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Is the brilliant, troubling Edward Burtynsky too easy to admire?

Edward Burtynsky in Toronto, Oct. 9, 2009.

Della Rollins/della rollins The Globe and Mail

To write about Edward Burtynsky's celebrated photography in anything less than celebratory terms is a daunting task.

The artist is so beloved, awarded, honorary-doctorated and widely collected, by museums and citizens alike, that to pose even a handful of questions about his practice feels a bit like challenging the musical legacy of Leonard Cohen, kicking a chirping beaver in the teeth, or slagging Anne Murray's hair. I am a lover in a dangerous time, to quote another Canadian icon.

And, love Burtynsky's work I do. His large-scale photo-monoliths are epic in both size and subject matter, rigorously composed, expertly, pristinely printed and cinematic in their eye-popping exposition of our damaged, worn-to-bits world. There is no argument that Burtynsky's career-long ambition to capture and reveal the devastating (and at the same time the weirdly beautiful) after-effects of global industrialization has resulted in a national (indeed world) treasure trove of vital yet horrific, glamorous yet vilifying imagery - imagery that alarms and entrances, that makes us consider our own role in mass production and the resulting environmental aftershocks, all while we covet the actual objects that speak these uncomfortable truths.

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No mean feat, that, to make beautiful art about an ugly world.

Furthermore, with Oil, a touring exhibition/documentary-in-stills on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Burtynsky valiantly explores the always contested question of our dependence on fossil fuels. By showing us, in a linked series of more than 50 huge photographs, everything from the hellscapes of the tar sands, to monster truck rallies, used-tire mountains and high-speed test cars, Burtynsky unveils a world in which the extraction of flammable materials from the Earth's core has a limitless number of repercussions. Some are exciting, some enviable in their scientific expertise, but many are regrettable in their waste and lack of foresight.

There is, again, no arguing with the messages here, especially the very first and biggest: Our ongoing exploitation of fossil fuels is killing the planet.

Now, for the hard part.

Any art with this much cultural power (as held by the artist himself and as found in the blockbuster positioning of this exhibition by the ROM), any exhibition offering this many bald, seemingly unquestionable truths, necessarily prompts questions. Difficult questions. It is too easy to simply nod in agreement with Oil and then walk, or drive, away from the exhibition. We are beyond that level of self-congratulation as informed viewers.

First, the simple question, one that lingers over any photo-journalism-driven exhibition: Is Oil an art exhibition, or a documentary exhibition? Simple answer: both, and the question is irrelevant anyway.

Art and journalism have been cohabitants for as long as stories have been told, and Oil is a prime example of an artist hybridizing the two practices in order to both inform and inspire. As I've said before, distinctions in cultural value are not measured vertically, but horizontally - art and information flow back and forth across a continuum, not up and down a ladder.

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Harder questions, however, await the viewer - primarily in the spots where the exhibition feels like it is preaching to the choir. For instance, one photograph shows a super-truck careening down the Talladega Speedway in front of an audience of thousands. The Stars and Stripes, hung from a long pole attached to the top of the truck, snaps proudly in the wind. This is U.S.-style car mania at its most defiant, proud and ludicrous. The photo is also, arguably, a cheap shot.

Who does not know that the United States is the world champion of excessive consumption? If anything, the U.S.'s self-confident decadence is aspirational fodder for the rest of us, especially in the so-called developing world. As I type this, people across the planet are killing each other in the hope that one day they, or their children, will live out some version of the all-you-want-all-the-time dream this photograph appears to mock. Fish in a barrel, meet loaded shotgun.

Hard question No. 2: Does Burtynsky's rightfully admired cinematic approach (Cinerama might be a better term, given the sheer, wall-eating size of the photographs), his positioning of the camera far, far away from the action captured, serve to inform, by giving the viewer a fuller picture, or does it simply distance the viewer from the action, and thus, perhaps, the acceptance of complicity?

In other words, by removing the viewer from the grit, often via an elevated viewpoint, does Burtynsky's work have an effect opposite to its apparent motivation? Instead of making us aware of how much we are part of the problem, stuff-crazed consumers that we are, does the work in Oil in fact let us off the hook, by showing us, both figuratively and literally, that the problems are simply too big?

A common critical response to Burtynsky's work is that his removed stance allows him to create images that do not judge or preach - but a Mordor-like range of black, rotting tires sings its own confessional song. There is no escaping the application of judgment to fields packed with scrapped airplanes, mounds of used up metals pressed into rusting cubes, or acres of prairie overflowing with toxic sludge.

But, by photographing many of these abused landscapes from on high, is Burtynsky invoking despair? Is he skipping over the judgmental moment (to judge, one must be engaged, however faultily), that jolting shock and the subsequent caustic response, and instead leading us straight to resignation?

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If so, the photographs must be read as being as apathetic as they may or may not be accusatory, because when you feel small and helpless, you cannot process, nor adequately react to, your situation. And Burtynsky's imagery makes one feel about the size of the proverbial pea under the tower of mattresses.

Finally, the puzzlement of beauty, or, to be more specific, what to do about pretty pictures? Burtynsky's achingly precise formalism and keen eye for overlooked colours makes for gorgeous imagery, once you remove the content from your mind.

Burtynsky's images are often stunningly lovely, as pleasure-inducing as any photograph of a natural wonder. Take, for instance, his series of oil-factory interiors, where pipes and tubes and vents intertwine as fluidly as the brush strokes in a Cy Twombly painting, or his mesmerizing photo of a trucker jamboree, wherein the parti-coloured, highly polished 18 wheelers are lined up face to face, glistening in the twilight like pearlescent beetles.

Are Burtynsky's images therefore as capable of seduction as they are of instilling trepidation? People do buy them, after all, and install them in their homes. If so, and I believe the images are profoundly seductive, then how do we process this duel effect, Burtynsky's blending of real-life horror exposition and art-world pleasure induction?

A key may reside in Burtynsky's own commentary. Never trust an artist's statement, but never ignore one either.

In the didactic materials surrounding Oil, Burtynsky writes about the "strange industrial biology" his work uncovers, and later of oil, the substance itself, as a "source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread." These conflicted revelations speak to the power of Burtynsky's work to both mirror and malign, to thrive in its very instability.

Oil, the exhibition, prompts more questions than it may be able to answer, or, more accurately, want to answer. In his final didactic statement, Burtynsky refers to his massive undertakings as mere "notations" - a statement that struck me as a bit of a cop-out. The least one can do when one is showing colossal photographs taken around the world in pursuit of an understanding of a global crisis is, well, own one's cultural power.

Whatever your level of comfort with such decided inconclusiveness, with work that begs for more than a first-glance unpacking and yet appears obvious in intent, see Oil and revel in its myriad, wonderfully contradictory messages - in how brilliantly (or accidentally? but I doubt it) Burtynsky conflates spectacle and catastrophe, two frequent and terribly uncomfortable bedfellows.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil continues at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum until July 3.

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