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Biofresh Blog: Burtynsky creates art from the human-water relationship, written large on the landscape


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Colorado River Delta #2, ©Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Colorado River Delta #2, ©Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Describing his newest subject, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky comes right to the point. “Water is not optional,” says Burtynsky on his website. “It is the ultimate thing that provides for life, and if humans don’t have it, they have to leave the area, it’s as simple as that.” A fairly self-evident statement, it seems. But the truth is, that we forget water’s presence almost completely, on a daily basis. Western infrastructure pushes water out of sight, to the background, below-ground – often so effectively we don’t even notice how it permeates our lives, never mind think about not having enough water for the asking.

Marine Aquaculture #1, ©Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Marine Aquaculture #1, ©Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Burtynsky’s five-year odyssey, the “Water Project,” aims to change that. Burtynsky takes as his subject not only water – in all its forms – but also its lack, inscribed on the physical landscape. “Water is intermittently introduced as a victim, a partner, a protagonist, a lure, a source, an end, a threat and a pleasure,” writes Russell Lord, curator at NOMA. “Water is also often completely absent from the pictures. Burtynsky instead focuses on the visual and physical effects of the lack of water, giving its absence an even more powerful presence.”

The project divorces us from our normal viewpoint – peering over a dam wall, gazing across a field – to sweep us up and deposit us in the skies, looking down sometimes thousands of feet to the world below. Whether this celestial perspective is godlike or humbling depends on the viewer, but it certainly allows us to appreciate the weird, unsettling beauty in our footprint as a species. Burtynsky’s austere geometry and very subtle use of color strips away any comforting insulation we might have, but equally makes no overt claims as we see the results of our handywork – pivot irrigation in the deserts of the Southwest United States or winter dryland farming in Spain, the fragile grid of abalone aquaculture or titanic dam projects in China,  the soft mosaic of oil on the waves in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Alongside the photography, the Water Project includes the film Watermark, and a book, Burtynsky – Water. The film, a feature documentary from Burtynsky, Jennifer Paichwal and Nick de Pencier, is their second collaboration after Manufactured Landscapes in 2006, and was selected for the Toronto Film Festival. To achieve the sweeping aerial shots that are the hallmark of his style, Burtynsky uses all the tools at his disposal, from a 50-foot pneumatic pole to fixed-wing planes and remote-controlled helicopters.

Stepwell #4, Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Stepwell #4, ©Edward Burtynsky. www.edwardburtynsky.com

Some of his subjects celebrate beauty without apology – the impressionist swathe of a pristine Icelandic river, a kaleidoscope of colors as 30 million people gather in Allahabad to bathe during the Kumbh Mela. But there are turns where art blossoms in unexpected, unsettling subjects – such as “Stepwell #4” in Rajasthan, India, or the desert delta of the Colorado River, cut off from the sea. Burtynsky’s view from his perch is detached, austere – almost clinical. Yet there is an uncomfortable beauty here that raises equally uncomfortable questions. Does aesthetic appreciation of the almost extinct Colorado River make us newly complicit in its demise? Or does it merely draw attention to the fact that we have been complicit all along? Whatever the answer, the Water Project invites questions on a grand scale, revealing how our dance with our most fundamental resource sculpts the landscapes around us. The link between art and activism can be fraught, and Burtynsky states on his website that his goal is simply to provoke thought: “My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone.”

Burtynsky: Water is showing in London at the Flowers Gallery through November 23, as well as in Cologne at the Galerie Stefan Röpke. Watermark is not yet showing in Europe.



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