Edward Burtynsky, Lithium Mines #1, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2017, pigment inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto 

Human footprints – 'Anthropocene' at Museum Helmond ­– Art and ecology #3

Issue no4
Aug / Sep 2022
roleplay & eindexamens 2022

For the third episode of his series on art and ecology, Joris van den Einden visits Museum Helmond. The collaborative exhibition of photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier that is on view this summer revolves around the ‘anthropocene’: a term that is rapidly moving towards the centre of many ecological discourses, although certainly not without contestation and discussion.

The concept of the ‘anthropocene’ or ‘human epoch’ is generally used to try and define what the most significant essence of our current era is. Originally a framework that predominantly existed within the fields of earth system sciences and geography, the Anthropocene first came to life to place the human central to the question of what is currently leaving the most significant traces on our planet. Following the Holocene, the Anthropocene would be the new geological epoch, where human activity has the most significant definable extent of influence over the geological characteristics of our planet.

While it may appear that such a term could fit well with contemporary climate change discourse, the concept has attracted a lot of criticism for two main reasons. Firstly, critics and supporters alike struggle to reach consensus over the Anthropocene’s supposed starting moment. To some, it may be the period of the European Industrial Revolution, to others the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The impossibility of defining the contemporary arises; how can we understand something if that very thing is providing us with our language and imagination?

Secondly, to talk of the Anthropocene is often considered to be a heavily generalising, Western perspective. Every individual affects and influences the planet differently, with vast differences in CO2 emissions and fossil fuel usage between various nation states, communities, and individuals. Conceptually employing the Anthropocene thus projects a universalising perspective on an inherently diverse population of humans, with varying extents of influence over their natural environments.

Conceptually employing the Anthropocene thus projects a universalising perspective on an inherently diverse population of humans, with varying extents of influence over their natural environments

Edward Burtynsky, Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016, pigment inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto 

Due to this contestation, the Anthropocene is now regularly a topic of discussion or point of departure in the work of artists and curators. The exhibition of Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier on the first floor of Museum Helmond takes the concept itself as its title, consequently locating themselves and their work within a rich set of bustling discourses and discussions. The exhibition appears to focus on Burtynsky’s photographs, which are immediately recognisable by their bird’s eye perspective, the incredible detail, and regular abstraction of the depicted frame-filling landscapes. The video work by Baichwal and De Pencier extends and complements the photographs well, imbuing the staticness of Burtynsky’s images with movement and sound. Both the photographs and video works are presented in various sizes, ranging roughly from large to enormous. At times, augmented reality installations can be activated through the tablets available at the entrance to the exhibition.

In the various images, I come across a broad range of places, landscapes, and scenes, from the mountain of the Dandora Landfill in Nairobi, Kenya, to oil refineries in Texas, USA, and salt pans in Gujarat, India. What unites the images, apart from Burtynsky’s distant drone perspective, is the constant presence of both highly evident and more veiled human footprints. While the gaping, geometrically perfect holes left by quarries and mines in Chile and Germany are more conspicuously ‘anthropogenic’ in nature, scenes like the unnatural shimmer of phosphate residue in the algae-infested waters of Florida take a second glance to be recognised.

With the photographs' aesthetic splendour being abstract enough to estrange, yet not abstract enough to incite contemplation, relevant questions of eco-politics remain submerged beneath the surface

Edward Burtynsky, Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida, USA, 2012, pigment inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto 

While walking through the exhibition, I feel like I am ingesting a great amount of information. In the details, titles of the works, and digital information placards, but also the almost map-like aesthetics and wide perspectives of the artists’ lenses, there is a lot to take in. Downstairs, after having seen every image of the exhibition, I find the museum’s small but relatively extensive ‘Green Room’. Here, context is key: I drift between a video that shows the making-of the exhibition, virtual reality glasses with 360-degree videos of some of the scenes from the artists’ images, and the work of several young upcoming artists and designers that are actively working from or with concerns relating to ecology and the climate crisis.

In the artists’ introductory words to the exhibition, they state that their aim is to “examine the human influence on the Earth both on a planetary scale and in geological time.” To further provide structure to this examination, the exhibition is organised alongside several demarcated themes, including relatively clear-cut examples of human alterations of the planet (terraforming, logging), the consequences of such alterations (loss of biodiversity), and more contextual information and perspectives (earth layers, ‘anthroturbation’). As such, the artists and curator collaborate in their response to the question of what the Anthropocene exactly entails; more than anything else, the exhibition compiles many different visible iterations of the human footprint, thus increasing their visibility and expanding the extent of their existence in the public’s consciousness.

While the exhibition acknowledges that there are many overlapping liabilities and responsibilities that are unequally distributed amongst various institutions and corporations, it appears that the examination of this acknowledgement remains on a somewhat shallow surface of an incredibly deep pool of accountabilities. On the one hand, it seems that this was an active choice, as the artists write that their “ambition is for the work to be revelatory, not accusatory” and that the potential resulting “shifting of consciousness is the beginning of change.”

On the other hand, however, we may wonder whether a mere revelatory approach to ecology is perhaps no longer enough to pierce an audience. The visual language and actual content of Burtynsky’s photographs, however aesthetically appealing and technically perfected, will likely be relatively familiar to a large fraction of the general public already. While strolling between the images, I overhear another visitor say: “Let’s just do it quickly, that should be fine.” The works appear to be too easy to dismiss – it is too simple to not be involved.

The videoworks by De Pencier and Baichwal inhabit an eye-level perspective that is much more potent in the addressing of its audience, and that stops me in my tracks when I walk by

It seems that the depicted physical distance from the photographed landscapes extends beyond the frames of the images to also create a type of conceptual distance between the image and the viewer. While each image houses something to be explored, it proves too easy to simply decide not to do so. As such, with their aesthetic splendour being abstract enough to estrange, yet not abstract enough to incite contemplation, relevant questions of eco-politics remain submerged beneath the surface.

To place these images, both still and moving, within a close contextual proximity to the Anthropocene, then, is curious. Throughout the museum halls, I can’t help but feel a certain ambiguity towards the apparent skin-deep critical reflection upon the framework so actively adopted by the artists. Once again, the distance between the contemporary ecological crisis and our understandings or responses to it prove to be critical. The ecological crisis appears to be encompassed by a crisis of imagination, too. Images are powerful entities that affect public, communal, and individual perspectives on the world around us. But if an image does not destabilise our views, if it does not draw out a moment of disruption, how can our consciousness shift?

In that regard, it is in the video works of De Pencier and Baichwal that I do find some of the discomfort and assertion I was hoping to encounter. This is especially the case in the close-up shots of Bagger 291, where one the largest land machines ever made digs for brown coal, an extremely polluting fossil fuel, and of Elephant Tusk Burn, where we see a huge amount of ivory being burnt to prevent it from entering illegal markets. The videos are still abstract at times but inhabit an eye-level perspective that is much more potent in the addressing of its audience, and that stops me in my tracks when I walk by. They are in reach but at a distance, disorienting, piercing, and ultimately inevitable; exactly what a critical reflection on the many human footprints on and beyond this planet demands.

Anthropocene is on view until the 11th of September, 2022 at Museum Helmond

Joris van den Einden
is an intern at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2022