An iridescent orange river of rust runs through a sombre landscape on what could be a scorched planet at the galaxy’s edge. The image is like the backdrop to a dystopian thriller, but the longer you stare, the more familiar details emerge. The half-buried trees in the background are likely the remains of a birch forest, and the blackened ground—volcanic ash or a mineral deposit. In fact, this is our home planet—China to be precise. For over twenty-five years, Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky has documented quarries, mines and factories, examining how industrial civilization is radically altering the world we inhabit. His images lend a desolate beauty to utilitarian landscapes. Through Burtynsky's lens, rock quarries become metaphors—enormous holes testify to the processes of extraction, construction and consumption comprised by the global economy. He invites us to contemplate the interconnectedness of global industries by showing Chinese shipyards in juxtaposition with ship-breaking beaches in Bangladesh. Yet for all its charged content, Burtynsky's work avoids making overt statements about consumer capitalism. "If art gets too blatantly political,” he says, “it can very easily be dismissed by the other side as propaganda.”
It was the open-ended, meditative quality of Burtynsky’s images that Montreal-born filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal sought to capture in Manufactured Landscapes, her documentary about his photographs of China. She worked to translate the still shots into moving pictures, expanding the frame of the photographs and situating them in a larger, dynamic context. The result is unsettling. And since its release earlier this year, Manufactured Landscapes has been the most visually arresting DVD on video store shelves. As Baichwal follows Burtynsky to sites like the Three Gorges Dam, by far the largest hydroelectric dam ever built, the film provides examples of local industrial development with global consequences. Through the sparse use of voiceover, the director provides just enough information to contextualize each scene. Much to Baichwal's surprise, this subtle approach has been a hit with North American audiences, making Manufactured Landscapes one of the top-grossing Canadian films last year. Says Baichwal: "Because the film follows the photographs in bringing up issues, without offering reductive resolutions, and allows you the space to think about these issues, people are responding by thinking about how to live as an ethical person in the world today.” Confronted with visceral images of manufacturing plants and mines that have already changed the landscape in previously unimaginable ways, audience members regularly approach Baichwal and Burtynsky after screenings with the question, "Where do we go from here?"
Part of this discussion means coming to terms with our own implication in environmental degradation, say Baichwal. The global warming debate often touches on the idea that it is futile for Western countries to lower their CO2 output when rapidly industrializing nations like India and China are poised to equal and surpass Western emissions in the coming years. Likewise, viewers of Manufactured Landscapes may be tempted to interpret the film's Chinese focus as an indictment of China's failure to promote clean industry. To Burtynsky, whose career spans twenty-five years, this kind of thinking reflects not only a naive interpretation of his art, but also an oversimplified understanding of the global economy. "It's our factories that are setting up shop there and going into co-partnerships with the Chinese," he says. The goods produced in China are in turn shipped all over the world, as a quick glance at the tags in our wardrobes can attest. Rather than point fingers, Burtynsky believes countries like Canada and the United States should assess their own development issues and approach newly industrializing nations with the question, "Can we co-create this place with you, and let you understand where things went wrong?"
The two Canadian artists are considering a return to China for their next project. While details and funding have yet to be determined, the plan is to focus on a Chinese eco-city. Originally conceived by the British engineering firm Arup, these cities are designed to use the best in green technology and promote an alternate vision for China's urban development. For Baichwal and Burtynsky, a documentary look at these eco-cities, their progress and challenges, is a logical continuation of their partnership. "It's part of this positive step of looking to China as a leader in sustainability," says Baichwal. If the plan succeeds, the film may fulfill the implicit promise of Manufactured Landscapes: human civilization is changing the planet, but with a little foresight, change can be good. Changing the course of our development is a massive undertaking and depends on an influx of new ideas. To that end, Maisonneuve Magazine, Dawson College and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) invite you to a free public screening of Manufactured Landscapes on October 24, as part of the “Montreal Matters” programme. The NFB is also running an environmental photography competition, “Manufactured Landscapes and Green Oases.” Montreal photographers are invited to photograph their city and explore how we manufacture—for better or worse—our landscape. Although Burtynsky muses that "industries are going to go down hating me for getting all these people running around their places with cameras," both director and photographer see the photography competition as a valuable extension of their own artistic endeavors. Six hundred dollars worth of prizes are being offered to winners, and the work of finalists will be exhibited before the October 24 screening of Manufactured Landscapes. For full details, go to www.nfb.ca/montrealmatters. Vernissage and screening of Manufactured Landscapes:
Wednesday October 24, 6:00 PM.
3040 Sherbrooke, Dawson College Reception Hall (room 5B16)