A look at our Scarred Earth 

The Audain Art Museum's latest show explores the photography of Edward Burtynsky

click to enlarge PHOTO © EDWARD BURTYNSKY, COURTESY METVIER GALLERY, TORONTO/PAUL KUHN GALLERY, CALGARY - Pattern of disaster Oxford Tire Pile #4 is on show at the Audain Art Museum until October.
  • Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metvier Gallery, Toronto/Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary
  • Pattern of disaster Oxford Tire Pile #4 is on show at the Audain Art Museum until October.

It's World Environment Day, a.k.a. Monday, June 5.

Famed Canadian fine art photographer Edward Burtynsky is in Toronto at the Telus "Our Planet, Our Future" panel with other distinguished speakers, including former astronaut Roberta Bondar and Dianne Saxe, the environmental commissioner of Ontario.

In his speech, part of which is shared on social media, he asks how many in the audience know the definition of Anthropocene, the era in which we find ourselves.

For those who don't, it refers to the geological age in which human activity dominates climate and the environment.

Burtynsky has spent three decades bearing witness to the Anthropocene as an artist, whether it is his photographs depicting the impact of the Three Gorges Dam in China, or the extraction of bitumen near Fort McMurray.

He uses an artist's eye in composition, whether shooting close-ups or aerial shots of the messes we make. Sometimes it's a depressing pile of discarded vehicle tires, sometimes a hopeful reclamation by nature of an abandoned open-pit mine.

Now his work is coming to Whistler in Edward Burtynsky: The Scarred Earth, which opens at the Audain Art Museum on June 10.

The Audain's chief curator Darrin Martens says the show concentrates on how resource extraction has changed landscapes around the world.

"We had gone through federal and provincial elections where oil production and energy, as well as water use and resource development, has influenced a lot of discussion about how we take resources out of the ground and get it to market," Martens says.

"So we asked who (would be) an artist who is at the forefront of providing opportunities for people to engage and to think about these issues, to think about our planet."

Burtynsky, of course.

Climate change and environment use and abuse are in the news every day, Martens adds, and he saw the summer exhibition as a chance to contribute to the dialogue.

"We wanted to bring it home and give people a chance to think about it through art," he says.

Burtynsky's photographs for The Scarred Earth were pulled from the Vancouver Art Gallery and other galleries and private collections, and put together by Martens specifically for this show.

There are 32 photos in the show, covering five themes from the late 1980s to 2010-11, providing plenty of opportunities to compare altered landscapes.

"Oil is huge in it. There is a section entirely devoted to the oil sands and Fort McMurray. Then there is a section about nickel tailings, in contrast to the tailings ponds of Fort Mac," Martens says.

"We also have a series of strip-mining photos that he has done, as well as quarries. Then we look at recycling, with tire piles and tires burning.

"There are also pieces that directly related to British Columbia, some of the mining shots."

The styles of the images can contrast from the abstract to realism, but Martens says Burtynsky's work differs from photojournalism.

"Firstly, I look to the artist and how he defines or doesn't define himself. He doesn't see himself as a documentarian," Martens says.

"He is looking at the world through an art lens, and is very much interested in making beautiful images, and I think they are. They are framed in a way that is quite engaging and pull you in. After you get pulled into these pieces, you really get a sense of what is going on."

In an interview, the Audain's executive director Suzanne Greening says the Burtynsky show is a welcome addition to the art museum's programming.

She adds the fundraising to secure the financial security of the art museum continues, with the endowment fund sitting at around $17.9 million out of what they eventually hope will go up to $25 million. 

Donations are kept in perpetuity and invested on the Audain's behalf, which is essential in the face of limited government funding of galleries and museums, she says.

Edward Burtynsky: The Scarred Earth runs until Oct. 16. Admission is $18 for adults, free for youth 16 and under.

The exhibition runs simultaneously with Chili Thom: His Masterpieces until June 26.

For more information, visit www.audainartmuseum.com.


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