Branding the Anthropocene: Canada’s Art Institutions Privilege the Artificial

Edward Burtynsky, "Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria 2016." © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Anthropocene – the wide-reaching exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) – tackles perhaps the greatest set of issues affecting the planet now, anthropogenic climate disruption. Working collectively as “The Anthropocene Project,” the artists Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky, and Jennifer Baichwal put their images at the service of pressing questions that churn around their central term. Commendably, they claim that one artistic voice is insufficient to address the concept. Instead they have produced two simultaneous and overlapping exhibitions, plus an extensive and estimable array of supporting discourses, including two catalogues, a feature length film, blogs, lectures, and a constant media presence in the form of interviews and public presentations. For all its ambitions, ultimately, Anthropocene is only tangentially an art exhibit.

One does not exit through a gift shop, thank goodness. Instead, a pre-exit guilt shop. It’s a tight room with snazzy interactives inviting us, after our tour of the show’s three principal rooms, to think about the enormity of what we’ve seen. One touchscreen banner asks “How Do These Works Connect to Our Daily Lives? Explore Here.” Tap one of many global markers and up springs detailed information about the impacts of resource extraction, industrialized agriculture, etc. Hard data like this has been deliberately omitted from the preceding installation, perhaps in the belief that in dealing with the Anthropocene, images are more effective than words. Labels, for instance, sit on the floor so as not to compete for attention with the works. Thus the outpouring, before the exit, of facts stands in stark contrast to their minimal appearance in the main rooms. Burtynsky, Baichwal, and de Pencier seem so intent on making “Anthropocene” an everyday, well-understood term that they fail to examine its contested meanings. This puts the word at risk of simply becoming a brand: one that naturalizes and abets many of the social and environmental ills it seeks to name.

Edward Burtynsky, “Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016.” © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

The most elaborate interactive station in the final room asks: “In A Word, How Does What You’ve Seen Here Today Make You Feel?” The seven choices are (in decreasing order of voting preference as of my visit): Worried, Sad, Informed, Angry, Motivated, Suspicious, and Unconcerned. Although it clashes with the suspicion of language evident in the first rooms, it’s revealing to read the content and assumptions of the exhibition through these headings.

Worried. De Pencier and Baichwal’s film sequences and Burtynsky’s stills give us ample occasion to fret about the effects that humans have on our planet. Given the gravity of the material, perhaps it’s churlish to worry too deeply over how this anxiety is elicited in the AGO’s installation, but the exhibit seems to downplay conversation about activist art in deference to more didactic concerns. The first room is hung with ceiling-to-floor banners, framed by Burtynsky’s striking photographs and several screens showing moving images closely allied with the artists’ parallel film Anthropocene (both a source for and supplement to the exhibition, as well as a powerful exploration of human alterations to the planet in its own right). Two immense photo murals are more firmly anchored to the otherwise bare left and right walls, and viewers are channelled into alleyways between rows of Burtynsky’s images and live screens. Unfortunately, given the commercial causes of our planet’s exploitation and the preponderance of machinery shown in the stills, the result looks something like a trade fair. The crowding of this room mirrors the welter of information in Burtynsky’s photographs – especially in his massive and technically remarkable mural Mushin Market Intersection, Lagos, Nigeria (2016-18). However, despite the artists’ commitment to not preaching through words and statistics, there’s simply too much repetition here, too much visual information. Though the film and many of the photographs are undeniably powerful, their effect would be greater if the artists more fully trusted the strength of their work.

Edward Burtynsky, “Clearcut #1, Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia 2016.” © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Sad. While many of the images – especially those of technology – convey a sense of awe, the net result is inevitably grim at every turn. A large open space in the second room allows visitors to explore two of the exhibition’s three AR stations. AR #4, Sudan (2016) reminds us of rampant extinction by simulating the sight and sounds of the beast noted in its subtitle, The Last Male Northern White Rhinoceros, Nanyuki, Kenya. AR #2, President Kenyatta’s Tusk Pile, April 28, Nairobi, Kenya (2016) conjures a colossal stack of large elephant tusks immolated in Kenya to keep ivory from market and undermine poaching.

Beyond their zoo-like, documentary function, I wonder if technologically dazzling interventions like this might actually lead to a diminished sense of the Anthropocene’s urgency. What’s truly sad, on the level of exhibition design, is that the potential power of an aesthetic experience risks being short-circuited by the lure of a new technology – by users’ screen absorption as they fiddle to get results on a borrowed iPad. The room also hosts a huge and shocking projection of the elephant tusks in flame (Elephant Tusk Burn, Nairobi National Park, Kenya, 2018). This work, and AR #2, could be wielded to rivet visitors. But from what I saw, people tend to look and move on very quickly: in the AGO’s over-designed installation, somber attention is in danger of devolving into techno-distraction as we sample the other bogies on offer, including another row of Burtynsky stills and both a film clip and mural of a coral reef.

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Informed. The exhibit’s goal is to move us emotionally through what we see, not to persuade us by what we learn. But aren’t emotion and understanding entwined? The artists seem to imagine word, image, and number as discrete: separate realms of differing authority. In this extensive exhibition there is no hint that the word “Anthropocene” is controversial, either in the science community (where it’s widely accepted and now undergoing refinement), or in the cultural sphere (where it’s often seen as problematic, apportioning equal blame to unequal social contributors to climate destruction). The artists want to make “Anthropocene” commonplace, but as Karla McManus adroitly observes in her catalogue essay, “one of the main criticisms leveled at the concept, which places the emphasis on anthropo, [is that] this nomenclature seems to suggest that humans aren’t in fact part of the natural world but, exceptionally, outside it.” The frequent use of aerial photography in Anthropocene suggests just such an elevation. Here, however, the film and Burtynsky’s photography pull in different directions – or perhaps supplement one another – with the former coming up close to people and their lives, and the latter soaring above.

Angry. It’s difficult not to be angry about the flagrant human hubris revealed in the images here. It’s also frustrating that the spectacular Anthropocene will likely garner more critical response and a higher viewership than the more complex and compelling Carbon 14: Climate as Culture, seen at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2013-14. Carbon 14 incorporated a large range of artists’ responses to climate change, including Indigenous perspectives, and integrated extensively detailed scientific data, alongside a broad platform of parallel events. It also commissioned new work from artists. Most of these laudable qualities are missing in the AGO’s exhibition.

Edward Burtynsky, “Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany 2015.” © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Motivated. Suspicious. (but not) Unconcerned. Taken together, the last three reactions lead to the question of what the AGO’s Anthropocene might accomplish. Baichwal “believe[s] that lateral exploration, open-ended conversation, can provoke transformation more deeply than hard argument.” Legitimate concerns about the carbon footprint of museum exhibits notwithstanding – carbon offsets were purchased for the research across 6 continents for Anthropocene – what is the implied argument here? What, if anything, is art supposed to do with and about the current state of the planet? The eco-suicidal drive for new extractive technologies pictured in this exhibition is unwittingly celebrated by the fetishized technologies deployed to expose the Anthropocene: still photos are supplemented by film, which is further extended by AR. Certainly these media and the film Anthropocene complement one another in the exhibition, but in their rush to give viewers transformative experiences of the Anthropocene, Burtynsky, Baichwal, and de Pencier highly discount the power of their artworks as uniquely aesthetic rather than merely instrumental. Anthropocene’s didacticism suggests that it doesn’t matter whether it exhibits exceptional artists presenting praiseworthy individual artworks.

If numbers and words can’t change people’s minds, we should be concerned that the aesthetic, supposed refuge of sensation and emotion, becomes sidelined by other distractions. The welcome exception is AR #3, Big Lonely Doug, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (2016). Separate from the balance of the exhibit, “Doug” stands in the AGO’s magnificent Galleria Italia, ready to soar when we engage the AR through a phone app. “Doug” was anthropomorphized when “he” was temporarily spared from the commercial fate of most of Canada’s old growth trees. Some of his Douglas Fir kin adorn the soaring indoor space in which his virtual replica stands. Many return visitors to the AGO will recall that this is the very place in which another magnificent tree trunk was displayed for the opening of the Frank Gehry expansion: Giuseppe Penone’s partly mournful, partly regenerative The Hidden Life Within (2008). Because Doug is joined by a number of vertically-oriented Modern sculptures, viewers are encouraged to respond to his AR presence aesthetically, both in terms of art and of the capital-N Nature whose disappearance he manifests. Doug’s effects are both potent and multivalent, but in this he stands apart from the exhibition’s breathless impatience with the work of art.

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