The definition of Anthropocene from the Merriam-Webster dictionary reads: “the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age. Most scientists agree that humans have had a hand in warming Earth’s climate since the industrial revolution—some even argue that we are living in a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene.” — (Nature, 12 Feb. 2004).
The “Anthropocene” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto Canada, is at best a well-meaning attempt to address the most urgent subject of our time. The UN and scientists from around the world have identified the root cause of climate change and ecological collapse to be our collective carbon footprint that started during the industrial revolution. The debate around the subject has become not whether we are threatened by catastrophic climate events with their attendant hurricanes, floods, heat waves and forest fires, but rather how long the world’s population has before we face our own extinction or at the very least the collapse of Western style civilization as we know it. The deadline to drastically cut carbon emissions and fossil fuel extraction to avoid this inevitability as predicted by scientific models varies, but the consensus is clearly this – the need for change is urgent.
As I enter the exhibition I read the statement by the three artists in this exhibition: “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.” – Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier
The gallery lighting is subdued. The atmosphere is funereal and somber befitting the subject. The viewer is presented with sublime underwater video of dying coral reefs, an app reveals a 3D extinct white rhinoceros visible on an ipad, and dazzling works of large format high definition photographs of sites of colossal industrial destruction from around the world. The epic destruction recorded in these works is made accessible by the aesthetic framing and presentation of the subject by the artists. I understand the strategy. Present the horrific rawness of the imagery in an art context; make it beautiful to look at; seduce the viewer before they have a chance to look away and hope the underlying message – in this case the willful destruction of the planet – is delivered and consumed, moving the audience to act through a change of consciousness brought on by seeing these works.
As I walk through the exhibition I see masterful photographs of mining sites by Edward Burtynsky, captured from an aerial perspective. Except for “Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016”, which is the only photo including human subjects, his photo murals create an effect that collapse aerial images into the conventions of abstract painting. The photographs are intentionally detached and formal. Seen from across the room, his works look like a survey of mid 20th century American painting. According to the label provided, one spectacular photograph was achieved by Burtynsky’s use of “a composite of 24 satellite pictures from a 163-square-kilometrte sweep of an industrial agricultural desert”.
From the description of the exhibition on the AGO’s website: “The artists travelled to locations as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, China, Australia and Germany. For the artists, no single medium alone is capable of conveying the necessary urgency or creating the necessary impact.”
As I continued to walk through the exhibition, which also included several images of environmental atrocities in the USA, moving among earnest grandparents explaining the content and meaning of the varied works to their grandchildren, I looked for Burtynsky’s most celebrated work – aerial photographs of Canada’s own Alberta tar sands. For an exhibition that claimed to travel to diverse locations, and an exhibition whose budget was not an issue, I was left to speculate why there was this glaring omission. I could not find a single image of the very same tar sands that in 2014 had brought Canadian born musical legend, Neil Young up from California to Fort Mac (Fort McMurray) to see for himself the way the once pristine boreal forest of northern Alberta had been turned into (his words) an “ecological catastrophy… making Hiroshima look mellow”. Neil Young’s “Honor the Treaties Tour”, was accompanied by a screening of a film “Petropolis” about the tar sands shot from a helicopter in 2008 by Canadian filmmaker/artist Peter Mettler. https://www.petermettler.com/petropolis-2009-43-minutes/
During the “Honor the Treaties Tour”, members of the then ruling Conservative Party of Canada including Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been invited to come and discuss the tar sands but of course did not show up, leaving empty seats with their name tags in place. In 2016 the Liberal Party of Canada swept into power with a majority led by a new leader, self-proclaimed feminist, environmentalist and Indigenous rights defender Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. However it was business as usual, even upping the ante from the previous Conservative government. In 2018, Justin Trudeau’s government purchased Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline to carry bitumen from the tar sands through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, to ensure its supply would reach waiting oil tankers bound for China. The price tag for Canadians was 4.5 billion dollars and has been estimated to eventually cost at least double that amount if finished, not including the cost of inevitable spills and destruction of the environmentally sensitive Pacific coast line. The project is currently tied up in federal courts over treaty rights and environmental law and the objections of the province of British Columbia government whose land and people would be most affected.
Right now Canadians are seeing a mass marketing strategy to convince them that the “Trans Canada Pipeline is on their side”. On television networks across the country and online, the public is shown insipid animations of happy Canadians pushing baby carriages etc over a backdrop of green clad mountains and pristine blue skies and lots and lots of Canadian flags. This desperate campaign is the latest nationalist/populist propaganda and is funded by the government of Alberta in support of the oil industry.
As I leave the hushed and darkened rooms of “Anthropocene”, I consider the timing of this exhibition. Why present “Anthropocene” now when over ten years have passed since the screening of Peter Mettler’s “Petropolis” and several years since Neil Young’s “Honor the Treaties Tour”. I am ashamed of the underlying hypocrisy that has become embedded in the Canadian psyche. I begin to realize why the artists and the Art Gallery of Ontario “do not want to accuse”, except when calling out the evil practices of other nations, while decisively excluding our own “ecological catastrophy” right here at home. When I read the long donors list it becomes clear. The list starts with presenting sponsor Scotia Wealth Management (Scotia Bank) in partnership with Telus, followed by a who’s who of Toronto’s class of wealthy philanthropists, and concludes with Government Partners – The Canada Council for the Arts, funded by the federal government, and OCAF/FCMO, whose mandate is to encourage cultural tourism in Ontario.
Near the exit I read what sounds a lot like a disclaimer or hackneyed corporate slogan: “POSITIVE CHANGE – The artists support many organizations that work every day to bring about positive change for our planet and all life on it.”
The final artists’ statements on the walls reveal only the same vague platitudes: “It is my responsibility to use my camera as a mirror, not a hammer: to invite viewers to witness these places and react in their own individual fashion.” – Nicholas de Pencier
“We hope that through our contribution, today’s generation will be inspired to carry the momentum of this discussion forward, so that succeeding generations may continue to experience the wonder and magic of what life, and living on Earth, has to offer.” – Edward Burtynsky
“I still believe that lateral exploration, open-ended conversation, can provoke transformation more deeply than hard argument.” – Jennifer Baichwall
At the very end of the exhibition – still no mention of the tar sands – on the walls we are offered helpful hints how we as individuals can lower our carbon footprint and are invited to answer an interactive quiz. “IN A WORD, HOW DOES WHAT YOU’VE SEEN HERE TODAY MAKE YOU FEEL? – INFORMED, SAD, SUSPICIOUS, WORRIED, UNCONCERNED, MOTIVATED, ANGRY.
My reaction on leaving the exhibition was not included in the quiz. I felt that I had been played, duped. The omission, dare I say the censorship of the Canadian tar sands, and the final insult to my intelligence by ending the exhibition with helpful hints as how to reduce my individual carbon footprint, side-stepped any notion of national accountability. The responsibility for the havoc and destruction wreaked on the planet by powerful corporate oil interests, was neatly diverted onto the attendees, including the many earnest parents and grandparents who were there to educate their children – the ones who will be left behind to survive on a ravaged planet.
As I walked out of “Anthropocene”, out of the darkened gallery into the AGO’s skylit hallway, I looked up and saw a large banner that stated: “The world is so obviously becoming warmer.” After all the machinations of the AGO’s and artists’ statements crafted so carefully so as not to accuse, and god forbid offend, I found the simple truth of this humble banner refreshing.
Anthropocene, Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, in partnership with Fondazione MAST
September 28, 2018 – January 6, 2019