Oil. People tend to think of a black, thick, icky, substance extracted from the ground. The word is usually associated with the natural resource, a resource becoming scarcer with time. It’s rarely associated with sublime panoramic landscapes, grandeur, beauty, and emotion. Edward Burtynsky’s Oil exhibition depicts the oil industry in a whole new light, making something bland seem so beautifully powerful.
In his new exhibition at the McCord Museum, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky explores the world of oil and everything it touches. This exhibition consists of 56 photographs that are unexpectedly fascinating and powerful. As someone who has visited the exhibition, I can honestly say that his art is mesmerizing. The pieces are bursting with life, colour, intricate detail, and precise lighting, which altogether blend into very busy but pleasant images, all connected by one theme: oil. There are photographs of large machinery, pipelines, large barren fields of dirt, and oil pumps. They capture the immensity of the industry, the process, the impact it has on our world today as well as in the future.
I’ll admit I was unsure about the exhibit at first. I had never expected it to be so moving and beautiful. Burtynsky’s photography explores oil sites using several aerial shots as well as high-rise views, allowing us to see the vast, even unfamiliar, landscapes. As uninteresting and colourless as this might sound, Burtynsky manages to capture the main features of these industrial oil sites while also capturing beautiful skies, mountains, and clouds in the background. Each moment is precisely chosen to create the best and boldest image possible. The beauty of nature at a distance is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, contrasting the rather repulsive and dirty oil sites with a quiet and sublime beauty. The photographs are truly beautiful and make us think about what we are actually seeing: oil, something not so magnificent, suddenly becoming amazing.
Burtynsky’s photographs of oil spills are possibly some of the most eye-catching ones in the exhibit. The light shines perfectly onto the ruined landscape, the sky in the background is magnificent. You cannot help but stare, in awe, before realizing what you are looking at: massive environmental damage. It is shocking how I did not feel disgusted or angry, instead I felt at peace and even pleased by the photograph. It truly is beautiful, even if we do not think it should be. The reaction to this unconventional beauty becomes confusing, going against our usual negative reactions towards oil spills. Massive photographs of thousands of cars lined up in a parking lot, never-ending piles of tires, complex highways covered in traffic, piles of dirty trash compressed into cubes, all very overwhelming and shocking photographs, that are once again appealing in a sad and uncomfortable way. I found myself staring at a pile of tires, unable to look away. It is an unusual yet attractive sight. My gut feeling tells me these photographs should be scary and disturbing, depicting what oil has brought to the world, including the pollution and problems it has caused. Instead, it is captivating.
The exhibit is showcased at McCord museum until January 8, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing something fresh and surprisingly touching. Burtynsky’s photographs show us what is happening to our landscapes and what the future might hold for us. The fact that Oil achieves this through beauty and breathtaking views is very powerful. The large dimensions of the photographs emphasize the unavoidable impact oil has in our society. The increasing pollution is an inescapable truth once you enter the exhibit. A truth that, if you are willing to face, becomes remarkably beautiful in its own way.