The Photographers’ Gallery was the first independent space of its kind in Britain, so understandably its reopening in a new, tailored home is important to a very large and dedicated audience.
Twice the size of its former location, architects O’Donnel + Tuomey have made impressive structural gestures; aperture-like windows, “numerous links between exterior and interior” – a point taken up by the gallery’s director Brett Rogers who emphasised photography as “the most democratic art form” and was revelling in the excitement of getting the work outside and animating it. Inside there is an environmentally-controlled space for rare work and high-ceilinged galleries, generous in their potential for moving-image and large-format works. And setting off the space in excellent inaugural style is the huge – literally and metaphorically – chronicle of the oil industry by Edward Burtynsky.
“Not a day goes by when you don’t touch oil, not a minute,” he says. Of course he’s right, crude oil is refined to plastics, detergents, medicines, paints, synthetic fibres, petroleum and makes up an unimaginably large part of our personal landscapes – as well as the transport in which we move between them. In 1997 Burtynsky suffered/received an epiphany, an “oil ephinany”, that everything he had photographed, right down to the film he shot on, had been made possible by oil. It has moved us through time, fuelled our growth, sustained our lives and destroyed our natural habitat. The “arch of oil” as he refers to it, is presented in this exhibition in three chapters: Extraction and Refinement; Transportation and Motor Culture; and The End of Oil.
With regards to extraction, the effect on the landscape is as crude as the name suggests. Oil fields in California and Azerbaijan are captured with an extraordinary, “transfixing clarity” – the hundreds of pump-jacks hitting the horizons of such geographically disparate places share a simultaneous bleakness that feigns abandonment but belies the relentless pumping wells below the surface. Pipelines in the artist’s native Canada cut through the landscape with a steely geometry with their destination refineries a byzantine network of pipes and props that defy perspective and scale.
As with nearly all Burtynsky’s images, the perspective is not a human one and from our floating angle, the scene unfolds in complex and incomprehensible ways. Best exemplified in the Transportation chapter, we are presented with the panorama of what petrol makes possible. Cars, lots of them with even more people watching the cars, driving them and existing in-between the ribbon-like roads that connect and dissect a grand and very American landscape.
All of these images are large with a terrible sort of beauty; lakes like black mirrors reflect and refract the colour of the sky, bits of boats that stand like vast constructivist buildings as the shipbreakers of Bangladesh take what look like toothpicks to them, and islands of scaffold skyscrapers float exactly between the sea and sky.
The End of Oil, the exhibitions dramatic coda, is the most questioning and charged group of images as we are presented with the consequences of the industry. Scrap yards in Arizona, a “new automotive geology” are depicted as mountainous landscape of limbless aircraft, jet engines, impossible amounts of tyres and densified oil filters. Even more disturbing and more beautiful is the most recent works in the show, a god’s eye views of the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as a slick of oil wasted the coast and covered the water with gleaming rips.
"Not a day goes by when you don't touch oil, not a minute."Edward Burtynsky
Sat in its own waste, the failed rig that Burtynsky characterises as the “Frankenstein” of the trade, it’s “monsters all around it” is the most telling arch of the oil story, an “interesting metaphor for human overreach” he tells us as the humans responsible for harnessing this natural phenomena create and use technologies that they do not fully understand.
An effecting and totally memorable show, the artist’s afterword puts it in bleak but graspable language, the notions of one artist’s, “contemplations of a world reshaped by this massive energy force, and the cumulative effects of the industrial revolution” – bringing us right up to now, as we fight back the flames, politically, monetarily and literally, as they burn the last of the oil.
Edward Burtynsky: Oil will be on show at The Photographers’ Gallery from May 19 to July 1.