The Hideous Beauty of "Oil"

Photo exhibit illustrates oil industry's scarring of nature

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I first encountered Edward Burtynsky through the movie Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on his photography in China. Like Koyaanisqatsi a generation ago, Burtynsky’s work is a provocative meditation on nature’s collision with society. His latest exhibit, Edward Burtynsky: Oil, which opens tomorrow at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, promises another chilling look into the industrial landscape.

Oil confronts petroleum’s impact on our lives, from the wellhead’s altered ground, to the asphalt snarl of our highways and the lots where tires are interred. Like much of Burtynksy’s work, Oil‘s images elicit conflicting emotions, a result of the artist’s cardinal skill: an ability to imbue the hideous with an odd beauty.

Burtynsky achieves this partially through his use of distance, through which individual scars blur and blend together into a foreign but alluring geometry. But it is also the medium itself. The photos are split-second depictions of the blows industry has dealt nature, divorced from the before and after. This challenges the viewer to investigate the forms depicted, however briefly, without drawing conclusions.

Of course, the meaning of art like Burtynsky’s is as much a product of the viewer’s perspective as the artist’s intention, and I can only examine the photos for a very brief time before I am struck by the devastation they show. To my eyes, these photos cry out for a future that is much different from the present.

In Burtynsky’s words:

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire—a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

If you’re in D.C., head to the Corcoran to see Oil in person. All others can view the collection online and learn more about the artist on Artsy’s Edward Burtynsky page. Finally, here’s a short video about Oil.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil from Corcoran Gallery of Art on Vimeo.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.