Oil epiphany

Edward Burtynsky's photographic record of our addiction to fossil fuels.

"If there's one thing I want people to know as they walk away it's that we can't keep living like this." Edward Burtynsky

Walking around the recently refurbished Soho-based Photographer's Gallery primary exhibit – Burtynsky: Oil - I was reminded of a remark I once made in a secondary school science class. Discussing the pros and cons of fossil fuels the teacher asked us what we thought on the subject. Someone answered that the factories that produce fossil fuels blight the landscape. The class nodded in agreement. I can, however, remember my 12-year old self disagreeing with this sentiment. I put my hand up to offer a response and said that on the contrary I thought the Port Talbot steelworks with their refinery flames lighting up the evening sky - local to my home at the time - were incredibly beautiful at night. Everybody, the teacher included, laughed but I hadn't intended it as a joke.

This memory popped into my head as I walked around Oil because, at the simplest level, these pictures of oil refineries, scrap yards, helicopter graveyards, oil spills and colourful images of car-filled raceways are, and my words understate the case, absolutely visually captivating and breathtaking. They are pictures that deserve to be seen up close and in person.

There is a level of ambiguity in Oil that I was however unprepared for. Hearing that the exhibition was about the world's obsession with oil or, as Burtynsky says in a video at the exhibition, about the fact "nothing is not touched by oil" I expected pictures that would be didactic and take us close to the terrible consequences of this obsession. But this is no Walker Evans. It's almost as if God were in control of the camera we see things from so detached and distant a view.

For example, one would expect a dump of thousands of deflated tyres to be a grim sight but through Burtynsky's lens the dirt, mess and waste is transformed into something akin to a true piece of art. The camera poetically hides from us the reality of our oil use. So too, another called Densified Oil Filters in Canada, emanates the style of a Jackson Pollock. What would taken individually be just a rusty piece of metal en masse forms something ordered, patterned and meaningful as hundreds of engines compose an image of machinery patterned like a mosaic and flecked with colour. Chaos revealed as order. 

The exhibit, on the pristine new fourth and fifth floors of the gallery, is a complementary home for such well crafted and, on large canvases, visually detailed pictures. The exhibit is split into three sections: extraction and refinement, transportation and motor culture and the end of oil. Finding the extraction and refinement images located on the fourth floor, under the images of motor vehicles and transport on the fifth neatly reflects the fact that extraction is the foundation upon which oil use depends. It is a thoughtful touch by the exhibit's arranger.

But as I walk between floors it is questions about the ambiguity of this piece that keep pressing me. Most illustrative of this ambiguity are several aerial shots of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 - a horrific and ecological disaster of gigantic proportions. Burtynsky's images of the disaster are so distant that the sense of disaster is almost lost. One of the shots in particular - two tankers spraying water onto the burning oil rig - shows a rainbow forming out of the water spray of the rescue boats. It shows beauty in a scene surely where there is anything but.

"I wanted to show what oil is and how we engaged with it."

Listening to Burtynsky on a video audio supplement at the gallery he discusses what may be a reason for this ambiguity. As the photographer says, his early work was about exploring the relationship humans have between themselves and the environment and the incredible achievements we have made as a race. It was only as his career progressed, he adds, that he had what he calls his "oil epiphany" and realised that "the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over 20 years were only made possible by the discovery of oil". Burtynsky both admires and fears human achievement.

The global relationships that increasingly will come to dominate international politics in the twenty-first century are in Oil implicitly acknowledged. America, oil thirsty, the consumer and countries such as Baku, Canada and Bangladesh,- dependent on profits from oil and only too happy to supply. What America does with that oil is also depicted and Burtynsky's camera tells a story of hedonism and waste. Images of multiple parked Harley Davidson's, sprawling highways and drag racing show an America blissfully unaware of its "end of oil". Next to these images I notice a solitary image of oil consumption in China. Hanging innocuously amongst others in the gallery, nevertheless it points to the future.

Burtynsky: Oil runs until 1 July 2012 at Soho’s Photographer’s Gallery (www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk)

www.edwardburtynsky.com

Sean Gittins is a performer, broadcaster and producer of the Arts Council England funded project Til Debt Do Us Part. You can follow him at http://www.seangittins.co.uk/Home.html and @sean_gittins.

Albert Oil Sands #2, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada 2007 by Edward Burtynsky
Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem