Skip to main content
wide angle

The project, which includes not only a new documentary but also two museum exhibitions and an art book, gives a chilling, yet sometimes beautiful, examination of the indelible and spreading mark of human activity on the planet

Open this photo in gallery:

Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016.Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Like some eerie sculpture, a dome-shaped pile of elephant tusks glimmers in a darkened gallery. It’s a non-existent thing, the virtual recreation of a huge cache of contraband ivory burned to ashes two years ago.

Poaching is pushing the African elephant to the brink, yet another example of our species' pervasive impact on the planet. The indelible and spreading mark of human activity is the meaning of the term Anthropocene and the theme of a four-year collaboration between award-winning landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky and the documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Following on their environmental films Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, the Anthropocene project includes not only a new documentary but also two museum exhibitions and an art book.

To produce it, the trio visited every continent except Antarctica, stopping in 20 different countries. One of those countries was Kenya, where in 2016 their cameras recorded an unusual event: the burning of 100 tonnes of elephant tusks and rhino horns by government officials. Determined to save these species by demonstrating to poachers that the ivory and horn is worthless unless attached to a living animal, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set light to the largest pile.

The day before the President’s pile was burnt, the artists shot 2,500 still images to eventually reproduce it as a three-dimensional augmented-reality experience for visitors on the other side of the world. Speaking to media at the Art Gallery of Ontario last week, Mr. de Pencier recalled the wonderful moment when the tusks sprang back to life in a postproduction studio: “It’s the most breathtaking thing,” he said – before adding some mixed emotions. “But it’s freighted with the complexity of poaching, the income disparity … the desperation … and just the majesty of these incredible beasts. Thousands and thousands of them died to make these piles.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Highway #8, Santa Ana Freeway, Los Angeles, Calif., 2017.Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Open this photo in gallery:

PS10 Solar Power Plant, Seville, Spain, 2013.Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The image of the raging fire that consumed the tusks opens the film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch while visitors to the comprehensive Anthropocene exhibitions at either the AGO or Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada can “see” the President’s pile by using an augmented-reality app on their phones. In truth, the cinematic version proves more immersive than the still-cumbersome miracles of AR, but the tension between these impressive sights and the massacre that brought them into being crackles in either medium. It is the same contradiction that has always animated Mr. Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs of massive industrial landscapes; those images of open mines, irrigated fields and tailing ponds that can look so fiercely beautiful as they document human ravishment.

It was a decade ago that Mr. Burtynsky first encountered a new term for that environmental impact. Scientists are working to get official recognition that the Earth has left the Holocene and now entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, a period in which humanity is the most significant force shaping the planet. From the fallout of nuclear testing in the 1950s to the microplastics in today’s oceans, there is no place left untouched by human activity. After Mr. Burtynsky and the filmmakers finished Watermark in 2013, it was Ms. Baichwal who suggested their next job was to “evangelize” the term Anthropocene.

That evangelization is not didactic, but it is shocking. The film, narrated by the Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, explains the extent of human impact and the work of the Anthropocene scientists. It takes the viewer from a vast mine in Germany that is continually bulldozing adjacent villages to a 12-hectare Kenyan landfill where locals pick through plastics looking for recyclables. Sometimes the film is chilling: A historic church explodes to make way for the German coal mine. Sometimes it is beautiful: Illuminating a Russian potash mine, the filmmakers discover spectacular red-and-grey striped rock fashioned into pleasing rondels by the pattern of the drilling.

And often, Anthropocene is well aware of that paradox. In the famous quarries at Carrara in Italy, workers can now hack out giant blocks of marble at a faster rate than any previous generation. Sculptors in a workshop are shown painstakingly fashioning it into sculptures, including reproductions of Michelangelo’s David.

Open this photo in gallery:

Salt Pan #18, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016.Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

These conundrums – and all the rich details of the project’s startling imagery – can be explored further in the exhibitions. At the AGO, curator Sophie Hackett has mounted a dense and busy installation that combines Mr. Burtynsky’s still photos with Ms. Baichwal and Mr. de Pencier’s video footage to create four categories of work: large-scale photographs; short films showing on screens hanging alongside the photos; four giant photographic murals with film “extensions,” or brief videos amplifying the subjects; and last, three augmented-reality sculptures, including the pile of tusks. (The Ottawa exhibition is similar and includes the AR pieces, but features a different selection of photographs.)

Contemplating the impressive mural of Carrara, you can take out your phone (or borrow a gallery tablet) and watch the moving camera slowly pull out to show more and more of the setting, or follow brief scenes of the actual quarrying and the sculpture workshop. Text panels will tell you that yes, Carrara’s famous marble is running out.

The exhibition can provide more information than the film, through texts and because the visitor has the time and space to dwell with the imagery. Still, it can be hard to achieve any quiet contemplation of Mr. Burtynsky’s mighty photos – and there are some fabulous examples here, including a phosphor tailing pond that could be a picture of a tiny puddle of paint so detailed is its swirling surface. Surrounded by other visitors, loaded with information and bombarded with moving images, the gallerygoer may long for some equivalent of Ms. Vikander’s firm but gentle voice navigating the story.

That story is filled with startling examples of human ingenuity in the midst of exploitation, revealing the many ironies of the Anthropocene. Take the photograph of the concrete tetrapods used to create the seawalls that now protect 60 per cent of the Chinese coastline – they are a sensible solution to rising water but as technofossils, human objects that cannot decay, they also represent a prime example of the Anthropocene. Similarly, the films include a ride through the 57-kilometre Gotthard railway tunnel under the Swiss Alps. It’s a grotesque example of anthroturbation, or tunnelling, that displaced a mind-blowing 28 million tonnes of soil and rock – but it also saves fuel, replacing road traffic with rail.

The answers to environmental degradation are not easy: A mural of sprawling Lagos illustrates the growth of the Nigerian city from 1.4 million in the 1970s to 20 million today. Those people have got to eat. And yet, as Mr. Burtynsky makes a first foray into satellite imagery – he already relies heavily on drones – the picture of perfect green circles created by pivot irrigation in the middle of a Saudi desert is shocking in the scope of agricultural intervention it reveals.

The message comes home outside the main exhibition in the AGO’s Galleria Italia where some fiddling with the AR app should conjure up Big Lonely Doug, a 1,000-year-old, 66-metre-high Douglas fir tree that is the lone survivor of logging in an area near Port Renfrew, B.C. Less than 10 per cent of old growth forest remains on Vancouver Island. But, before you tut-tut and move on, be aware that the lovely Galleria Italia in which the virtual tree is standing is clad in Douglas fir, as are the sweeping staircases at the AGO.

The difficulties of the Anthropocene are all around us; Mr. Burtynsky, Ms. Baichwal and Mr. de Pencier will make you stop, look and think.

Open this photo in gallery:

Nicholas de Pencier, Jennider Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky are photographed during the Toronto International Film Festival.Angela Lewis

Open this photo in gallery:

Oil Bunkering #4, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The exhibition Anthropocene continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to Jan. 6 and at the National Gallery of Canada to Feb. 24.

The film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch opens Friday in Toronto, Oct. 5 in Vancouver, Oct. 19 in Montreal and through the fall in other cities.


4 out of 4 stars

As well as the AGO’s bilingual exhibition catalogue, the project includes Anthropocene, a 224-page hardcover book of Burtynksy’s photos with essays by the three artists, and poems by Margaret Atwood, to be published this fall.

Open this photo in gallery:

Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany, 2015.Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The Human Epoch documentarians Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier complete a trilogy about the environment created with landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky – and extend the project with companion exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. They spoke with The Globe and Mail earlier this month.

Baichwal on merging film and still photography

I always wanted Ed [Burtynsky] to be the author rather than the subject. We never went into any biographical detail, or had the darkroom scene with the image emerging. It felt like: How do we intelligently extend the meaning of these photographs into the time based medium of film? That was the conundrum of [Manufactured Landscapes] and Watermark became more of an intermingling. … In [Anthropocene], because of the museum show, and all the cross-pollination, we were all doing it together.

De Pencier on collaboration

It’s been amazing to travel the world with Ed and his photographic practice; as a cinematographer I learn enormously from that. And Ed has always expressed an interest in film. On this one, we all started together trying to figure out how we would use this idea of the Anthropocene, and the evidence the scientists were gathering, as a central organizing principle. All of our collaboration has been very wonderfully soupy. It’s very much a co-direction: we are three co-directors.

Baichwal on choosing Alicia Vikander as narrator

I was the temp narrator, and my voice was slit-your-wrists depressing, so heavy. We knew that wasn’t going to work. I really wanted it to be a woman; women are rarely the voice of authority, the Morgan Freeman kind of role. Let’s let a woman be God, and whose voice do I like? She was at the top of the list. She has such a beautiful voice; she’s not American – it’s a global film. She’s an incredible actor and she’s an environmentalist.

Burtynsky on environmentalism

The environmental movement has somehow been put in a cubbyhole: ‘You are not realistic, you are dreaming. We still need materials. How are you going to replace all that energy?’ There has been this marginalization of the idea, an environmentalist is not getting a seat at the table. But any politician or CEO you can sit down and have a conversation about sustainability and say: ‘Look what you are doing could be destroying this life cycle over here. Is there a way to do that, get the materials you need, and not destroy that.’

[It’s] naive to think we can be eight billion people and not go to nature to get food, not go to nature to get water. It’s a question of how we go to those places and what do we leave behind; is there a way to do that and still not destroy in the process? To me that is a far more interesting conversation; the conversation of cease and desist is naive.

Baichwal on what’s next

What’s next is Anthropocene becoming part of the vernacular; that’s our goal. We want people to understand what the word means and understand the extent of our impact and in that understanding is the beginning of mitigation and sustainability.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe