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From cracks in the pavement to the Anthropocene

Today I faced the school holiday crowds to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest exhibition, ‘Anthropocene’, before it closes on Sunday.

Anthropocene features photography, video, and AR by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier. Their work explores the impact that humans are having on the planet. They visited countries on every continent (except Antarctica) to document these impacts and their project is supported by scientists advocating to change the name of our current epoch from Holocene to Anthropocene.

The majority of the exhibition is photography, but there are a few videos dotted about. My favourite of which was a video filmed with a camera strapped to the front of a train going through the longest tunnel in the world – the 57km Gotthard base tunnel, which connects the northern and southern Alps. I think part of why I liked it, besides my love of trains, is that it was one of the few pieces in the exhibition with a hopeful message – the tunnel will help reduce car and truck traffic crossing the roads above, thereby helping to reduce pollution. It’s a thin sliver of hope, I’ll admit.

Many of the photographs also come with additional videos, which you can watch using the iPads provided. It was so busy that I struggled to get my hands on a free iPad, but I did manage to see the three AR pieces. They are 3D images created from thousands of individual images. Using the iPad you can “look around” at the 3D images of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros; a pile of confiscated ivory in Kenya, which was burnt after the photos were taken (there’s a video of the ivory burning too); and Big Lonely Doug, one of the largest Douglas-fir trees in Canada. It’s a neat – if a little awkward – way of bringing these subjects to life. 

Most of the photographs in the exhibition look down on their subjects, many are stitched together to create vast aerial panoramas. The subjects vary, from clear cut forests in Vancouver to coal extraction in Wyoming, and from phosphate mines in Florida to landfill in Nairobi. The large, bright photos bring to mind a glossy coffee table book, yet the subject matter is anything but coffee table material.

The images take us to places that would normally remain out of sight (and out of mind). When we throw away a plastic bottle, we don’t necessarily think about the journey it will go on (and how long it will stick around). When we eat a nice meal, we don’t necessarily think about the phosphorous that fertilised it or the algal blooms caused by phosphorous extraction. And when we wash our hair we don’t tend to think of the destruction of rainforests in Malaysia. Yet most shampoo contains palm oil, which is grown on land that was once rainforest. Despite their scale, the images show the sum of these small actions.

The exhibition also contains a number of photographs and videos of cities. One that particularly caught my attention was an aerial image of a Santa Ana freeway, surrounded by houses. Although the image is dotted with trees, and there is one small field, it is largely a concrete and asphalt world. The perspective of the image is useful in showing the impact of sprawl, and the way in which freeways and highways have facilitated this sprawl. But what does it show us about urban nature?

Certainly a lot of nature has been destroyed or displaced to build the freeway and houses. But I’m willing to bet there is still nature to be found – in backyards, in those trees, and probably along the edges of the freeway. Urban nature demands a different perspective from the one offered by Anthropocene. Of course, with a name like Anthropocene, how could the exhibition not take on such vast scales – it is examining an epoch. But a part of me can’t help wanting to find the zoom button or plonk myself down, like the little yellow Streetview guy, and walk along those sunny streets, looking for weeds in cracked sidewalks.

Anthropocene is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until 6 January. Find out more on the AGO website.

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