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
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories