Ed Burtynsky’s Oil at the Royal Ontario Museum (Article)

2 May
2011

Ed Burtynsky’s Oil at the Royal Ontario Museum

By Lorette C. Luzajic

“Beautiful art about an ugly world” is how poet R.M. Vaughan described the work of Ed Burtynsky.

Burtynsky’s internationally celebrated photography is on display until July 3 at the Royal Ontario Museum in an exhibit simply titled Oil.

“No arguing with the messages here, especially the very first and biggest: Our ongoing exploitation of fossil fuels is killing the planet,” continued Vaughan in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail.

But ever the contrarian, I myself have to describe his photography as “beautiful art about a beautiful world.”

Standing before fifty mammoth works, I feel the exhilaration of progress. The blinding beauty of the photographs is not, to me, a juxtaposition with ugliness, even if that was what the artist intended. It is a testament to human industry and ingenuity.

Surrounded by grand scale images of highways and tire piles and gleaming machinery, the halls of the Royal veritably heaved with clanking industry and belching conveyor belts and snorting tanks.

Was the earth bleeding there, underneath my feet, there in the museum of downtown Toronto, Canada’s centre of modernity, one of the greatest places for human beings to live on the whole planet?

Just downstairs was one of the world’s premiere collections of rare minerals and gemstones. You could touch a meteor that hurtled down to earth from outer space. There were bones of dinosaurs millions of years old. Outside, traffic whizzed by on University Avenue; skyscrapers towered. Toronto, a small big city; brimming with life and literature and music and ideas and scientific discoveries.

I love this city; I love life and all that man’s imagination has brought to me.

Burtynsky’s audience today will shake their heads and cluck-cluck about the evils of industry. They will get into their cars and drive to their destinations while tsk-tsking the state of carbon emissions. They will get into their heated homes and fix a fine meal with the luxury of food choices. They will laugh loudly tonight in front of dumb or smart home entertainment; or they will take in information from a radio, book, or computer source. They will visit a cinema to see a foreign film. They will take their life saving medicines and go to bed, on a mattress, after a hot shower.

Is anyone ever thankful?

Thankful for oil?

Libraries and museums and universities and highways and bridges and running water and sewage treatment and agriculture and the wheel are triumphs of man.

When we stop treating them like tragedies?

Because of oil, the twentieth century- the “hydrocarbon century”-saw more change than the previous ten thousand years.

“No arguing”? I think the suffocating yoke of political correctness that strangles argument, discussion, and dissent is a dangerous thing. It can be argued that fossil fuels have done more for the human race than anything else.

They have facilitated miraculous feats like feeding the masses, cutting edge medical advance, communications, and going into outer space. It has brought tremendous wealth to many nations, and now there are fewer hungry people and more people with sanitation and access to healthcare than ever before in human history.

I stand in front of this genius photography, in abject awe of this vast world and everything in it. The photography itself would not be possible without technology, progress, jet fuel, civilization.

I give due to the mysteries and magic of hills and valleys, but Ed Burtynsky’s manufactured landscapes are their own natural majesties. The shiny composition of tangles of chrome; the symmetry of rubber tire mountains, oodles and oodles of black ooooos. The red sun setting reflected among miles of tar. Here in this rust, this endless world of industrial waste, here in this vast shining jumble of highways in cities pulsing with vibrant millenniums of culture, here in the scorched earth under the endless blue sky- here is real life.

The sheer magnitude of what Burtynsky shows, shows much more. Here we look at a human history resplendent with miracles of engineering, replete with the grandeur of metallurgy; ultimately with printed word and the ability to record and reproduce music; a gleaming, glittering, exhilarating world of spices and boats Hollywood and books and Apple and Depakote and haute couture and Eminem.

I will not sneer fashionably at any of these things. It is hypocritical to condemn fat cat oil tycoons while we all enjoy the generous bestowments of modernity that those who are still desperate would give anything to have.

Solutions to the problems in oil cannot come from going backwards. De-industrialization is impossible and to me, immoral. The epitome of this moral bankruptcy was when someone responded, “literature is bad for forests” on a facebook post I wrote about books. This is the kind of neo-Luddite lunacy promoted by anti-civilizationists.

This trendy “return” to “tribal wisdom” ignores and obscures the truth about nature. Tribal practices are not always fountains of enlightenment, as human sacrifice, superstition, and female genital mutilation attest. “Harmony” has been relatively rare anywhere in history anywhere in the world, with nature or with one another. At nature’s whim, whole villages can be wiped flat in a tidal wave. Darling mother nature is the most vicious and indiscriminate killer we know. E-coli and malaria and tsunamis are a few of her favourite things.

Realistically, our best chance for survival is technology, not retreat from it. We might be wasting time and money counting carbon emissions when the best investment is the mass funding of more science to help ease human suffering. Indeed, this is a moral imperative. Wealthy merchants should be encouraged to fund technological advance and science, not dismissed as industry shills. We are in process right now of technology that condenses landfill by 98%, without toxic emissions. Oil is way cleaner. Oil has made affordable living, food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and wealth more available to more people than ever before in history.

Like it or not, oil is our only way out of oil.

It is simplistic to blame oil for the end of the world. Species have always exhausted supplies, made barren the terrain, and gone extinct. And blaming war on oil is farcical, since war existed for ten thousand years before oil was ever discovered. Concern for environmental and human misery is understandable- but a rational examination of the evidence shows that thus far, oil’s generous gifts may outweigh its costs. I was surprised to learn that there is no consensus about global warming- thousands of scientists are skeptics; many agree that oil is thus far the cheapest and best method of energy; some even say carbon emissions are beneficial.

Others point out that human contribution to greenhouse gases is only three percent, but not all agree- some scientists say it is one percent.

There is a great deal to recommend the view that poverty and underdevelopment are the most pressing threats to the planet. One such person is Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace. “The environmental movement I helped found has lost its objectivity, morality, and humanity. The pain and suffering it is inflicting on families in developing countries must no longer be tolerated.”

I am supposed to be experiencing a profound sense of desolation and desperation in front of Burtynsky’s bleak portrayals, these chugging cacophonies of apparent destruction and doomsday. But the heretic in me can see this art as a stunning testament to human achievement and its potential. Once upon a time, oil was a bunch of useless gunk stuck useless in the earth. It has, in a century or so of wide use, brought wider prosperity and health and agricultural reform, and fuelled revolutions and the evolution of humankind.

I am not suggesting that oil is not implicated in human corruption, or earthly destruction. But all things and all ideas are.  Burtynsky says every act of creation comes with an equal or greater cost of destruction. Picasso said it first, almost verbatim: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

The questions Burtysnsky’s photographs ask were likely intended as a jarring juxtaposition for the beauty in their symmetry and composition; but his document of industrial history can be seen from a different perspective: that we’ve come a long way, baby, and the only way out is through.

Lorette C. Luzajic is an independent artist and writer from Canada. She is a champion of freedom of expression, the most fundamental of human rights, and tithes ten percent of what she earns from art and book sales to advocacy. Visit her at www.ideafountain.ca.

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