‘Oil’ – Edward Burtynsky

The way I’d normally tackle my reflections of a study visit would be to talk about each image, either what it shows or what it means to me.  However, this exhibition is on such a vast scale, about one subject, oil, and had such a prolonged birth, anywhere from 10 to 20 years depending upon which of Burtynskys’ estimates you take, that it really requires a reflection on all the elements that go together to make this exhibition what it is.  Regardless of anyones personal taste about what makes a great picture this exhibition is magnificent in its scope and range.

I try not to read anything about the artist or the work prior to any visit to an exhibition, that way my opinions haven’t been pre-conditioned by the critics or pundits.  What I do after the exhibition is to then read about and look at work by the artist to see what I may have missed and what may shed light on why a particular series of images exists.  What I found when I visited the artists site was that in fact the ‘Oil’ series is a much bigger piece of work than is displayed at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Only three areas are represented at the gallery, whereas the site shows that there are four!  So what was chosen and what was left out, and more importantly why?  The why we’ll probably never know unless we get an insight from the curator, but unfortunately there’s nothing on the gallery website from the curator about this exhibition, so I’m sure we’ll always wonder.  On the website there are one hundred and one images, the exhibition has 35.  Space is an obvious limiting factor and the choice then is which images best represent the theme?  There is also clearly a great deal of repetition within each of the themes on the website, so again, to prevent boredom by the visitor only a sample will necessarily be chosen.  So having defined a couple of the criteria of selection has this detracted from the impressions the exhibition of a work of this type has made?  Personally I think that some of those left out are far more powerful than some chosen, but then that’s just personal choice.  So what impressions did the exhibition leave?

As I wrote in the opening paragraph, ‘ this exhibition is magnificent in its scope and range’ but is it anything else?  It’s certainly a raison-d’etre  for  ecologists and greens and leaves one feeling quite sick about what we, as humankind, do to our world in the name of progress, energy and greed.  I was particularly struck by the images in ‘The End of Oil’ .  Having gotten everything useful and useable out of the ground and any other associated construction, we either pretend we’re doing the correct thing by recycling some of it, or simply abandoning these items to pollute the environment for years to come.  What Burtynsky has achieved is visual imagery that should stimulate discussion on our wastefulness, and also ironically beautiful pictures.

His use of the light available and the colours depicted in the scenes is masterly and as such shows that he’s obviously conquered the technical aspects of being a photographer.  But is what he’s created truly art or is it editorial or documentary, or, perhaps all three?


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