do these images aestheticize the ruined landscape, encouraging us to accept the devastation of the land with equanimity? Or does their beauty seduce us into looking at things we’d prefer to ignore, forcing us at least to acknowledge the destruction we’ve wrought? Every time I look at these photographs, I come up with different answers to these questions—which is part of what makes Burtynsky’s work so compelling.
Slatehas gathered these images to let you decide for yourself. Click here to view a slide show of Burtynsky’s photographs.
Correction, Oct. 4, 2005:The slide-show accompanying this article originally misidentified slides 16, 17, 18, and 19. The titles have since been corrected.