Friday, 8 February 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

Here is the final draft version of my review of the Edward Burtynsky documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” for AND Magazine, issue 1, June 2007.

May I begin by asking what is the difference between natural and artificial, anyway? Then, can we just drop the pretense and acknowledge that we don’t know? Artificial, manufactured; these are words that signify things made or conceived by humans. Natural, by nature or God. But surely I’m not the only one who recognizes that all things come from nature, and no matter if humans form them and put them together, they never belong to us. In other words, the very distinction between nature and artifice is artificial. We made it up! Just like we made up words, beauty, cars, art, TV, politics, countries, objectivity, and coincidence.

This is all to say that the manufactured—the man-made—can be equally as beautiful as the natural; even those things that, when we hear about them in the news, we click our tongues and shake our heads at. And we have no objectivity; that is why when faced with something we disapprove of, we can have an entirely different reaction than if we only hear about it.

Edward Burtynsky is a photographer who can show us these confusing elements of the human being, and make them okay. He can make us find things we think atrocities of human excess to be the height of beauty, and it’s okay. At least that has been my experience of Burtynsky’s work. The documentary film, “Manufactured Landscapes,” directed by Jennifer Baichwal, is much the same. It explores Burtynsky’s work from the beginning of his Manufactured Landscapes period, starting with the brilliant orange-red veins of runoff from nickel mining set against dark earth in Sudbury, Ontario, and the immense empty footprint and incredible classical and abstract formations of stone quarries in Vermont, Italy, and India; she looks at fields of fractalized scrap metals and the great hulking shapes of gigantic oil tankers cut into bits in Bangladesh. From there she quickly moves to the film’s main focus: China and the radical changes taking place there due to industrialization and urbanization unprecedented in human history. It is a country where development is undeniable and unquestionable, and our Western, first world, moral arguments are out of place, irrelevant. Perhaps the perfect location for Burtynsky's neutral lens. The Three Gorges dam project, for example, has displaced over a million people in more than a dozen cities, many of whom were subsequently hired to demolish their own homes and neighbourhoods; but it will provide electricity (to the tune of 84.7 TWh per year by 2009) and facilitate the transportation of goods for the next generation of Chinese. Old, 20th century houses and quarters in Shanghai are torn down to make way for high-rises—condos we call them in Canada— their family tenants forced to move to more distant, cheaper homes, to make way for the next generation of economy-driving Chinese. Nearly unimaginably large factories, manufacturing plants, dominate vast tracts of land and house innumerable interchangeable labourers making products for who knows who now. Seas of coal sit waiting to heat the next generation of nuclear power plants.

This is where the documentary diverges from Burtynsky’s own project. Looking through Baichwal’s film lens, following Burtynsky on his unusual tour of China as he speaks with Chinese of the old and new economies, it is hard not to fall into judgments about the changes taking place there. While watching, I wanted to think that it’s wrong what we’re doing to the earth with our gross exploitation of its resources; it’s wrong to displace such a great amount of people no matter what perceived benefits; it’s backwards to think in such simple, short-sighted, and inefficient terms; et c. And surely there’s nothing wrong with thinking those things. If nobody ever did, there might not be human rights or environmental movements. But there are always at least two sides to a judgment: my side and the “other” side, and if there were not another side, we would have nothing to judge. I might look at these images and see atrocities, or I might see progress, and as soon as I pick one or the other, I create someone with whom I do not and often cannot agree: an enemy.

Burtynsky’s own works—his grand, silent, still images—don’t encourage such judgments with the same urgency. They merely present what’s there, and while perhaps we, as humans, cannot help but to judge one way or the other, I find these images at least initially give pause—a brief moment of freedom, a glimpse of objectivity. And in that moment I find I can choose whether to judge or not: whether to see what’s there—the bare beauty—or to see through a veil of judgment—the ugly, wrong, corrupt, immoral. The neutrality of this moment, this meeting with barefaced reality, is a position from which we can re-envision beauty and progress and most, if not all, of our moral concerns. Maybe beauty can sometimes look like ugliness, and the world can be beautiful just the way it is, with all the trouble and suffering that we cannot avoid; and maybe progress, too, can look ugly, but still be progress, and maybe it does here in the west as well. These ideas don't need to be attached to a single ideology or moral framework. My “right” doesn't have to be my enemy’s “wrong”, and indeed, our disagreement doesn't have to make us enemies. For I don’t know what's right or wrong or good or bad, and when I’m presented with images like those in the film, I don’t especially care. I'm simply ecstatic that somebody is taking the time and risk to capture these moments.

These are easily politicized images that Burtynsky has created, and in the end, it’s impressive the amount of restraint that Baichwal shows in her own take on their story. She makes her opinion known without propagandizing and without making the viewer feel guilty or stupid. Nonetheless, and I admit that this may be my guilty conscience speaking, she seems to me to be saying that what is happening in the world is wrong, and we, the decadents, for various reasons, are to blame. My opinion is only that you would do well to see this film and the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, and enjoy being suspended between your judgments and awe.

For more information on the Three Gorges Dam:

Three Gorges Probe Fact Box
Chinese Government Official Web Portal - The Three Gorges Dam Project

1 comment:

paganharlot said...

pictures pictures you need pictures!

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