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Edward Burtynsky, Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida, USA 2012 photo © Ed Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Anthropocene at the National Gallery takes big-picture look at our decaying planet

By Danny Globerman on October 5, 2018

In 1971, cartoonist Walt Kelly’s daily newspaper comic strip, Pogo, marked Earth Day with the title character, a wise, swamp-dwelling opossum, surveying a trash-covered forest and famously declaring, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Nearly 50 years later, with the planet’s environment in an even more precarious state, Kelly’s proclamation seems truer than ever, particularly when viewing Anthropocene. It’s the newly-opened exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada that pulls back the curtain on the calamitous impact of soaring human consumption. It is the latest collaboration by the Canadian creative trio of renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky and award-winning filmmaking couple Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Like their earlier works, it can leave one feeling alternately despondent, inspired or both.  

Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal standing before an augmented reality station. Photo Danny Globerman.

“I think the urgency I feel today, I never felt even 10 years ago,” says Burtynsky, who along with Baichwal and de Pencier, were in Ottawa for a preview of the exhibition. “It’s getting worse a lot faster than we ever thought and the point of no return may be upon us sooner than we ever thought or maybe we’ve already blown through it.”

The exhibition’s title is taken from the proposed name for a new geological epoch some scientists believe we already inhabit. Though it is widely felt we are still in the Holocene epoch, which started after the last Ice Age 11,700 years ago, an effort is underway to demonstrate that for the past 70 years we have actually been in the Anthropocene, a time when humans, rather than nature, are the cause of permanent planetary change.

More than four years to finish

Like their earlier collaborations, Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), the trio’s The Anthropocene Project (which along with the gallery exhibition includes a documentary film and book) explores how we are reshaping the Earth in order to serve our wants and needs. In doing so, it reveals the devastating environmental wounds that hide in plain sight: gargantuan open-pit mines, mountainous garbage dumps, endless urban sprawl, deforestation, oil spills, poaching, the list goes on. The team spent more than four years on the project, a year-and-a-half of that just for research. They shot many thousands of stills and 400 hours of footage in 20 countries on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, often in difficult, even dangerous conditions. Carbon offsets were purchased for the entire production.

“The whole point was to explore this on a planetary scale,” Baichwal emphasizes. “Anthropocene is a planetary phenomenon. The earth is 4.5-billion years old and we humans have only been up and running for about 10,000 years of modern civilization and already we are impacting the earth and it’s systems more than all natural processes combined.”

The result of all the time and effort is a multi-media exhibition that is big, both literally and conceptually, and is unlike any the National Gallery has presented (a similar but somewhat different version of the show is running simultaneously at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario). There are Burtynsky’s 31 high-resolution photos (many of them big enough to blanket a queen-sized bed), three more presented as wall-sized murals, a dozen large-screen videos, a variety of others viewable on your smart phone or tablet with the help of a specially-designed app, and finally, using the same app, three-dimensional augmented reality offerings including one in which a twenty-storey-tall Douglas Fir towers over the gallery’s Great Hall.

National Gallery visitors watch one of Anthropocene’s large-screen videos. It shows a gigantic bucket-wheel excavator in operation at an open-pit mine in Germany. Photo Danny Globerman

“We’re very excited and also a bit nervous,” admits Baichwal. “Because with new media the tail can wag the dog often.  We just don’t want people to go ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ We’re using it because it is bringing another dimension of understanding and we hope that is coming through.”

Beauty and the beastly

What also comes through is the enduring paradox of the work: horrific environmental devastation presented as gorgeous, artistic tableaus that are both beautiful and repellent at the same time. A coral reef in Indonesia as colourful as a Pollack; a checkerboard lithium operation in Chile with echoes of Mondrian. More than once, commentators have questioned this practice of transforming the awful into the awesome. At the preview, one women even wondered aloud, “I’d like to ask him if he feels guilty”. If you’re wondering, he doesn’t.   

“I think if I’d just made uninteresting pictures with terrible light, unconsidered in colour and shape and form, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation or people would be coming to see these shows. I think the core of human experience…is we are moved by aesthetics. We have no trouble taking something like Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Richard III, terrible tragedies, horrible stories..cloaked in fantastic prose. No one would say, ‘Hey, Shakespeare shouldn’t have written such beautiful language around such a terrible thing.'”

The three creators behind Anthropocene during a preview at the National Gallery of Canada. (left to right) Nicholas de Pencier, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky.

Burtynsky understands you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. He also believes playing the blame game won’t bolster his crusade for greater environmental sustainability. While pointing fingers at giant corporations for ravaging the planet would be easy, he and his partners remind us that, like Pogo’s sad realization, we are all complicit. People who work in mines or cut down trees are just trying to make a living like everyone else while all of us are buying the endless stuff that starts out from the desecrated places depicted in Burtynsky’s pictures.

“As long as there’s a demand someone’s going to do it,” says Burtynsky. “People think I engage in disaster aesthetics. I don’t. These (places) are counterpoints to our cities. We don’t get our cities and our lives without these landscapes. They come hand in hand. Everyone who looks at these pictures, including me, are complicit in them.”

Getting the message through

All of which leaves him occasionally disheartened. After more than three decades documenting an increasingly scarred and disrupted planet in need of rescue, at 63, Burtynsky wonders when, if, the message will get through, especially as he reflects on a political landscape that has become as toxic as the manufactured ones.

“I’m frustrated. As humans we don’t seem to respond until the problem is at our doorstep. Even when the floodwaters are coming through the door it still seems that they’ll be able to blame it on something else. I hope we have time to avert the worst.”

Baichwal hopes so too. Anthropocene makes no bones about admonishing all of us for being part of the problem. But as she is eager to point out, it is just as much a call to action; a reminder that we also have it within us to be the solution.

“There are people working so hard towards positive change. The ingenuity and tenacity we have used to now dominate as a species are also these qualities that can be used to save all life on earth. We can do it. We just have to summon the collective will to do it. The reason we do this work is to bring it to the forefront of people’s minds and into their consciousness. Hopefully a shift in consciousness is the beginning of change.”


Anthropocene is at the National Gallery of Canada until February 24, 2019. It is free with admission to the gallery. Visitors are encouraged to download the free AVARA app from Google Play or the Apple App Store in advance of their visit.

The documentary film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is at the Bytowne Cinema until Oct. 11.