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Edward Burtynsky’s Oil Exhibition Shines

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Oil, the new exhibition opening Saturday April 9 at the Royal Ontario Museum, brings together over 50 pieces by celebrated local photographer Edward Burtynsky, and examines our love-hate relationship with the sticky substance. Burtynsky’s taken photographs of oil as it is found around the world—reinforcing its global impact—ranging from Canada’s tar sands to NASCAR rallies in the United States, from giant parking lots of Volkswagen cars in China to oil fields in Azerbaijan and tanker graveyards in Bangladesh.
If you’ve seen the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, some of the images will be familiar (we immediate recalled the section on Bangladesh and the barefooted workers breaking apart old junked tankers) but Oil retains a feeling of discovery. That feeling may come from the scale of the exhibition: as our photography editor Michael Chrisman noted, he’d seen a dozen or so of the pieces before but here, taken together, the collection has resounding depth, adding resonance to what Burtynsky calls the “double-edge of oil”: our dependency on oil and the environmental impact it has had on our planet.


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The show, which spans 12 years of Burtynsky’s career, originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. upon suggestion of its senior curator, Paul Roth. Burtynsky, speaking to the media at Oil‘s preview this week, noted that Corcoran’s location holds special meaning for him, as well—near the White House, a place Burtynsky considers the “most influential in the flow of oil.”
Oil is composed of three sections: the landscape of oil, oil culture, and the end of oil. The first takes us through the production process, and what’s especially interesting here is the lens through which we can so clearly see Canada as an oil-producing country. In one photo pipes in an Oakville refinery criss-cross and evoke the vines of a metallic jungle—that the beauty of nature can be captured through these photographs of machinery only makes them more unnerving. In another, a series of pipes race across the grass through a forest in Cold Lake, Alberta, and somehow made us think of monorail tracks.
The second section looks at how our lives are affected by oil and, especially, the motor culture that has been built up around it. Burtynsky connects oil to the cars we drive, neatly lined up in rows upon rows; to the cardiovascular highways that we drive on in those cars, a bid for efficiency over small-time roads that usually end up as parking lots at rush hour; to the sprawling suburbs connected by those highways, filled with endless identical houses that from above look like scales on a fish; and to the people who fill their time lusting over the latest vroom vroom in a vehicle (perchance from the vantage of one of those suburban homes?). Connecting the dots of how oil touches nearly every part of our lives, we flashed back to elementary school when we were taught the energy cycle and that we could trace everything back to the sun; it only seems fair now that oil receive a similar treatment.
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The final section of Oil takes us through the remains of the manufacturing process. Oily footprints from workers in Bangladesh who disassemble tankers put out to pasture symbolize at once the progress oil has afforded, but also our inability to extricate ourselves from it. Oil has literally changed the world landscape. (For further proof, check out Burtynsky’s photos from the oil spill off the coast of the United States, which, unfortunately, aren’t part of this exhibition.) Abandoned cars cluster together in one photograph to make up what the exhibition terms “automotive geology,” and in another used oil filters, crushed into cuboids, await recycling in Hamilton, Ontario. Looking at the final resting places for these objects that make use of oil, it’s hard not to wonder about our own fate—what comes out of our dependency on oil?
It’s impossible to deny that oil has improved our lives and made them far more comfortable. Burtynsky’s work doesn’t include a moral judgment on the relationship between humans and oil—although he does point out that peak oil is “not a matter of if, but when.” Instead, in Oil, Burtynsky’s images provide a glimpse of the scale and scope of how oil affects the world and asks us how we feel about it.
The timing of Oil is fitting, for we now have a mayor who has proclaimed the swift end to the “war on the car.” Despite this rhetoric, transportation disputes remain divisive and ugly. Were it re-framed as a war on oil, would we be likelier to find ourselves on the same side?
Edward Burtynsky: Oil runs from April 9 to July 3 at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist

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