“Reflections on Water,” New Orleans Art Review

By Karl F. Volkmar, New Orleans Art Review
October / November / December 2013

Arthur Roger Gallery
Contemporary Arts Centers
New Orleans, LA

Edward Burtynsky: Colorado River Delta #3, 2013.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: IMMACULATE surfaces, varied lines and shapes, contrasts and harmonies of color, rhythms and textures evoking an elusive sense of the familiar, of mystery, wonder, and delight in the interplay between precision and ambiguity, abstract patterns, designs, and suggestions of the representational with the possibility of evolving into the beautiful, the sublime, and the merely interesting that, as photography, challenges Benjamin’s lament of the destruction of aura ‘in the age of mechanical reproduction’.

At first the exhibit seems a visual extravaganza without any apparent unifying theme, a polysemous conflation of works by different artists, even though the title clearly states that these are photographs from Edward Burtynsky’s Water Series. Slowly one focuses on individual photographs, responding to each on its own terms, and only then developing some understanding of visual and conceptual interrelationships within and among through shared associations and significant differences as the overwhelming initial reaction (if they were not contained within the solid black frames they might fly away) evolves into a sense of coherence.

A ghostlike line limns the silhouette of a tree-like shape echoed in smaller siblings on either side. Their curvilinear, bifurcating limbs extending outwards, reaching upwards, contrast with the random striations and frail ambiguous planes of a grayish brown ground. A dense acidic yellow green mass arches upwards like a syncline rising through layers of the earth’s crust. The edge where the arching green pushes against the ground, the tree-like forms themselves, seem as if illumined by a mysterious light.

What it is is elusive until one reads the name stating that this is a representation, #4, of the Colorado River Delta, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, a specific geographic feature at a specific place easily located through Google Earth. The satisfaction of one’s curiosity is temporary, however, lasting only until one notices the so very different Colorado River Delta #3 also near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico. Automatically beginning to compare the two representations of the same place using the information in each to understand the other, one realizes the inadequate, even misleading, nature of the linguistic metaphors used to describe as one succumbs to the portrait format of the photograph. Comparing the two with their respective aerial and oblique perspectives, the dark areas in one light in the other and the light areas of the other dark because of the angle of the light, unsure if one is seeing the same specific place from two different vantage points, one’s mind continually drifts back and forth between the informational and the purely esthetic in reciprocal dialogue between subject and object.

Edward Burtynsky: Markarfjot River #2, Iceland, 2013.

The silvery interlacing threads of the Markarfjot River #2, Iceland flowing over the dark obdurate rock of Iceland bears an eerie similarity with the interweaving veils of oil and water in their beautiful but deadly parody of the dance of Salome performed during the Oil Spill #2, Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, 2010. Each is an interesting study of fluids from subterranean flows rising to the surface under different conditions in very different latitudes. The effects are similar in color and pattern as if demonstrations of the laws governing fluid dynamics under different conditions as Impressionism was interested in the physics of light and the physiology of perception and the representation of the envelope of atmosphere between artist and landscape. As much as an awareness of contemporary science might inform one’s understanding of some Impressionist paintings and the importance of what Pissarro referred to as sensation, it was the intuitive intellectual efforts of the artist that found a way to represent the fluid nature of seeing using the fluid substance of paint.

Although one might be tempted to use impressionistic or abstract expressionist references to characterize Phosphor Tailings Pond #2, Polk County, Florida, USA and Oil Spill #16, Mississippi Delta, Gulf of Mexico, USA, and such references might be useful for describing a specific viewer’s personal, subjective response, one must be wary of going down the dangerous path of pathetic fallacy. (The erroneous popular assumption that similar appearances signify similar essences has been a frequent subject in the work of artists as diverse as Neo-Dada’s Rauschenburg and Johns, Post-Painterly Abstraction’s Mitchell, Sheri Levine and others) Neither should one fall into the Pictorialist trap that equates obscurity with the poetic sublime or picturesque or the irony of Richter’s ‘Capitalist Realism’ for Burtynsky’s photographs are of the visible world.

The criteria for assessing photography enunciated by John Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye (1966) provide a sound basis for thinking about Burtynsky’s photographs: as things in themselves, not the equivalent or surrogate of reality; the artist’s interpretive response to the world expressed in the qualities inherent in its invention as well as the ongoing popularity of photography, i.e., clarity of detail; and that the photograph represents a fragment of reality reflecting the framing and vantage point taken by the photographer.

Burtynsky’s work, as is that of all photography including the journalistic and documentary witness to that which is true, is abstract and arguably expressive in its reflection of the artist’s values. In the photographs, what one might be tempted to refer to as ‘impressionistic” is visual reality; and the artist may well have responded to the esthetic character of what is being seen. The photographs are good and interesting and even beautiful, regardless of their referents. The good and the interesting and the esthetic are engaged in dynamic dialectic.

Edward Burtynsky: Phosphor Tailings Pond #2, Polk County, Florida, USA, 2013.

Considering Burtynsky’s work from the perspective of straight photography poses its own questions. Although Alfred Stieglitz stated that he was attracted to the abstract qualities of what became the well-known The Steerage, one can also reason­ ably analyze it as a social document. One’s fascination with the sublimely picturesque naturalism of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite Valley photographs is not conditional to buying into the artist’s spirituality. Walker Evans, hired by Stryker to document the effects of the Great Depression to support government efforts to ameliorate the consequent conditions, was fired because his photographs were just too beautiful, effectually overriding the desired empathy and thus persuasive power desired by the FSA.

Before predicating an interpretation of Burtynsky in terms of a cultural narrative from the perspective of water as a vital resource essential to the future of life on this planet, one can gain insight from the example of the dramatic shift of Palmer from his absolute insistence on naturalistic photography in one year (1889) and his absolute about face the next year 1890 in The Death of Naturalistic Photography which gave impetus to Pictorialism and its conceits. One might also argue that Szarkowski’s photographic minimalism represents a turning away in the manner of Aaron Siskind and Minor White from the world with its overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable problems while at the same time embracing a focused and framed realism. At issue is the interrelationship among, and the competing claims on the viewer’s attention of, the esthetic experience, the representational/ documentary, and a perceived cultural narrative.

In revisiting the Colorado River Delta one must move past the wonder of pure seeing, beyond pattern, beyond representation, to context, asking why the artist has chosen the Colorado River Delta as subject, one of the most plundered waterways in the world, its waters siphoned off for irrigation and recreation and water needs, transformed into a poisoned stream carrying away waste and chemicals leached from the soil as its flow diminishes on the path to the sea.

How should one respond to the numinous apparition of Phosphor Tailings Pond when rewritten as a narrative of Baudelairian decadence, the unnatural beauty of a deformed nature, the blossoming of flowers of evil created by the extraction of elements from beneath the surface, transforming the ecosphere? Even if one accepts the photograph as a thing in itself, one must ask why the photographer is there, why this particular medium, when if one were truly concerned would not one join with Mel Chin and Robert Smithson in redressing the corruption, Suzi Gablik’s art of ecological redemption of the disruption of deep ecologies, of Andy Goldsworthy’s celebration of natural flow?

Interesting alternative readings suggest themselves when juxtaposing two or more photographs that may at first seem unrelated as when the comparison of Markarfjot River and Oil Spill #2, Discoverer Enterprise on the basis of shared formal qualities leads to fluid dynamics. If one then reframes fluid dynamics as a phenomenon of dispersion and extend this to the distribution of people over surfaces in social situations as in Kumbh Mela #2, one may begin to identify a tendency to pattern similar to those observed in Iceland and the Gulf. And one might compare this with differences between the patterns of dispersion of people on the beach and in the water as in Benidorm #1, Spain. And if certain formal similarities bring one to juxtapose Benidorm #1, Spain and Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Baja, Mexico, one might imagine them as essays on the effects of human presence, on the ebb and flow of the tides and rhythms of life.

The artist’s series of photographs representing the accidental art created by differing agricultural practices in China, Spain, and the United States is fascinating on every level: abstract esthetic, representational, and conceptual. Each reflects a unique cultural history determined by differences in crops, natural terrain, and available resources.

Viewed from directly above, on the normal line whose perpendicular intersection with the plane of the terrain reinforces the severe geometry of the plowed field and the perfect circles of pivot irrigation, and the vantage that provides the most perfect view, Pivot Irrigation #21, High Plains, Texas Panhandle records the traces of humankind’s interaction with the land, on the relatively flat terrain of the high plains, ancient ocean floors now covered with layers of alluvial and windblown accretions. The abstract beauty unintentionally created by plowing and planting and watering leaves unaddressed the implications of large-scale agribusiness and the need to import water resources in order to transform what were ancient grasslands, implications that destroyed a way of life eighty years ago.

Dryland Farming #24, Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, and Rice Terraces #3, Western Yunnan Province, China represent the agricultural landscape in areas as geographically and culturally different as China and Spain. The abstract flow oflines and shapes, of tonal harmonies and passages from plane to plane like a Picasso, Picabia, Gorky, or De Kooning, are the byproducts of extracting sustenance from an unforgiving nature that grudgingly yields its resources. The beauty of the patterns elides the harshness of the circumstances, the unending labor, and the precariousness of the endeavor in its fragile beauty.

Edward Burtynsky: Colorado River Delta #4, 2013.

The continuation of traditional, pre-industrial agricultural practice in Spain and China, by hand, is partially determined by working land not amenable to mechanized agriculture. Water intensive rice farming had to adapt to the mountainous terrain of Western Yunnan province with terraced paddies. The results are irregular shapes dictated by the terrain, and an oblique aerial vantage point capturing the evanescent silvery reflections of sunlight off water and the contour shadows delineating of shapes.

Simple beauty can disguise the potential for ecological disaster when growth and progress outstrip the ability of nature to provide the needed resources, as in Shasta Lake Reservoir and Oil Spill #12. Q4000 Drilling Platform, Gulf of Mexico. A deep underlying conceptual link connects these two color studies from very different geographies, the mountains and the oceans. The cool, iridescent blue color of the reservoir complements the warm tones of the exposed rock; the dark green foliage and foreground clarity becomes increasingly less distinct in the distance. Intense cyan blue gulf water, the silvery gray forms of the platform and vessels, flecks of color, intense fire and arcing water is visually arresting. But it is the nature of that which we are seeing, what we know, that is even more interesting, and seemingly disconnected from the visual.

The Shasta Lake Reservoir is an artificial impoundment supplying water for a culture living beyond regional natural resources. Water for urban and suburban population growth, for irrigating on arid land, for recreation required the destruction of the natural ecology, gaining an initial advantage but ultimately becoming dependent, subject to changes, drought, filling up, at the same time as artificially enabled growth was stimulating more growth. The visual beauty of the water and its complement is a result of lower water levels that itself threatens the culture it enabled.

Burtynsky’s photographic record of the appropriation of earth’s natural resources, whether building a reservoir for water or exhuming the remains of ancient life trapped beneath the surface of the earth, to fulfill the needs and satisfy the desires of post­ agricultural civilization represents both esthetic harmony and ecological disaster, the Janus face of progress. Burtynsky’s work is an ongoing epilogue to the western survey photographers of the late nineteenth century whose photographs paved the way for imperialist expansion. Perhaps the artist’s photographs are the late capitalist response to Watkins’ commercial sublime that suggested the possibility of harmonious coexistence of pristine nature and industry.

Ah, the beauty, the mystery! One may become fatigued with warnings of looming disasters regardless of the science and reason behind them and lower one’s defenses. But the beauty remains, for some an escape, for others a reminder that will never be forgotten, and the question of whether humankind is approaching peak water as well as peak oil.