Saturday, October 15, 2005

Edward Burtynsky & Robert Smithson

Smithson at the Whitney
Everyone is talking about Edward Burtynsky, and for good reason. Not since Robert Smithson has an artist altered our view of the world so dramatically. Burtynsky first came to my attention in Granta a few years back. His large-scale photographs of mine tailings and pods of abandoned, rusted ships along side photos of railway cut lines in the Fraser Canyon mirrored a life long fascination with the interface of heavy equipment and landscape. How roads slice their way through forests revealing so surgically, the medians rippling like the rough edges of skin after stitches. We are so divorced from the impact of these very basic physical intersections. These can seem benign, but as Burtynsky shows us, they are most often not. And particularly in our time, they reveal not only mass wounding, but also the poison of excess.

Burtysnksy seemed to come out of nowhere. Smithson on the other hand, is an artist who seems so fundamentally present to me that I made the mistake of assuming I knew and understood his work by osmosis. I wasn’t prepared to be as surprised and delighted as I was. The Whitney show draws attention to the multi-faceted and wholly instinctive nature of his engagement with the world. A non-academic artist who grew up in New Jersey, Smithson reacted to the space around him, making visible the waste sites and urging others to use them, to reclaim them. It also shows how varied an artist he was, and how important writing was to him. (I can’t wait to get into some of his essays, and there are several collected writings…). Finally, it shows how important he was in terms of shaping, not only the whole earth artist movement, but how we think of our physical surroundings. Coming from a state with the largest number of super fund sites in the US one can see just how urgent his work was/is.

This seems to be what Burtynsky is doing in his work in China. Introducing us to a country growing much more rapidly than even we in the west, with our suburban-drenched notions of development, can imagine. The growth in China promises to dwarf that of industrialized North America—both in quantity and in physical transformation. There are 32 dams being built aside from the
Three Gorges Project, which Burtynsky has been photographing over the years. As he points out, “The roads and highways now being built within its borders could circle the equator seven times.” One wonders what one has always wondered about the impact of China’s population alone, without the impact of this rapid industrialization. Yes, industry continues to arrive in China, but here’s Burtynsky from the Saturday Globe and Mail:
...many of these manufacturing jobs are in industries that have been relocated to China from the West, often for environmental reasons and at great health cost to the Chinese people — such as the waste from the electronics industry. Eighty per cent of North American “e-waste” goes off shore, and 90 per cent of that ends up in China. “Salvaging is a cottage industry,” he says, often done by hand in rural communities, resulting in contamination from cadmium, mercury and lead.
I’ll be seeing Burtynsky at the Brooklyn Museum this month, and folks in Toronto can see his new show on China at the Metivier gallery in Toronto. As for Smithson, the Whitney show really is worth seeing. I especially loved the piece that Andy Warhol once owned: a wedge of seashells from a beach resort in Florida. It consists of three mirrors: one below and two on the sides, fitting snuggly into a corner of the gallery. It is filled with seashells and looks as though it is a mound, although of course it is only a quadrant…the best part is the letter to Warhol on the wall outlining instructions for care. If the mirrors were to break they could be replaced by common mirrors—“they are not precious”, but the shells themselves had to be replenished by a pilgrimage to the beach in Florida where they originated.

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