Sunday, March 9, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

The subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, on one level, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and his beautifully rendered, large-scale shots of industrial wreckage, taken all around the world.

But not far beneath that beguiling surface lies a combined sense of wonder and dread at the scale of the environmental damage wreaked at such sites as China’s Three Gorges Dam, or of the soul-deadening effect on the uniformed workers at a gargantuan chicken-processing plant.

The film raises countless questions about the role of art in the world — a world increasingly akin to a science-fiction landscape — leaving shock and awe in its wake. Unrated; at the Colonial Theater, Phoenixville.

One would be hard-pressed these days to not notice the ever-increasing role that China is playing in all affairs of the world. The hunger of this industrial juggernaut for more consumption and production seems to be constantly rising, swallowing in the process so much energy and raw materials that an increasing number of people around the world are now asking about the human and environmental cost of this manufacturing escalation. Naturally, the Chinese are responding that these people should also question the same cost produced by their own countries over the past 100 years, that China has a right to augment its productivity and the ‘well-being’ of its people and that the country is doing more than any others to combat the negative environmental effects of its alarmingly fast entry into the world of mass consumption and production.

Still, the statistics are alarming: 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, coal production to double until 2020, 400 new cities planned over the next 20 years (including 233 Eco-cities, if the Dongtan model proves successful), around 14,000 people dying per year in industrial accidents (Corpwatch), about 60 percent (700 million people) of the population are poor peasants, the second largest producer of CO2 after the US, which it will overtake next year, the list goes on…
How can such an incredibly growth take place without triggering a chain reaction of negative consequences for many of the Chinese people, for the planet and thus, for all of us?

Edward Burtynsky’s fascination with images of nature transformed by man has led him to create stunning photography of mines, quarries, dams, and other human interventions in locations where only nature existed before…In Manufactured Landscapes, he takes his camera to China and attempts to create an ‘objective’ account of its industrialization. He refrains from bombarding us with information about the country in general and about what we see on screen. Instead, he lets his images, moving and still, do the talking, occasionally punctuated by a simple and short voice-over whose economy serves to trigger a thought process rather than to fill our heads with data.

The result is fascinating, beautiful to watch at times, and mind-boggling at other times when the visuals force us to confront the absurdity of a worldwide system that forces most people to react in a similar fashion in similar circumstances: more is better, even if it means exhausting all of our resources in the process. In his very informative book ‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond shows how societies keep on making the same mistake and will drain their resources until it is too late. In most cases, the intention is not to do so. It is simply usually too difficult to assess the gravity of the situation until it is too late, and, often, as is the case with China today, other demands are placed on the society that seem to take priority over anything else.

One of the more powerful segments in the film is about the 3 Gorges Dam. Burtynski’s photographs show a ruined and nightmarish landscape around the dam, where dozens of cities have had to be relocated to give way to the new river. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by this dramatic redefining of the landscape were poor to begin with, and then were asked to dismantle their houses, brick by brick, and transport them miles away where they could be rebuilt. The valley now looks like it has been bombed, a frightening and eerie scenery that could have served as the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But the irony of it all is that, only a few days ago, the news came out, after much suspicion on the part of environmentalists that it would, that the valley has become an ecological disaster (landslides, pollution and water contamination….) and that all houses, which the people have rebuilt brick by brick, must now be moved again, even further away from the river. The cost of the dam and of the various relocations of the inhabitants of the valley must now be approaching 30 billion dollars.

Manufactured Landscapes, although using China as a canvas, is a reflection on the future of the planet, on the course of action we humans decide to take, and whether we are strong enough to do what is necessary to alter the path of destruction that seems to be our preferred choice so far.

At one point in the absorbing if unsettling documentary “Manufactured Landscapes,” about the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a few unnamed voices try to assure a couple of Chinese officials not to worry. Mr. Burtynsky, these voices say, will make everything — meaning the mountains of coal that seem to stretch on forever behind them — beautiful. And so Mr. Burtynsky does. Whether in a coal distribution center or a garbage dump, he turns the grotesque into something beautiful, or at least something that looks good on a gallery wall.

It’s unclear if those Chinese officials are government minders or work for the enormous company that funnels those mountains of coal first into factories and then into the environment. “Manufactured Landscapes” is one of those contemporary documentaries that put a premium on their visuals (which are estimable) and their conceptual underpinnings (a bit vague), and pay rather less attention to nominally irrelevant details like dates and names, facts and figures, history and politics. Thus, while some black-and-white video images of Mr. Burtynsky (shot by Jeff Powis) during his photographic safaris is time-stamped to a few years ago, much of the film takes place in a nonspecific present.

In this present, Mr. Burtynsky and an indefinite number of helpers trot across China taking glossy, large-format, generally long-view color photographs of factories, welding sites and recycling centers, with an abbreviated side trip to the Bangladesh coast where young men disassemble oil tankers, at times ankle-deep in sludge. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and sensitively shot in 16-millimeter film by Peter Mettler, “Manufactured Landscapes” (which is also the name of a 2003 book of Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs) is partly a Great Man documentary, a record of an artist immortalized at the moment of creation: point, shoot, voilà! Rather more interestingly, at times, it also appears to be a rather tentative, perhaps even unconscious, critique of that same artist and his vision.

Critique may be too strong a word. Still, at its most arresting “Manufactured Landscapes” does suggest that Ms. Baichwal and her excellent cinematographer are not entirely at ease with Mr. Burtynsky’s work, which tends to subordinate the human form to the harmonious use of color, the balance of graphical forms and the overwhelming man-made and man-ravaged environments. In many of these landscapes (which I have looked at only in this film and online), scores of anonymous workers become specks of canary yellow and blots of bubble-gum pink, a pointillist population. The angles of their bowed heads and raised arms, carefully arranged before assembly lines, are just some of the decorative, precise formal elements. Note how those angles dovetail with those of the machinery.

What’s missing from these photographs, those populated and not, is any sense of process, of context and consequence. For the most part, the film remains equally silent on the same, though the film’s repeated close-ups of the workers’ faces locked in Mr. Burtynsky’s sightlines suggest that Ms. Baichwal is more concerned with people than the subject is. In this film, at least, a mountain of coal is strictly an aesthetic subject for Mr. Burtynsky, not an index of the miserable conditions of its mining or a ghastly reminder of the nearly 6,000 workers who died in Chinese coal mines in 2005, the year the film was shot. Or a warning of the pollution that wafts from China’s smokestacks to the Western United States, coating mountains in Oregon, California and Washington State.

The almost freakishly, crystalline detail and obsessively exacting compositions of Mr. Burtynsky’s work can bring to mind that of Ansel Adams, though the subject matter means that it more rightly belongs to the technological sublime than to the natural sublime. In his book “American Technological Sublime,” a study of manufactured sublime experiences — beautifully represented by Walker Evans’s celebratory photographs of the grandeur and engineering feat that is the Brooklyn Bridge — the historian David E. Nye writes that “one person’s sublime may be another’s abomination.” As this film indicates, intentionally and not, an artist may not always be able to gauge the difference between the sublime and the abominable, but with knowledge and a will to conscience a viewer just might.

No comments: