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Art of the Monstrous: Burtynsky and the Anthropocene

Art of the Monstrous: Burtynsky and the Anthropocene

The National Art Gallery in Ottawa currently hosts a sensational exhibition called “Anthropocene.” Edward Burtynsky and his associates Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier have created a multi-media mind-boggling representation of the transformation of the earth by humans. Their work has the shock-effect similar to the famous 1969 photograph of the earth taken from outer space, from far above. One recalls Carl Sagan’s equally famous description of the earth as that “pale blue dot.” Those words were uttered with hope glistening on its lips. Could we see how beautiful this whirling planet, ours, was from so far above? Isn’t it one world for everyone? Shouldn’t humanity encircle its collective arms around this pale blue dot and cradle it tenderly?

In the age of airplanes, most of us who inhabit this pale blue dot have been stunned by how awesome our view of the Rockies is from 30,000 feet above the earth. And we are probably aware that photography from above is not entirely new. It has been used for cartographic purposes. Now, many know Burtynsky’s earlier works such as Manufactured landscapes (2003), Oil (2009) and Water (2013)If you have never looked at any of Burtynsky’s big picture photographs, you may be in for  something akin to an electric shock. His photos of large-scale sites from high above (planes, drones, helicopters) stop us in our tracks. They grab our attention and demand that we think anew about the world humankind has manufactured.

Some would add—and ruined. Viewing Burtynsky’s photos triggers deep spiritual and philosophical thought. Nature photographs and paintings are never mere representations; they carry symbolic meanings. And, essentially, they press us to ask the big questions: Who are we as a human species? What is our purpose on this pale blue dot? What have we done to this beautiful place, whirling in an unfathomably immense universe? Where, when all is said and done, are we headed?

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