Several weeks ago London was once more graced with a screening of an award winning documentary by Jennifer Baichwal that focuses on the astonishing body of work from the acclaimed Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The film was followed by Q&A session led by Francis Hodgson (critic and writer on photography for the Financial Times).
The screening took place at London’s temple of contemporary art, as well knows as Tate Modern past the gallery’ opening hours. So after overcoming three levels of some feisty security who (for some elusive reason) weren’t clearly notified about the event, me and my photojournalist companion finally made it to the small and intimate Starr Auditorium. Refreshments and drinks were still being served, which made for a good start. However what was truly shining is the crowd. Writers, critics, photographers, art professors of London’s top universities and intellectuals of all sorts were promising for a stimulating evening.
To begin, Edward Burtynsky is an exceptionally talented artist whose large-scale photographs present the devastating impact of industrial growth on the environment. Having to put this in a less mannered way, they create an awareness of where our comfort living is coming from and at what particular costs. However, as much as Burtynsky’ photographs are about environmental, social and political dimensions of globalisation, they are also about striking visual aesthetics. His images represent nothing less than a sublime beauty of a photographic medium and this is how people like to refer to Burtynsky’s work.
The film opens with a side-tracking shot of Chinese factory and goes on for what seems like forever. The never-ending scene shows workers who are all dressed the same, all sitting in the same position, all mechanically carrying out their duties. It is almost disturbing to think that those are humans, not machines. From the very start Baichwal and Burtynsky direct the audience to the summary of the whole film – the unstoppable process of disrupting the natural order and the occurrence of an intentional one which we, humans, do not create, but indeed manufacture.
Throughout the rest of the film we follow Edward Butrynsky as he travels across the world documenting the severest areas of industrialisation. Among those we get to see the world’s largest dam in China, the ship breaking grounds in Bangladesh, the architectural expansions of Shanghai and oil factories in United States. Above that, Burtynsky never forgets to focus on people who take part in those grand projects and expansions. As for the stylistic approach of the documentary – film continually breaks up with still photographs those give the viewers a chance to dwell upon the details of the image and challenges them to discover an alternative way of looking at the world.
Saying all that… I must mention that in spite of raising political and social issues I could not help it realise how incredibly apolitical that film and Burtynsky’s work in truth are. Perhaps that was the finest trade of what I saw. Looking at the images of constructions, destructions, destructions for the sake of constructions I did not detect any agitations or struggles against the system. Is this effect achieved by that wonderful sense of aesthetic, that sublime beauty of Burtynsky’s work that I mentioned earlier? I am not too sure. Perhaps, it could also be due to the fact that the photographer simply strives to enjoy his work without feeling the need to take sides or scatter the blame. As Burtynsky himself explains “there’s no right or wrong in the situation that we have created, but what it needs is the whole new way of thinking.”
All in all, Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes holds your breath from the first to the last second. Through your eyes the images sink into your brain, then making their way right to your heart targeting everything in the equal measure. What an incredible occasions in art and culture where one can find that perfect balance and accessibility in appreciation.