By Baptiste Léger.
Welcome to the Anthropocene epoch. Behind this scare word there is a sad reality: humans take control of the earth and they are modifying the land ecosystem. This idea of Anthropocene is not recent, in 1778 the French mathematician, naturalist, biologist, philosopher and writer George Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon wrote in his book Les époques de la Nature “Today, the whole face of the earth has the print of the human power”. This worrying idea that humans change the planet to meet their needs regardless the change they are creating is often illustrated in contemporary art. Art has always been a medium to illustrate an epoch or a medium to denounce. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is well known for his industrial landscape photographs. In 1997, he had the idea to make a series of photographs about Oil linked to the car industry. This project was born 12 years later, in 2009. This exhibition was shown in many galleries, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.
The series of photographs is divided in three parts: the first one is about extraction and oil refining. The second is focused on the use of this black gold in our cities. The last one is maybe the more interesting because the motifs are places less known by the general public: places where the objects linked to oil finished their life (as cars, tires, planes, engines). These three parts are complementary. As a sort of biography, Edward Burtynsky shows the oil’s life. The picture with oil-wells (image 1) as far as the eye can see illustrats the need for humans to use oil, these machines are now part of the desert. Another picture can illustrate the mix between humans and nature: the one with the pipeline in the forest (image 2). The tubes follow perfectly the route of the forest. The need of oil in our society is demonstrated by pictures of cities and most particularly with the panoramic picture of American motorways (image 3). The photographer shows how essential oil has become as a raw material in today's world. The artist also wanted to point to something less known, the waste disposal sites. These places are most often away from our cities. There, all the rubbish from the car industry: engines, cars, tires are stored. In the piles picture (image 4), there are actually 45 million tires which makes me think about recycling. In a TED talk, Burtynsky emphasized that in addition to the landscape change, these clusters of tires burn without interruption for 4 years. As he says, with his work, he wants the viewer to find it beautiful at first sight, but then understand what he is looking at is horrible and even scary.
This artwork makes us think about our use of the oil. In few decades, humans will have used all the oil resources, what will happen next? Are we ready for this important change? Actually, we can’t imagine a life without oil. BP's annual report about global oil reserves says that as of the end of 2013, Earth has nearly 1.688 trillion barrels of crude, which will last 53.3 years at current rates of extraction. The automobile has an important place in this century, at the same time, it is a symbol of freedom and something destroying our world.
The approach of the artist is not sanctimonious, he just shows us the reality, our reality. He doesn’t say that we, humans, are the origin of the global warming. He merely gives us information to understand that we have to change our habits. Most of the population wants to have a normal life and don’t really want to change the way they live because they don’t see the global warming, they don’t ask themselves questions about how all their products are made and how they will finish after the bin. Burtynsky shows us things we are not used to see, and maybe some things we never think about. Who really thinks or really cares about the end life of an engine or a tire? Is a change possible in a planet with more than 7 billion inhabitants? Burtynsky has a real optimistic viewpoint, he invites us to use our talents, change our way of thinking and to process the energy crisis, which is probably one of the biggest problems of our current society. Even if his photographs are quite dystopian, he refuses to use an apocalyptic discourse, and he doesn’t want to blame the viewer. Behind his esthetic, but scary photographs, Burtynsky makes us face reality.
Everything we use is going to be throw at one time or another. Do you know that every day in our planet 3.1 million tires are made? 1.2 billion per year.