Edward Burtynsky's big picture 

Art and sustainability collide in Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit

With all things TED still coursing through Whistler's veins — TEDActive is barely packed up while plans for the 2015 chapter of TED here unfold — it's fitting Edward Burtynsky would be at Whistler, too.

After delivering his TED talk and another in conjunction with A Terrible Beauty, a survey exhibition of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, this phenomenal Toronto-based photographer, filmmaker, hero to many a young person, and longtime TEDster hit Whistler to hang out awhile and ski, much as he's done the past 10 years.

Winner of one of three inaugural TED prizes (Bono and physicist Robert Fischell were co-winners), Burtynsky's wish in 2005 triggered a 34-minute speech, likely the longest in TED's history he joked at this year's event. More notable was the wish itself: that millions of people would be spurred to join a global conversation on sustainability through his images.

Manufactured Landscapes, the project he finished a year after his TED prize and the one he's most known for, probably granted it in one swoop. The film opens with an eight-minute scene, edited down from 10, and shot using a golf cart with half-inflated tires to absorb the bumps. It tracks a single kilometre-long factory floor in China where thousands of workers make, among other things, all the George Foreman Grills on the planet.

Burtynsky's epic photographs and documentaries are filled with beauty and meaning that reveal themselves layer by layer. They're meditative visual essays on whatever big theme he focuses on: domestication, mining, oil and, his latest, water.

These aren't heroic art shots for calendars; these are "intentional landscapes" as he calls them. A Dickensian scene of rusted ship hulks riddled with toxic materials, used by the First World and dismantled in the Third by barefoot Bangladeshi workers whose life span is about 30 years. A waste heap of seven million discarded tires outside San Francisco — used on the cover of George Monbiot's Bring On The Apocalypse — which burned for weeks after being struck by lightning days after his shoot.

Burtynsky uses everything from helicopters to light planes and man-lifts to capture the real and really big picture of our potent dance with Nature. By stepping back, psychologically and literally, polemics and politics are avoided.

"If you look at a piece of mine one day, you might see it for its content — oh my God, look what we're doing at that quarry or mine or whatever, or look what we do as a collective species. And another day you might look at it and say, that's really interesting structure — I love the colour and I love what's happening with it, and the way it makes me feel," he said in conversation with UBC professor and eco-footprint originator, Bill Rees, at the VAG's Heller Lecture. "I think those are both legitimate ways one can interact with art.

"I don't want to just put [my work] into a political silo because it really doesn't work as a point of departure as well as if you leave it open-ended, so that no matter if you're rich or poor, on the left or right of the political hemisphere, or you're religious or not religious, you can still approach the work and use it as a point of departure for dialogue."

Remember that TED wish back in 2005? Burtynsky still believes what we need today, more than anything, is dialogue.

"If we don't raise consciousness and start talking about these issues, they're going nowhere," he said.

Besides his painterly sensibility to keep all those layered readings in play — Burtynsky started his art career at age seven, accompanying his dad on weekend wilderness painting expeditions in Ontario — he applies a scientist's rigor and neutrality. It took him two years, for instance, to figure out how best to shoot Marine Aquaculture #1, Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province, China, one of the 34 photographs he donated to the VAG.

He'll triangulate all kinds of factors: when moisture levels are minimal and colour optimal; which elevation best captures what he's after; the angle of approach. To get the image he wanted of the aquaculture "village," a conglomerate of thousands of individual fish farms, he used a remote-control helicopter with a special gyro base to keep his camera level, taking 120 shots over 45 minutes.

"I think artists are well-suited to raise questions because we don't control power," he told CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos in a previous interview on The Hour.

"But in a way, we can reflect back."

So how perfect Burtynsky is in Whistler, where the conversation on sustainability never ends and people speak truth to power. And where he's immersed in the kind of wilderness that's figured so large in his life.

If you happen to see him on Solar Coaster, ask him about Owens Lake.

Edward Burtynsky: A Terrible Beauty runs until May 26 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Details at www.vanartgallery.bc.ca.


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