Questions about oil are inseparable from contemporary society. Its residue is ubiquitous; its hold inescapable. “Drill, baby, drill,” is a mantra for some, and for others merely a fact. Ours is a civilization built on oil—means of acquiring it, consuming it and disposing of it. We build with it, and we burn with it. We forget its ills quickly because of its convenience, and it continues to drive us in our complacency. It was to this subject that, over a decade ago, photographer Edward Burtynsky turned his lens, and the presentation of Oil now comes to the Nevada Museum of Art.
Burtynsky is a Romantic. Asked which artists have influenced his work, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich is first out of the gate, followed closely by the Hudson River School painters of the American 19th century. These artists celebrated the landscape as an awesome and humbling force. Humanity’s influence was but little in the face of overwhelming nature. More recent shapers of Burtynsky’s outlook, including Robert Adams and the New Topographic photographers, pushed against the veneration of landscape in favor of a directness about man’s transformative impact. Burtynsky, perhaps unsurprisingly, operates at the intersection.
So thoroughly have we overwhelmed the Earth that sublimity can no longer be reserved for nature alone. What’s more frightening and inconceivable: a mountain of ice, or a mountain of discarded auto parts? We could easily see Friedrich’s well-known “Wanderer” standing above a tangle of pipes, vents and valves. In Burtynsky’s hands, the arc of Thomas Cole’s painting “Oxbow” has become that of a twisting suburban street enclosing an oddly geometric “lake”-front neighborhood in fabulous Las Vegas.
The treatment of these subjects might not be considered a critique, partially because of the great detachment that defines the artist’s perspective. Burtynsky gives us a view from where no one is supposed to be, most often setting himself up high to mitigate the hierarchy that inevitably accompanies a foreground, and thereby emphasizing the feeling of vastness that accompanies his compositions.
“It’s the middle ground that really reveals the scale,” he says.
In this way, Burtynsky presents remote pipelines angling through the wilderness, dense clusters of refineries competing for air space, and retired drilling equipment huddled out at sea. Ribbons of color flatten weirdly in the rectangular pools of “Alberta Oil Sands #6,” and at “Talladega Speedway #1,” a truck cab thunders around the raceway like an ogre billowing the flag for a crowd of tens of thousands. Up close, a pile of engines might well be the plastic bits stuffed into one of Chris Jordan’s ill-fated seabirds, one of which can be seen on the museum’s second floor, and a thicket of jagged machine parts becomes a carpet of oxidation. “Highway #5, Los Angeles” is reminiscent of the artist’s own “Nickel Tailings,” which museum goers may recall from last fall’s Altered Landscape exhibition. Less colorful, the liquid in this case is a stream of concrete cutting through an unending array of stucco. In Bangladesh, Burtynsky captured dreamscapes of rusting towers of ships impossibly large yet strewn about haphazardly—carelessly cast off remnants from the culture at the top of the beanstalk.
The series is not about oil per se, but about us. Our appetite is insatiable, our capacity unrestrained. We are the gods who’ve overthrown the Titans, and our bickering among ourselves does little to check our expansion. It may be possible to gain some small amount of humility by the confrontation of a photograph. What will it show us about our habit of excess or necessity or addiction?