Burtynsky I: China and the West, political and apolitical


Edward Burtynsky

Today I watched Manufacturing Landscapes (Youtube trailer), a documentary of Burtynsky at work in China. Aside from the film itself, the extras on the DVDs, especially the slideshow with commentary by Burtynsky, are wonderful. I learned that marble has a translucent quality and that Michaelangelo’s marble was taken from quarries with very highly translucent stone of top quality. I saw his quarry photos a year or so ago when the exhibition was in town, but didn’t dig any deeper since they are more abstract, pretty than his other work. I wasn’t very serious about photography then, but now that I’ve seen his other work, he is my new role model!

I get caught up in the small hassles of making a plan, of learning the technical side, and every once in a while I need a kick in the butt to remind me of what good, relevent photography really is. His photos are incredibly well composed and artful, but the subject matter – industrial landscapes – is ultimately what jumps out at you. Part of my strong reaction was because the film focused on China, sure. It’s heartbreaking, because I want my birth nation to be advanced, to be respected, to go forward, but at the same time, “progress” on this scale is certainly not sustainable.

Burtynsky makes a point of not making any sort of overt normative statement about his subject matter. He takes the approach of trusting the content in the images and letting others come to a voluntary understanding of the subject matter rather than ramming a political message down people’s throats. At the end of the film, he says:

There are times when I have thought about my work and putting it into a more politicized environment. If I said, “This is a terrible thing we’re doing to the planet” then people will either agree or disagree. By not saying what you should see that may allow them to look at something that they never looked at and to see their world a little differently. So I think many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realize what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep. It’s not a simple right or wrong.

And in a Treehugger interview, he says:

Once people start coming to their own conclusions from seeing a body of my work, and [begin] to sense the kind of import or weight of the consequence of those places that have been created to the service of industry and the capitalist culture, if they arrive on their own to these kinds of feelings that something is wrong here — I think that has a lot more potential to raise consciousness than being told, “You need to not do that.”

We don’t really react well being told how to behave. But if we arrive at that from understanding, that there is a consequence to our actions, and we arrive at those kind of conclusions in our own ways, I think we have a much greater chance of really shifting consciousness into a new realm of concerned citizen, and someone who wants to do the right thing for future generations.

What happens is that I think most people end up in the same place without me saying, “You should end up in that place.” I think the film does bring people to this kind of place… “Oh my God, look at the scale of industry in China!” And this is a direct result of the consumer culture that we’ve developed here in the West. It is this dance that we’re doing between China as a manufacturer and us as the consumer.

It’s an admirable stance, but very difficult for the more opinionated among us!

One reaction to this stance is that he is being cleverly political by claiming not to be political, but I believe his stance is sincere. He certainly has an opinion, but to me that doesn’t equate with political. That’s like saying the statement “breast cancer is bad” is political. Environmental damage is not a political issue where you take sides. It is unevoquivocally bad for everyone, and the only people who will try to convince you otherwise sit on the boards of rich rich corporations.

I believe what he means by apolitical is trying to stay away from making any sort of judgment about what China is doing. The content of the photos is not as declarative as people think. An inherent ambiguity in some of the images makes it difficult to say definitively what the picture ‘means’. The type of images which are sometimes used to illustrate some story about the robotic monotony of industrial workshops in developing countries can also be a point of pride to builders and those trying to pull themselves out of rural poverty.

What looks like an endless ravaged industrial wasteland to a westerner might be a testament to the engineering prowess and scope of the project to a Chinese person. In an audio interview he talks how proud some Chinese are about the Three Gorges Dam, which is so large that for the days in which they were filling it, there was a measurable wobble in the rotation of the Earth. Full-on capitalism may be the wrong choice for China for many reasons, but the endeavors of all these builders and workers are wrapped in personal stories of people trying to make a living and raising a family in a society trying to transform itself into the mirror image of another. This is not simply an impersonal environmental issue in the old sense of the phrase.

~ by Jin on October 14, 2008.

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