TORONTO — Standing in a spacious gallery at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, I held back tears as I watched piles of confiscated elephant tusks go up in flames. The moment had been captured by filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The poignant short film is as part of the AGO’s Anthropocene, a deeply moving and thought-provoking exhibition about humanity’s impact on the Earth and its inhabitants. The exhibition includes large murals accompanied by short documentary films, three augmented reality installations, and dozens of photographs by Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky of landscapes forever altered by human activity.
The art evokes many emotions: sorrow, anger, grief. Yet a quote attributed to all three artists printed in large lettering on a gallery wall insists that their work was never intended to place blame but, rather, to generate awareness: “Our ambition is for the work to be revelatory, not accusatory, as we examine human influence on the Earth both on a planetary scale and in geological time. The shifting of consciousness is the beginning of change.”
Although I never felt that the curators were pointing fingers, I nonetheless felt implicated in the development and destruction on view — primarily because of Burtynsky’s photographs. Taken mostly over the last five years, in countries around the world, they reveal a human influence on the planet that’s so much larger, longer-lasting, and more interconnected than most people, myself included, probably realize.
The photographs are largely aerial views of large swaths of land altered by anthropogenic activity: polluted river basins, mining sites, thickly populated suburbs. Even the most familiar landscapes are made strange from this perspective. An image of the Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles, for example, shows hundreds of rooftops in neat perpendicular rows; they suggest a cross-section of cellular tissue. The highway, impossibly wide, cuts through them like a major artery. Dabs of green here and there represent patches of plant life, but the landscape is dominated by concrete and metal, materials that will take hundreds, possibly thousands of years to return to the Earth.
Equally stunning are Burtynsky’s photographs of solar panels, a source of green energy that many environmentalists feel will transform our relationship with the Earth. But here the panels look like fascinating geometric scars on the planet’s surface. His image of the Solar Project in Chile’s Atacama Desert shows a wheel of panels reminiscent of crop circles. Another photograph depicts a solar plant in Seville, Spain, its futuristic facade glinting in the sun. The surrounding green fields throw the synthetic panels’ whites and blues into sharp relief; no amount of greenery can obscure the fact that “green” energy requires manmade materials and causes some degree of ecological damage.
More upsetting are photographs of nearly unimaginable levels of pollution. Toxic greens and sickly yellows dominate “Oil Bunkering #4,” a 2016 image of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The contaminated river water is dotted with patches of mud and micro makeshift oil refineries built by the nation’s poorest communities to siphon crude oil from pipelines. Like most of the photographs on view, it is blown up to 58.5 by 78 inches, making visible the staggering degree of devastation that these refineries are having on surrounding waterways. What remains a mystery is why the human in the boat seen zooming through the delta would risk a trip through such polluted waters. Perhaps the photograph’s real revelation is that humans can learn to live with almost anything. But what about the non-humans who must also live with the consequences of our actions?
Baichwal and de Pencier’s film of burning elephant tusks is made even more visceral by an augmented reality installation. Each side of a large cube displays images of the tusks. When a visitor aims an iPad at the cube, a 3D picture of the piles appears on the screen. Walking around the cube, I could see them from all angles; I could see the cracks in the tusks’ enamel and the tattooing left by poachers and confiscators.
A second augmented reality installation produces a 3D image of Sudan, the last male white rhino. When the animal died in early 2018, the species officially began its passage into extinction. The 3D image feels like a visit from a ghost.
Anthropocene drives home the fact that climate change, ecological destruction, and species extinction are all present-day concerns. These aren’t future consequences to be dealt with by our descendants; they belong to the world we’ve created — and will continue to create — unless we rethink our relationship with the planet, its non-human inhabitants, and each other.
Anthropocene continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario) through January 6.