dinsdag 16 oktober 2007

Manufactured Landscapes -- Edward Burtynsky

Industrial China’s Ravaging of Nature, Made Disturbingly Sublime
Published: June 20, 2007

At one point in the absorbing if unsettling documentary “Manufactured Landscapes,” about the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a few unnamed voices try to assure a couple of Chinese officials not to worry. Mr. Burtynsky, these voices say, will make everything — meaning the mountains of coal that seem to stretch on forever behind them — beautiful. And so Mr. Burtynsky does. Whether in a coal distribution center or a garbage dump, he turns the grotesque into something beautiful, or at least something that looks good on a gallery wall.
It’s unclear if those Chinese officials are government minders or work for the enormous company that funnels those mountains of coal first into factories and then into the environment. “Manufactured Landscapes” is one of those contemporary documentaries that put a premium on their visuals (which are estimable) and their conceptual underpinnings (a bit vague), and pay rather less attention to nominally irrelevant details like dates and names, facts and figures, history and politics. Thus, while some black-and-white video images of Mr. Burtynsky (shot by Jeff Powis) during his photographic safaris is time-stamped to a few years ago, much of the film takes place in a nonspecific present.

In this present, Mr. Burtynsky and an indefinite number of helpers trot across China taking glossy, large-format, generally long-view color photographs of factories, welding sites and recycling centers, with an abbreviated side trip to the Bangladesh coast where young men disassemble oil tankers, at times ankle-deep in sludge. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and sensitively shot in 16-millimeter film by Peter Mettler, “Manufactured Landscapes” (which is also the name of a 2003 book of Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs) is partly a Great Man documentary, a record of an artist immortalized at the moment of creation: point, shoot, voilà! Rather more interestingly, at times, it also appears to be a rather tentative, perhaps even unconscious, critique of that same artist and his vision.

Critique may be too strong a word. Still, at its most arresting “Manufactured Landscapes” does suggest that Ms. Baichwal and her excellent cinematographer are not entirely at ease with Mr. Burtynsky’s work, which tends to subordinate the human form to the harmonious use of color, the balance of graphical forms and the overwhelming man-made and man-ravaged environments. In many of these landscapes (which I have looked at only in this film and online), scores of anonymous workers become specks of canary yellow and blots of bubble-gum pink, a pointillist population. The angles of their bowed heads and raised arms, carefully arranged before assembly lines, are just some of the decorative, precise formal elements. Note how those angles dovetail with those of the machinery.

What’s missing from these photographs, those populated and not, is any sense of process, of context and consequence. For the most part, the film remains equally silent on the same, though the film’s repeated close-ups of the workers’ faces locked in Mr. Burtynsky’s sightlines suggest that Ms. Baichwal is more concerned with people than the subject is. In this film, at least, a mountain of coal is strictly an aesthetic subject for Mr. Burtynsky, not an index of the miserable conditions of its mining or a ghastly reminder of the nearly 6,000 workers who died in Chinese coal mines in 2005, the year the film was shot. Or a warning of the pollution that wafts from China’s smokestacks to the Western United States, coating mountains in Oregon, California and Washington State.

The almost freakishly, crystalline detail and obsessively exacting compositions of Mr. Burtynsky’s work can bring to mind that of Ansel Adams, though the subject matter means that it more rightly belongs to the technological sublime than to the natural sublime. In his book “American Technological Sublime,” a study of manufactured sublime experiences — beautifully represented by Walker Evans’s celebratory photographs of the grandeur and engineering feat that is the Brooklyn Bridge — the historian David E. Nye writes that “one person’s sublime may be another’s abomination.” As this film indicates, intentionally and not, an artist may not always be able to gauge the difference between the sublime and the abominable, but with knowledge and a will to conscience a viewer just might.

Edward Burtynsky
Edward Burtynsky was born in 1955 of Ukrainian heritage at St. Catharines, Ontario. He links his early exposure to the General Motors plant in his hometown to the development of his photographic work. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of 15 major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliothèque National in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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