Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Water’

Gallery view, Flowers Gallery, Cork St, LondonEdward Burtynsky, ‘Water’, at the Flowers Gallery, Cork St, London

Two days in London, and three wonderful exhibitions – bliss! Although I thoroughly enjoyed all three, I’m only going to talk about one of them here.  I’ve been interested in seeing Edward Burtynsky’s work in the flesh, so to speak, for quite a while and was annoyed that I managed to miss his ‘Oil’ exhibition a little while ago.  This was made up for in spades when I met with Eileen at the weekend and we went to see his new body of work called ‘Water’ at the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street in London.  I’m going to try very hard not to sound like a Burtynsky groupie, mouthing ‘wow!’ and ‘awesome!’ to everything I saw, but it’s going to be tough.  These images were gobsmackingly gorgeous.

Normally photography is prohibited in galleries like this one but this was an exception, so I managed to take a few shots of some of the images.  As photos of the photos, these pale in comparison to the real thing – huge canvases, beautifully printed, with extraordinary colour and detail – but they do at least give an idea of the work.  The theme, as you might have guessed, is water.  Sometimes it’s the absence of water, sometimes the ways in which we use and harness water, and sometimes the natural source of our water, hidden in the mountains and glaciers.

Many of the images are taken from an aerial perspective, and seen from a height, turn into very beautiful abstract patterns.  However, the beauty of the colour and pattern often hides the toll we’re taking on the natural environment.  In the image below, for instance, the shot is of the Almira Peninsula in Spain and what you’re looking at is greenhouses – mile upon mile of greenhouses that have effectively turned this area into a no-man’s land.  I’ll be giving some thought to that next time I eat a winter tomato.

Almira Peninsula by Edward BurtynskyGreenhouses, Almira Peninsula, Spain, 2010, Edward Burtynsky

These rice fields, taken from above, look more hospitable to human life but also portray intensive farming practices.

Rice fields by Edward BurtynskyRice terraces #2, Western Yunnan Province, China, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

One of the things I found most interesting is the way in which the images were both extremely detailed – if you peered in close you could see every bush, tree or bird – but also took on a very painterly appearance when viewed further back.  Somehow Burtynsky manages to preserve detail and create something that has the amorphous feel of an abstract painting, both at the same time.  In the following images, it’s very hard to see what these are in reality, but not because there’s any lack of detail.

Glacial runoff by Edward BurtynskyGlacial runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

Olfusa river by Edward BurtynskyOlfusa River #1, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

In some of the other images the content is more obvious and easier to pin down, but even these manage to express both a feeling of softness and sharp detail in the same shot.

Dam, Xiaolangdi Dam, by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #1, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

In these two shots of the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River, water billows and roils and at first glance there’s nothing man-made here.  In reality, the movement of the water is the effect of a constructed dam and there is a small, delicate metal walkway whose sharp detail contrasts with the force and expansion of the natural element of the water – you can just about make it out on the left, a little over halfway down.  These two images were possibly my favourites – they reminded me of Turner’s paintings, and those of some other artist whose name I can’t quite remember.   To me they epitomise the idea of the sublime in art where beauty, and fear, and awe at the power of nature all combine.  The sheer softness and subtle tones of the colours had to be seen to be believed – they’re somewhat lost here.  It’s impossible to show just how amazing these images were seen at full size, and I can only suggest that if you’re anywhere near London you should get yourself along to see them for real.

Yellow River 2 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #2, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Yellow River 3 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Seeing pictures as good as these is a double-edged sword – there was a part of me that felt they were so far beyond anything I could hope to produce myself that it made me feel like sticking my camera on ebay and giving up the game.  Of course I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but not entirely.  Eileen, who is always full of wisdom and good advice, took another view – she suggested that if they spoke to me as strongly as they do, then there must be something in what I like to do myself that connects with them.  Perhaps I should read my own blog posts a bit more often, because I just found this quote in my archives.

I feel a little presumptuous comparing my own work with Burtynsky’s, but I have begun to see that there are links.  One of the things that Burtynsky does to great effect is to play with the scale.  In his case he shoots on a grand scale which often appears small; in my own case my subject matter often consists of close-ups that appear larger.  The obvious example would be my ‘oil spill’ images, where tiny areas of oil floating on ditch water look as if they might be grand landscapes – here and here.  The image right at the end of this post is a particularly lovely example of Burtynsky’s large-to-small effect, with a river delta appearing like a tree or a piece of seaweed lying on the sand.

Two of the other things I love about the Burtynsky images are their colours and their softness, particularly the way the softness contrasts with sharp detail.  I wish I could achieve this feeling of deep, layered softness without loss of detail, and the rich range of tones that he produces.  Some of the colours in his images are spectacular; in others they’re very subtle but rich and satisfying.  I love strong colour, but recently I’ve found myself drawn to this greater subtlety of colour and this is something I’d like to explore a bit more.  The abstract nature of the pictures appeals to me greatly as well – all the more so because the abstraction arises out of something real without feeling overly contrived.  A lot of these qualities are nascent in my own work and on making the comparison I can see why Burtynsky’s work draws me so strongly.  Perhaps, somehow, I can take some of this and use it to come just a tiny step closer to what he has achieved here.

River delta, Edward BurtynskyColorado River delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011, Edward Burtynsky