RetroARTive: Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Oil’ at the Photographers’ Gallery

Photography fascinates me. From Susan Sontag’s theoretical debates of reconstructing vs reproducing reality through a lens, to the trivial worries of what is the best angle or most flattering light for a Facebook profile picture; photography has always taken centre stage in my life.

I don’t have a lot of pictures from my childhood. Most of them were lost through moving, or lending them to others. Maybe this is the reason why I always treasured pictures. When I was younger, I wanted to capture an event; now, I aim to capture moments.

It seems that photography creates. It creates versions of the world, little slices of the everyday, big chunks of societal issues. It can be a pathway to self-awareness and understanding. It can be the mirror for the places and angles you can not reach, and the way to realise that life comes in different dimensions. It is like when you show a young child a picture of them; from the original disbelief, and the initial judgement (do they like who they see), to the conditioning (pose this way) and the external validation it comes with it (you look so sweet in this picture).

The same can be said for other types of portraits. Have you even seen a picture of your city and thought, wow, this looks great. They must have photoshopped it to death! Well, what if they haven’t? What if they are just seeing it through different eyes, unfamiliar eyes, eyes that see things through different filters?

So now, on the last day of their inaugural exhibition, I am standing outside of the newly renovated Photographer’s Gallery in London, and I think I am looking at it through rose tinted glasses. The last time I stood out of the gallery was a week before its planned closure. I remember feeling sad; you don’t really want to say goodbye, even though you know it’s temporary. However, I am working quite close to it, so for the past year I have been walking up and down, straight past it, not giving too much attention to all the building work, white cardboards and yellow hats. But now the building is impossible to miss; it demands attention. With 5 new floors, a brand new reception and a cafe visible from the ground floor entrance, it looks tremendously interesting and casually inviting.
I made my way through the reception and jumped in the closing lift, straight up to the 5th floor. When the doors opened, I had to take a deep breath; the gallery is completely transformed. From the floor and the aesthetic, to the curation and feeling of the space. I loved it instantly. I walked out of the lift, and into Oil, the main exhibition by Edward Burtynsky.

Burtynsky’s work is heart-stirring, portraying vast landscapes that have been shaped, one way or another, by oil. He captures the empty lands, placing it next to the suburban cities that were created and defined by oil use. As a side comment, he looks at the impending death of the oil use, as the equation between cost and availability seems to be increasingly impossible to solve.

The exhibition is divided into three categories: Extraction and Refinement; Transporation and Motor Culture; and the End of Oil. What is really striking about all three categories is the truly magnificent clarity of the work, details appearing in a crisp and vivid way. The pictures capture a loneliness that reminded me of Edgar Martin’s work, and rings so many bells that by the end, it resembles a symphony.

It is truly shocking to see the human dependence on oil, a finite source. It is shocking to see the consequences, not through the eyes of a documentarist, or the figures of a statistician, but through the lens of a photographer.

Shuddering, I made my way to the 2nd floor Wolfson Gallery, where the Raqs Media Collective(Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) is exhibits two works: the first, is a silent looped video projection of An Afternoon Unregistered in the Richter Scale, an archival photograph of surveyors mapping stars in Calcutta in 1911, that is transforming in front of the viewer’s eyes by small, subtle alterations. Imagining that the surveyors are hard at work, the small, unnoticeable changes might make them hesitate, or even move their pencil to cause an imperceptible deviation, thus creating a slightly different, and as such, new constellation.
The second piece, titled 36 Planes of Emotions, is a structure of Perspex book-like objects that are bearing the titles of imaginary emotional states, examining the boundaries of language, literature and the meaning attached to words as carriers of emotion.

I go down the stairs and find myself back on the ground floor. I stand in front of The Wall, a part of the new digital project that aims to explore the way that technology is transforming our experience and understanding of photography. The Wall will aim to serve as a platform, and it will host commissioned work, guest curated projects and collaborations involving the public. It currently explores a digital and Internet staple, with Born on 1987: The Animated GIF. The GIF was introduced 25 years ago, and the Photographer’s Gallery asked a variety of photographers, writers and practitioners to create a GIF for the space; the result is a diverse range of short clips that demonstrate how photography can be like a brush and paint; the initial material that will make up the final piece, the result almost invariably different for each artist.

A floor down, and I am in the Photographer’s Gallery store. And gasp. A wall of cameras, from Lomography classics to generic Holgas, and from Stereoscopic pinholes to digital miniatures; it has it all. The higher range ones, along with the vintage polaroids are kept in a cabinet, and fear not, the Gallery stocks film, and plenty of it (including The Impossible Project).

Of course, after a while I drifted to the books and magazine section, and 15 minutes later and £70 lighter, I made my way out of the shop before making any more purchases.

I was now where I began. The ground floor entrance. The reception. And the cafe. I had really fond memories of the cafe in the old Gallery, and feeling quite tired, peckish, and immensely impatient to start reading my newly acquired books, I decided to take a sit. I was relieved to see that they are still making their amazing muffins, and even more relieved to see that even a year later, they tasted as good as I remembered.

Muffin in hand, book on the table, and a decidedly big sigh. It feels like welcoming an old friend back home. Welcome back Photographer’s Gallery; you were missed.


















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