Saturday, 9 June 2012

Burtynsky: Oil

Yesterday, I scrambled through London in desperate search of my culture quota. After a day of business dealings and beer, I needed to soothe my soul.

My trusty iPhone came to my rescue, a quick search on the map for art galleries brought the Photographers' Gallery to my attention. I'd never been there, indeed, I didn't even know it existed, but I like photos and I was immediately drawn to it over and above the many other galleries in the area. With no expectations or preconceptions, I wandered in.

The gallery is spread over multiple floors, but two floors of the space are dedicated to the work of Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. The exhibition is the result of his travels around the world to document the effect of oil on the world, specifically on the landscape.

I could put some of the images in here, you can find them easily enough.

But the truth of the matter is that looking at the images on a computer screen does not, can not, convey how extraordinary they are "in the flesh". These are enormous, overwhelming images that look quite indescribable in real life. I spent a lot of time scrutinising some of the images very closely, unable to believe that they were photos, rather than the work of some skilled artist.

The image of a ship cleaning up an oil spill, for example, does not look like anything so much as an abstract charcoal rendition with a ship photoshopped in. The image of a mountain of tyres looks like a textured, three-dimensional painting. The picture of thousands of discarded oil filters does not look like anything that would exist in real life.

I know I am not alone, as a number of the other people at the exhibition were looking at the photos as though trying to identify whether they were, in fact, paintings.

The photos trick you into thinking that they cannot be real, that such vivid and enticing colours cannot exist in the real world, let alone in the bleak and destroyed world of oil. But the closer you come to the pictures, the more real, the more banal, almost, they become. Yet when you step back, they immediately become rich and beguiling tapestries.

I cannot express my admiration for the genius of Burtynsky's "eye" highly enough. The photos are enlarged to huge sizes, some of the photos are presented as diptychs, a dozen feet across. Yet they are clear and a delight to examine at every distance, from taking in the whole mesmerising image to the most detailed examination. The composition of many of these photos could shame many artists.

I can do little more but commend the exhibition to you. It will reward a brief visit, or an extended examination.

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