Edward Burtynsky uses art as advocacy in photography exhibition
By Lou Fancher
Californians suffering drought fatigue will find their environmental energy replenished viewing the searing imagery of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.
Presented by the David Brower Center, the seventh annual Art/Act Award and Exhibition opening Sept. 18 unleashes a torrent of events, including selected work from Burtynsky's extensive portfolio, along with public lectures, concerts, a half-day conference and films.
"Our role is not to be a think tank, advocacy or research center," says Program Director Jackie Hasa. "Our purpose is to raise up groups that are trying to answer these questions, to provide a forum."
The Art/Act Award springs from the same seed that sparked the establishment of the Brower Center, named after famed environmentalist and Berkeley native David Brower. Seven artists whose work inspires environmental and social activism have been honored since the community-centric organization opened in 2009. Honorees are selected from some 30 nominations annually. Past honorees include Maya Lin, Richard Misrach, and Chris Jordan.
"We look to see, does the work meet the 'art of advocacy' mission?" Hasa says. "Has this person demonstrated a commitment to illuminate a relevant environmental matter?" Burtynsky became the obvious choice in 2015 not only because of his stature and critical acclaim in the field of photography, but due to his series "Water." Aerial photos in the series depict distressed topographies, manufactured agricultural landscapes, hydroelectric dams -- but also natural seascapes, rivers, lakes and other images. Seeking to understand human use and misuse of water, Burtynsky's photos have his subject branching into noble tree-like shapes; magnificent swirling, brown-tinged storms; haunting, frozen-in-time aqua waves that appear to surge.
The exhibition also includes a photograph of a decommissioned ship from the series "Shipbreaking," in which the skill applied to dismantling enormous vessels is profiled. Photographs from the series "Tailings and Oil" illustrate Burtynsky's expertise as a colorist. "Quarries," an exploration of landscape as architecture, introduces ambiguity: How do we understand, define and respond to the industrial pursuit of materials? Is it a deliberate, destructive act that should be opposed? Is it sustainable?
"Burtynsky says himself that these industries allow us to flourish," Hasa says, "but they also exploit people here and elsewhere. He's really asking, where do we go from here?"
Knowing where to go with water is a subject scientist Dr. Peter H. Gleick, co-founder and president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, says will take complete rethinking. "We can fiddle around on the edges, which will help with the day-to-day crisis, but for sustainable systems, we have to do more."
Gleick's research and writing address water and its connections to such areas as public health, climate change, sustainability, privatization and global conflicts. He holds a bachelor of science degree from Yale University, a master's and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, and was awarded a MacArthur Fellow in 2003.
"Everyone and no one" controls the water in the United States, Gleick says. "But it will be the public's responsibility to take management of it."
The first step short of a national water policy that he says is critical, is at the local level. Taking command at the watershed level and applying consistent thinking to meet basic needs with smart tools will shift emphasis from supply to equity, he says. "It isn't simply (creating) infrastructure," he says.
While a strong national policy would include serious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, Gleick is "agnostic" about best methods to address climate change and its consequences. "Our policymakers should make a decision -- or at least acknowledge that there's a problem," he says. Don't hide behind pretending the science isn't good."
As populations grow, more regions of the world are facing what Gleick calls "peak water limits," a problem made worse than ever by climate change. Success stories are few. Gleick mentions as examples Israel's and Jordan's investment in innovative agriculture (changing to higher value crops and precision irrigation) and Singapore's sophisticated water treatment and reuse system.
"Interestingly, the places with good water systems have good leaders: someone with good foresight to push for new technology and better institutions."
Gleick says he's "a fan of multiple lines of communication," adding, "Because people have a deep, instinctive love of water, art is a compelling vehicle for advocacy. "There's a strong emotional commitment to the planet: we need to use every tool at our disposal to engage and activate the public interest."