Finding Space: Thoughts on Edward Burtynsky and Robert Houle

I dislike attempting to move through crowded spaces and this dislike is intensified when I am attempting to make a connection with art or history in an exhibition. However while trying to get a moment to take in the photographs at the Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario my distaste felt fairly ironic. I was being annoyed at people for taking up too much space while  looking at an exhibition about how humans are taking up too much space in the environment. And if nothing else many years of English class have taught me that irony should be analyzed for more than just its entertainment value.

The Anthropocene exhibit is a collaboration between Edward Burtynsky, a photographer, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicolas de Pencier who are both film makers. The displays blend photography, film and augmented reality in a confronting way that forces the view to take in the scope of human impact on the earth through images that are themselves smaller sections of a truly massive problem. Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2  has been used on much of the promotional material, with the evidence of human engagement dwarfed by the walls of white rock and with the augmented reality is added in the gallery the viewer is able to see a larger scope through the canyon that has been quarried into the rock. We have taken from this spot to fill up our cities and homes and galleries with something beautiful and we continue to dig into the cliffs to get more, intruding into the natural spaces of the earth. The space in front of that photograph was not dissimilar to my experience trying to grapple with human impact on the environment, an issue that I will admit not to be particularly involved in otherwise, it is an attempt to find a clear space to think about issues that in actuality require collaboration because they are problems that humanity causes collectively. I expect people to grant me space in an art gallery to look at a photograph but I do not often consider the space that industry takes up on the earth.

In another part of the gallery I was Robert Houle’s In Memoriam forced a confrontation with where human expansion has created absences. Looking at the work with the names of First Nations groups that had been wiped out by European imperialism in the so called ‘New World’ was a different kind of uncomfortable feeling. Where in the Anthropocene I was one human among many who wreaked havoc on the world I view In Memoriam as a privileged white Canadian looking at art in a building that stands on land that once belonged to the First Nations peoples. I can not give back the space I exist in but I think I have an obligation to be aware of who my space was taken from in the same way that I have an obligation to know the cost of the modern world on the environment. In Memoriam makes me aware of the space I take up not with the stunning images of the Anthropocene but with a reminder of what used to exist in the space that me and my culture now take up.

My trip to the AGO was an exercise in many ironies that expanded not only on what I had planned my trip expecting to see but also in the ways that I will consider art and art exhibition in the future. Both Houle and Burtynsky force me to consider the place I occupy within the global environment and within the history of Canada and the world.

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