A survey of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's images of massive industrial and urban spaces is currently hanging in the Frist Center's Contemporary Artists Project Gallery. Edward Burtynsky: The Industrial Sublime addresses art history while framing a monumental contemporary reality that can be harrowing to behold.
"In photography," Burtynsky explains in the exhibition catalog, "if you go too far one way, it becomes reportage, too far the other way it just becomes a formalist exercise." His images of toxic spills, massive mines and seemingly infinite rows of factory workers balance their disturbing content with a sleek, seductive appearance. But Burtynsky's greatest strength is that he offers no answers to the questions he raises. The artist doesn't judge his subjects, and his inscrutable images seem to say that humans are both the irresponsible thorn in nature's side and the startlingly ambitious jewel in her crown.
The wall text in one gallery references Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, but the colorful, geometric composition of "Rock of Ages No. 17" also recalls Georges Braque. In the image of a massive quarry, the irregular, organic surface of a stone cliff falls into a phalanx of flat planes where the cliff's been cut away — the effect is positively cubist.
In "Nickel Tailings No. 30," the toxic runoff from a mine's processing plant spills across a landscape in a gorgeous organic expression of oranges, yellows and reds. Perhaps the most ambiguous image in the exhibit, its menace is obscured by its stunning, hallucinatory patterns — like an automatic line drawing by artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare.
An expansive Shanghai cityscape, "Urban Renewal No. 5" reveals the relentless push of progress by juxtaposing what look like tiny, rundown tenements as they are demolished under the encroaching shadows of a wave of massive high-rises. Here, Burtynsky offers the contemporary equivalent of a 19th century spirit photograph: Both the city and its ghost are on display, bringing to mind Susan Sontag's dictum that all photographs are memento mori.
The two retired oil tankers pictured in "Shipbreaking No. 13" loom large above a beach in Bangladesh, sharing a rose-colored sunset in the scrapyard where they're being demolished. As solemn as sphinxes, the boats might as well be posing the riddle at the end of the oil age. Is the answer that it has fueled us on a road to nowhere? Maybe. Maybe not. Burtynsky's not telling.