Edward Burtynsky: African Studies @Howard Greenberg and Sundaram Tagore

JTF (just the facts): A two-venue show, consisting of 32 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white/grey walls in a series of spaces at Sundaram Tagore Gallery and in the main space at Howard Greenberg Gallery. (Installation shots for both venues below.)

The following works have been included in the two shows:

Sundaram Tagore Gallery (here), March 2 – April 22

  • 15 pigment inkjet prints (African Studies), 2018, 2019, sized 39×52 inches (in editions of 9), 48×64 inches (in editions of 6), or 59×78 inches (in editions of 3)
  • 1 diptych of pigment inkjet prints (African Studies), 2019, sized 59×156 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 5 pigment inkjet prints (Natural Order), 2020, sized 48×64 inches (in editions of 6) or 59×78 inches (in editions of 3)
  • 1 pigment inkjet print, 1981, sized 39×49 inches, in an edition of 9

Howard Greenberg Gallery (here), March 4 – April 22

  • 9 pigment inkjet prints (African Studies), 2017, 2018, 2019, sized 39×52 inches (in editions of 9) or 48×64 inches (in editions of 6)

A monograph of the African Studies project was recently published by Steidl (here). Hardcover, 36.4 x 28.8 cm, 208 pages, with 154 color reproductions. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past decade or two, as the climate change crisis has become increasingly acute, artists of all kinds have struggled with how to make artworks that both document the realities of the extreme changes that are taking place and catalyze us to wake from our collective denial of the obvious and respond with action to the challenges that now face us. And as I wandered through the galleries in this two venue show of recent work by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, I was struck more strongly than ever by the intellectual and emotional difference between pictures and narratives, and of how this divergence has been particularly apparent in the context of artworks that wrestle with the implications of our warming man-altered environment.

Across his artistic career, and particularly of late, Burtynsky has been drawn into the complex global processes of industrialization and their many profound impacts on the land; his previous project “Anthropocene” from 2018 (reviewed here) attempted to take stock of the many large scale ways humanity has been modifying the environment across the globe. It was an ambitious and far reaching artistic effort, that traversed the Earth in search of visible transformation, and sadly found it in locations ranging from mineral mines and salt ponds to deforested jungles and dying coral beds. His aerial views of these largely unseen places were simultaneously wondrous and horrific, a parade of destruction and exploitation captured with a sheen of sublime beauty that left me with a gnawing sense of dissonance.

One of the stubborn truths that the climate crisis has exposed is just how unevenly we share this planet. The separations between big and small, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, inland and coastal, and hot and cold, just to name a few, have pitted countries and regions against one another in the ongoing battle to develop workable shared solutions. Who goes first, who pays, who benefits, and who loses out are just some of the factors being negotiated, which helps explain why consensus has been so hard to achieve and enforce. And while it is dangerous to generalize about a region as large and diverse as Africa, it is safe to say that the natural resources and peoples of Africa have long been exploited by other colonizing nations, and that many of its national economies are still coming up the development and industrialization curves, so the climate crisis as seen in Africa has its own particular politcal, social, and environmental realities to consider. And it is the breadth and complexity of this situation that made Africa the logical next step for Burtynsky’s photographic investigations – over the period between 2015 and 2020, he focused his aerial attentions on Sub-Saharan Africa, visiting a total of ten countries from Senegal, Nigeria, and Ethiopia to South Africa, with stops in various nations in between.

Which brings us back to the issue of the frustrating gap between pictures and narratives. During the years he was working on “African Studies”, Burtynsky made dozens of images, and then thoughtfully tied them into groups and categories when presenting them in photobook form. He explored the grandeur of the unexploited African landscape (like sweeping desert sand dunes), and then methodically turned his camera to the kinds of scenes he had photographed elsewhere (industrial salt ponds, various mines and extraction activities, and the scars of large scale agriculture), before coming around to the ways African urbanization and settlement have encroached on the land. Each of these sections in the photobook is supported by many images, as well as deeper captions and texts that explain the locations and activities being documented. The result is a selection of consistently thoughtful and studied visual arguments, in as much as it is possible for an outsider to drop into these various distinct countries and come to grips with the nuances of the different situations on the ground.

But when I visited the gallery shows that feature the images from “African Studies”, nearly all of this narrative complexity and richness of context was stripped away; wall labels provide some title/location information at one venue, but in general, the pictures are presented without their supporting stories, pushing us to see them for their surfaces rather than their specific environmental circumstances and truths. This is not to say that Burtynsky’s textures are somehow less than engaging – on the contrary, they are consistently lush and engrossing, their tactile visual splendor distracting us from their scenes of degradation. In particular, Burtynsky’s images of salt encrustations in Kenya and sulfur springs in Ethiopia are filled with complex crackly surfaces that are riven with wrinkles, parched fissures, dry crevices, and rusty crystalline seepages, the details seemingly becoming ever more fractally intense as we look more closely.

Given the scale of Burtynsky’s largest prints, what we often notice first about his views is their color gradation. Deep greens cover the tea plantations of Kenya, while softer reds and pinks emerge from the iron mines of South Africa and the salt flats of Botswana. In other works, warm sun-baked orange dominates his scenes of deserts in Namibia, and there’s even some shiny gold to be found, on the edges of a platform amid an image of a tailings pond in South Africa. And when the colors are somewhat less vibrant, settling into ranges of earthy yellows, beiges, and browns, Burtynsky then pulls bolder pattern forward, in the bars and spots of salt ponds in Senegal, the gestural curves of roadways at iron ore mines in South Africa, and the swirls of dune tops in Namibia.

While environmental tragedies abound in these beautiful pictures, perhaps the most poignantly catastrophic is an image of oil bunkering in the Niger Delta. Illegal refining and refueling of oil tankers is a rampant problem in Nigeria, and not just for the lost economic revenues; as this image so grimly documents, spills contaminate the surrounding areas, killing trees, poisoning rivers, and leaving behind persistent slicks that clog the deltas. Here the trees have become bleached skeletons and the lowlands have become a rainbow swirl of stagnant oil; the stack of abandoned tanks rotting in the sickly green water only adds to the post-apocalyptic feel of this scene. It’s a photograph torn apart by its competing forces of attraction and repulsion, the glittering shimmer quickly giving way to disgust and outrage. To my eye, this is the kind of urgent tension that is the hallmark of Burtynsky’s strongest pictures. His failure mode is letting the images drift back into blandly pretty textural abstraction – this picture, and a few others in these shows, offers that surface enchantment but then rips it out from under us with force and ferocity, demanding a reaction.

Almost as a salve to heal some of the pessimism embedded in some of these pictures, a selection of photographs Burtynsky made during the pandemic (in the spring of 2020) are being shown in a side room. Their intimate views of the resiliency of nature, in the form of images of dense thickets of marshy undergrowth near Burtynsky’s home in Ontario, seen in various stages of winter snow and spring growth, feel soothing and meditative. The all-over grasses and bushes slowly return from washed out grey to the beginnings of emergent color, the cycle of the seasons signaling the tenacity of life, even during the silent depths of the pandemic.

As much as several of Burtynsky’s new works do find a better balance of visual seduction and aversion than many of his previous efforts, I remain wary of the exoticism that Burtynsky’s approach layers atop the current crisis. What I find unexpectedly fascinating is that his more humble pandemic era views of thickets near his house may indeed be a better presentation of the triumphs of observant and caring environmentalism than his grandiose flying-half-way-around-the-world-in-chartered-planes views. In the end, it’s the stories (and consequences) that move, inspire, and activate us, not the visual eye candy.

Collector’s POV: The works in these shows are priced at $19000, $26000, or $44000 based on size, with the one diptych priced at $79200. Burtynsky’s prints have become consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $2000 and $100000.

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Read more about: Edward Burtynsky, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Steidl

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I am no reviewer and I usually agree with you on the exhibitions I get to , but for me this exhibition was a two star. Agree on more text would have been preferred.
    The work is not only so monumental in its importance but also hauntingly beautiful. Totally different from the work I usually love which is small format and intimate.
    Anyway the review is thought provoking as usual.

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