Exhibition Review: Anthropocene

Layers of sedimentary rock lean out towards a coastline, disappearing into sand before meeting the water. We are witnessing history: flysch lines in the rock chart some 50 million years of geological time, spanning far beyond the human epoch. But look closer, and signs of humanity dot the landscape. A faded orange traffic cone rests in a crevasse tens of millions of years old, with pieces of red debris scattered nearby. There is concrete, plastic and chicken bones, all of it set to become embedded in the geological record.

Anthropocene, Basque Coast #1, UNESCO Geopark, Zumaia, Spain, 2015. courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Basque Coast #1, UNESCO Geopark, Zumaia, Spain, 2015. Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

The large-format photograph was taken by Edward Burtynsky on Spain’s rugged Basque coast. It is the prelude to the Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Simultaneously presented at the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition—together with a film of the same name—is a collaboration between Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.

Anchoring the exhibition, Burtynsky’s photographs convey an unsettling dualism. There is an undeniable splendor in nearly every composition, from the clearcutting of a Malaysian palm oil plantation to a suburban highway in California. Eschewing didacticism, Burtynsky’s vivid colours and sublime scale draw the eye, but it’s the disturbing realities depicted that keep it fixated. Phosphor tailings, algae blooms and concrete seawalls all hint at disaster on a majestic scale. The photographer’s hypnotic calm and balance meets the human epoch’s terrifying — but often subtle — realities, leaving viewers to work out the emotional impacts. Beauty is in the photographs. What makes them so devastating is that their horror is left to us.

Complementing the photographs, a compelling series of short film segments presents more intimate portraits of humanity and the planet. While Burtynsky shoots from a distance, the videos take in the world at the human scale. We follow scavengers navigating an endless garbage dump and view piles of burning elephant tusks.

Unfortunately, the exhibition suffers for its augmented and virtual reality components. Through an app, several of Burtynsky’s prints trigger videos when a phone or tablet is pointed at the photographs. There are clear links between the photos and videos, but there’s also obvious tension in experiencing physical works of art while simultaneously being prompted to look at our screens. Spurring a sense of immediacy that transcends the white cube of the gallery, the app also conjures virtual reality models of those burning elephant tusks, along with a nearly extinct white rhinoceros, and (outside the main gallery) a massive Douglas fir tree. Though thematically integrated to the exhibit, the complex-yet-stark reality of Anthopocene is undercut by the clumsy affect of a video game tree and a cartoon rhinoceros.

And yet, climate change entails simple and catastrophic moral clarity. If the pull of augmented and virtual reality creates a more democratic and accessible gallery experience—particularly for school trips—maybe it’s worth it. Should we dwell in subtlety when the arc of humanity must forcefully and immediately be bent toward justice?

Anthropocene runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 6, 2019, and at the National Gallery until February 24, 2019.