EDWARD BURTYNSKY: Anthropocene
Robert Koch Gallery
If you haven’t been paying close attention to the Crazytown news, the White House has finally acknowledged that environmental damage is due climate change, after forty years of GOP stonewalling and denial—while now stating that it’s too late to do anything about it. What, US worry? If Americans are finally ready to grow up and stand up on this issue after Hurricane Michael, it will be in some measure thanks to the efforts of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has documented, in his spectacular, large-scale color photographs, the effects of human development—i.e., rock quarries in New England and Italy, Chinese megafactories, Asian boat dismantlers—on the natural landscape. (His career is nicely captured in Jennifer Baichwal’s 2016 documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes.) In Anthropocene, which takes its title from the designation for our current human-dominated paleontological epoch, Burtynsky continues to boggle the eye and needle the moral conscience.
Photographed over the course of five years, the twelve images of Anthropocene provide the viewer a god’s-eye view of the human-altered landscape, with stunning compositions and a preternatural focus, with heavy machinery, rendered by the panoramic scope the size of ants. The viewer feels alternately proud and abashed by the human ingenuity so magnificently revealed here. Nine of the photos are shot from so high up that no horizon lines appear, and the works seem abstract. “Phosphor Tailings” resembles a detail shot of a heavily-impastoed painting—but with the white furrows of ‘paint’ pushed by a tiny tractor; a second photo of the same site, taken from a higher altitude, contracts the immense operation into a kind of microorganism. “Tyrone Mine 3” contrasts the Escher maze of meandering ridgetop roads with the violent striations of exposed geology. “Uralkali Potash Mine 6, Berezniki, Russia” depicts a series of concentric circles resembling a chandelier ceiling sconce, possibly fossilized—as well as the annular mating nests recently discovered on sandy ocean floors, created by male puffer fish. Apologies to Guy Debord (and Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, who recently turned up his nose at Delacroix’s dramatic flair), but spectacle is not always superficial.——DEWITT CHENG