Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, "Manufactured Landscapes" (2006).

It was only a few months ago that I was gallery-hopping in Chelsea when I came across an exhibition of photos by Edward Burtynsky. At first the shots simply looked like details of urban ruins. But upon closer inspection I realized that they were mining sites, photographed from a great distance in order to convey the monstrous scale of those operations. Everything around us of human origin is the result of one type of extraction or another, and we rarely stop to contemplate exactly what this process entails. In fact the locations that Burtynsky chooses to portray are situated out-of-sight in inhospitable landscapes apart from mass habitation. Perhaps this is intentional, so that people don't realize the full extent of global consumerism.

If Jennifer Baichwal has anything to say about the subject, more folks will become aware of Burtynsky's project. The director took on a formidable challenge when she decided to transform Burtynsky's stills into a motion picture. The impact of his photo enlargements in a gallery setting is undeniable. It must have been extremely difficult to come up with ways to encapsulate the experience for the larger audiences of theaters. Certainly the widescreen format of the movie house lends itself to the material. In fact, it would be impressive to see a print of Manufactured Landscapes adapted for OMNIMAX. It is likely however that the messages of the film would be too confrontational for prospective funders. This is truly an indictment of modern living in all of its current forms.

The opening shot of Manufactured Landscapes is a seven-minute pan of an assembly plant in China that is almost beyond comprehension. We see row after row of workers in an industrial capacity, putting together small appliances to be shipped throughout the Western world. The sense of a monotonous and bleak workaday existence is made unflinchingly palpable. The scope of the facility is almost literally unbelievable. Next we see the workers, clad almost without exception in yellow uniform tops, mustering on a street between buildings. It is a breath-taking image. We are then transported to a series of industrial sites throughout China that reinforce our awareness of the vast impact of ecological devastation that steadily accompanies that nation's progressing economic development. Invariably the viewer must wonder if the human race can survive such destructive activity.

Baichwal usually lets the imagery speak for itself. The ninety-minute running length of the film mostly consists of a quiet exploration of Burtynsky's subject matter. There is a subtly effective soundtrack of instrumental music that underscores the awe evoked by the presentation of his landscapes. Occasionally Baichwal employs the artist's voice to provide commentary and insight into both his underpinning philosophies and methodology. We learn that Burtynsky's obsessions were born on the occasion of getting lost on the back roads of Pennsylvania. He found himself on the outskirts of the coal mining town of Frackville (in Schuylkill County), and was stricken by the post-industrial surrealism of his surroundings. He decided to follow up with explorations of similarly effected areas in Canada (his birthplace and home). After generating some exposure for his work, he was invited to photograph the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China.

The portions of Manufactured Landscapes that deal with "the largest dam ever built" incorporate information about the human impact of such a momentously-scaled project. These segments, along with the depiction of workers in a boat graveyard in Bangladesh, and of recyclers of computer board components (back again in China), underscore the immediately deleterious effects on the health and lifestyles of those living and toiling in these environments. While the viewer may feel himself fortunate not to share such a plight with these folks, it's not irrational to speculate that we all face a likewise perilous existence in the near future- if we don't adapt new ways of existing within our larger environment. Manufactured Landscapes is a demanding film in several ways. It requires patience and introspection to decode the terrible beauty of the spectacle that we've visited upon the Earth. But it's a worthwhile (and arguably necessary) investment of your time.

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Anonymous jefg99 said...

Tonight I viewed a show about diamond mining around the world. Needless to say, there is a lot of social/political/ethical material there. The one I found interesting, in that it's new to me, is a huge diamond mining operation in Western Canada. The aerial view of the cavity in the arth reminded me of the photos of which you speak. Apparantly it's being done on land owned by a local indian tribe, and leased to the mega-corporation. They were visiting the operation, and they spent time asking for their God's fogiveness in what they had allowed to be done to the earth. However, the provision of economic security for the tribe wasn't glossed over. Did they sell out? Would you in their circumstances? Interesting questions.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I guess it all depends on how they use the money.

9:24 PM  

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