In 2007, Canadian environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky produced a series of large scale images of West Australia’s mining operations and the vast, open pits they generate. These massive prints, often over one metre across (40 X 50 inches, or 100 X 127 cm), dwarf—indeed humble—the spectator not only in terms of the size of the reproductions, but also their content. Burtynsky offers a number of expansive arenas whose mega-theatrical scale engulfs the viewer as one stands before them. Yet what is performed in these spaces, and what are their effects on the viewer? The potential relationships between audience and image staged in Burtynsky’s oeuvre is best seen in terms of post World War Two US art and its performative, haptic qualities (Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Allan Kaprow, Robert Smithson, Mark Rothko, George Maciunas, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Bernd and Hilla Becher). Allusions to these works layer and complicate a more conventional model of the sublime which underpins the photographer’s aesthetic, producing a series of abject spectacles which tend to erode the corporeal and subjective coherence of the viewer. These affects and visual tropes stage the insufficiency of the image and of Modernist aesthetics under late capitalism, even as they solicit corporeal responses and celebrate the artist’s mastery of visual form.

Landscape has acted as a site to stage either proprietorial mastery of the prospect displayed to the audience (Cosgrove 2006, 49-66), or as a terrifying spectacle of the subliminity of Nature, which renders the viewing subject chastened but reaffirmed (Eco 2007, 272-6). Commentators such as Mark Feeney (2007 F.1) and Carol Diehl (2006 118-123) have deemed Burtynsky’s photographs to represent “the industrial sublime” or “the toxic sublime”, reading Burtynsky’s work in light of historical and aesthetic changes in the concept of the sublime under Western capitalism. Various aspects of these debates have been discussed by writers such as Lori Pauli, Mark Haworth-Booth, Kenneth Baker and Ric Spencer (in Burtynsky et al, 2003, & 2009b). 1 Jonathan Bordo has also written a suggestive review essay on some of the problems and deficiencies or absences within Burtynsky’s art—though he does not expand on these points in light of international art history (2006). The literature on Burtynsky therefore remains underdeveloped, with themes scattered across diverse curatorial essays and magazine commentaries. By visioning Edward Burtynsky’s work through the lens of post World War Two performative art, I build on the extant criticism surrounding Burtynsky to read his oeuvre in terms of its potential affects upon the embodied viewing subject. The image is analysed according to the subjective relations it stages with respect to the audience, particularly when the referentiality of art history is brought to bear on the interpretation of the image. Burtynsky is a compulsive historicist, and these references link his work particularly with the art of the 1950s-80s, when the definition of Modernist visual aesthetics was under challenge. Moving past the uncompromising “opticality” of Clement Greenberg’s criticism, contemporary arts came to be seen as “theatrical” in the manner in which they addressed time, duration, the body, sensation and the object (Fried 1998, 148-172; Marsh 1993, 14-20); such works stage a “literal” or “concrete” relation between material and the subject such as Maciunas (1962, 216) and Kaprow (1993) had seen as the ideological basis of Fluxus performance art, Nouveau-Réalisme, Happenings and related post-war styles.

Considered in this light, Burtynsky’s oeuvre emerges as curiously balanced between Modernist “opticality” and Post- or Limit Modernist “theatricality”, whereby haptic and immersive sensations interact with and mitigate the distancing and destructive effects of sublimity. A trend may be perceived within Burtynsky’s archive, whereby the photographer’s most extreme imagery stages the annihilation of the subject. Burtynsky’s heroic containment of these forces through those geometric and art-historical arrangements which he deploys serve to mediate and contain these trends even as the photographs expose the viewer to such a possibility. Combining a range of performative relations which vary from the Bechers’ deferral of the image into a potentially infinite archive, through to depictions paralleling Cindy Sherman’sUntitled series of the 1980s in offering the viewer a field of abject fragments derived from the body and its iconographic manifestations, Burtynsky’s photos seem in the final analysis to stage a project of mourning for the Modern, Western capitalist subject him or herself.

Burtynsky began taking photographs of the North American hinterland in the early 1980s. Strongly influenced by the cool revelation of banal beauty and ordinary ugliness executed by the Bechers and the American New Topographers of the 1970s, Burtynsky initially focussed on marginal settlements which mixed urbanity with the rural in what might be read as a commentary on Canada’s stockade mentality, whereby Northern American settlement has often been figured as a defensive extension of technology linking fortified blocks through railroads, telegraph lines and other melancholy signs of an endless battle with Nature in the far north (Kroker 1984). These themes are a key feature of Canadian Modernist art, as in the work of the Group of Seven painters (Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, and others, 1920-33). Burtynsky’s first major series was devoted to railcuts: the passage of train tracks through an inhospitable environment across which human designers have engineered an aggressive scarification of the land. Whilst still to some degree reflecting a specifically national aesthetic, charting the ambivalent violence of the Canadian frontier wherein technology has served as a tool of both civilisation and alienation, many of the major characteristics which were to define Burtynsky’s oeuvre were already visible. These include human technology and capitalism as violent forces which radically transform the landscape to produce spectacles even more awesome and sublime than those they replace (“industrial incursions into the landscape”, as Burtynsky has described them; nd); technology as an interlinked nexus whose function is to create associations between places, landscapes, societies and capital; large scale imagery filled with detail, especially that of the stressed, fractured surface (rock faces, and so on); a tendency towards an abstracted vision of place in line with what Philip Goldswain has called the New Topographics’ perspective of the “empty terrain vague of the American city” (2008, 5) or the similarly depopulated vistas of Canada’s own Group of Seven painters (Goldswain 2008, 5; Hill 1995); and a photographic practice increasingly based on tracing thematic concepts and categorical definitions across a visually diverse but aesthetically formalised and unified visual field (railcuts, mines, quarries, tailings, the extraction and consumption of oil, etcetera). 2 Burtynsky’s wide but precise cropping, his organised viewing of potentially chaotic visual material, and the clear delineations of blocks of tonality and line which his imagery offers, was to define his mature style from this period onwards. Whilst taking his cue from such earlier precedents of art under colonialism and industrial capitalism as the Group of Seven (notably in their Post-Impressionist, Fauvist use of colour to organise space), Burtynsky’s approach represents a transfer of these antecedents to the post-industrial context. Haworth-Booth, for example, has compared Burtynsky’s ruinous imagery to the more lyrical work of Edward Weston, in that both exhibit a “hyper-clarity and extravagant overabundance of repetitive data (rocks [etc])” with few or “no markers to indicate scale”, presenting to the observer an environment “that does not bother to respond to the viewer’s anthropomorphising stare” (in Burtynsky et al 2003, 36).

Burtynsky himself has explained that he feels he was “born a hundred years too late to be searching for the sublime in nature”, and that to pursue such a vision today “would have just been an expression of nostalgia” (2003, 47). Instead he searches for that “new sublime” which the contemporary “theatre of industry” stages in the environment (Smith 2007). The photographer’s oeuvre is in this sense predicated on a historically derived lack at the heart of the contemporary experience. In the absence of the sublime fullness of Romantic Nature which was sought by artists like Jackson and Ansel Adams, Burtynsky is compelled to stand before spectacles not of Nature itself, but of its abject submission to the mastery of humanity, to its dominion and deformation in the face of capitalist expansion, and to depict the potentially horrific effects which these new forms of the sublime might be seen as signs of. It is indeed debatable as to whether artists such as the Group of Seven painters ever had full access to untouched Nature. Algonquin Park reserve, the site which first inspired Thomson and his admirers from the Group, was described by Jackson as:

a ragged piece of Nature, hacked up many years ago by a lumber company that went broke. It is fire-swept, damned by both man and beaver, overrun with wolves. Most of Thomson’s sketches were painted about Canoe Lake … the intimate charm with which he endows his waste of rock and swamp, friezes of ragged spruce, the slim birch which clings to the meager soil on the rocks (Hill, 23).

As the contemporary playwright Merrill Denison noted, both he and the Group offered a world of “silent, drab sawmills, rotting lumber camps, stones, stumps, scrub growth and lonely rampikes”—the latter being those standing dead trees which remain following bushfires or other human depredations (Hill, 126). Rather than attempting to reaffirm a melancholy encounter with Nature as in Denison’s plays or the Group’s Modernist stage designs for them, Burtynsky overtly recognizes and draws attention to the degraded nature of environments which he depicts, showing those marks which the extraction of primary products such as timber, stone and ore have left upon the land.

Burtynsky presented his first major retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in 1988, featuring assorted works from Homesteads (1981-85) and Railcuts (1985). Whilst these early series established Burtynsky as an important Canadian photographer, it was some years before he acquired a significant international reputation. His first mature series—Quarries (1991-93, 2000-06)—attracted interest beyond Canada, but it was his Shipbreaking series shot in Bangladesh (2000-01) that established Burtynsky as a global artist. These Chittagong photographs, together with a rising cultural zeitgeist in which environmental concerns and critiques occupy an unprecedented level of public discourse, made Burtynsky one of the most collectable photographers of the early twenty-first century.

Burtynsky has observed that:

looking up at skyscrapers … For things on this scale … there has to be something equally monumental in the landscape where we have taken all this material from … Newtonian law implied a reciprocal action … —a hole in the ground that meets the scale of the … skyscraper—and my task was … to see what the residual world looked like (2003, 49).

Burtynsky’s search for residual landscapes was however also dictated by aesthetic concerns, namely a desire to find and represent an “architectonic” void, a space that might be considered “an inverted ziggurat” or “pyramid” whose sharp, geometric dimensions would clearly delineate a spatial vacuum, rather than either a positive presence, or a mere shapeless hole (2003, 49-53; 2007). This principle of both economic and formalistic reciprocity has become a defining feature of Burtynsky’s oeuvre, in which his iconography regularly moves from positive structures (the pyramidal coal piles of Bao Steel #8, 2005, or the Oxford Tire Pile #2, 1999) 3 to the carved negative spaces of mines and quarries (Silver Lake Operations #1, West Australia, 2007, Iberia Quarries #3, 2006), 4 these paired forms being further linked by those types of transport and exchange which connect them (the distribution network of pipes displayed in Oil Refineries #3, 1999, or the elegant, woven loops of US roadways in Highway #2, 2003). 5 In all of these projects, Burtynsky’s aim is “put a visual coherence to” his subjects, to render these potentially destabilizing patterns of material and exchange into a “monumental”, organised form (2003, 48, 55)

It is this evocation of abstract economic and material relations—relations which cannot actually be visualised in these images, but which are alluded to and traced through the display and distribution of the photographs within thematic exhibitions or photobooks such as Oil (2009a)—which renders Burtynsky’s oeuvre most overtly performative. Following the Conceptualist models imported into photography by the likes of Edward Ruscha (Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963) and Bernd and Hilla Becher (Typologies of Industrial Buildings, 1966-2004), Burtynsky generates a repetitive or iterative iconography (in Derrida’s sense) of what the photographer describes as the “contemporary ruin” produced by late capitalist industry (2003, 48, 55; Dennis 2005; Iverson 2009, 836-51). None of the images are complete in themselves, but function through an endless oscillation, a process of formal and thematic exchange across the larger series defined by a number of rules or thematic links. Each project leads on to the next, Burtynsky’s interest in Australian mining developing out of a desire to see where the iron for China’s Three Gorges Dam had been sourced (2009b, 27). Indeed, given the thematic coherence of Burtynsky’s work as a whole, the limits to this archival project are difficult to envisage. Burtynsky’s images are always haunted by the reciprocal relations they establish between each other and the world, producing an endlessly expansive series whose total reach is, by definition, unattainable since the abstract nature of capitalist exchange renders it beyond visualization in any fully satisfactory sense. 6

As Alan Sekula has observed, some of the first photographic archives were figured as totalising accounts of the human body and of the social significance of its anatomic relations. Early images of urban ruin too, such as those of Paris after the 1871 Siege, frequently elicited responses likening the scarified architectural surface to that of an abused body (Luxenberg 1998, 113-137), whilst sublime visions of the awesome powers of Nature have consistently drawn metaphoric comparisons to somatic forms (cloacae, maw, eyes, cheeks, or the “wet mouth cavity” of a West Australian mining pit; Eco 2007, 272-6; Glover 2009). From Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) to the male nude oracadémie which provided the basis for the teaching of painting, through to the abstract sign of the artist’s hand in the expressive gestures of painters such as Pollock, the body has always served as the basis of aesthetics under Modernity (Marshall 2008a). This leads to an anthropomorphising tendency, in which features of the environment such as the jack pine trees so common in the Group’s landscapes come to stand in for the human body, and for the conflicted struggles which are staged about it (Bordo 1992-93). Burtynsky’s archival project therefore initiates a performance not only in terms of the exchange of images and patterns which the series elicit, but also in terms of bodily experience, in which haptic responses and somatic signs engender a direct encounter between the viewer and the photograph. Goldswain, for example, perceives a “corporeal quality to the image” whereby “a system of arteries (roads) and organs (facilities)” pulsate with the flows of capital and material, whilst a writer for The Independent described Burtynsky’s photographs of West Australian mines “woundscapes” (Glover 2009). One West Australian critic goes so far as to compare Burtynsky’s mine-pits to Gustave Corbet’s painting of a vagina, L’origine du monde (1960), seeing both as presenting to the masculine viewer an at once reassuring and frightening spectacle (Burtynsky 2009, 21). Similarly corporeal terminology was applied by critics of the Group of Seven in Canada, with one contemporary claiming that MacDonald’s paintings revealed the grotesque contents of a “Drunkard’s Stomach” (Hill 1995, 69). Burtynsky’s iconography of yawning interstitial spaces juxtaposed with effluent and wastes suggests such bodily metaphors—especially of a body which is abject and disfigured, leaking lurid products like the red excremental fluid of Nickel Tailings No.34 (1996), and recalling the crimson vomit which some observers saw in MacDonald’s Tangled Garden (1916). 7 As Pauli notes of the imagery as a whole, the bodies evoked in these kinds of landscapes are “entropic” (in Burtynsky et al 2003, 25; Burtynsky et al 2005, 18), spiralling towards a somatic ruination which Burtynsky’s and MacDonald’s aestheticizing formalism temporarily keeps at bay.

Burtynsky’s work has consistently attracted such comparisons to art history. Commentators have likened the frightening geometric chaos of his images to Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice (1825), as well as to William Turner’s ambivalent chronicling of the coming of industry (Burtynsky 2003, 24-43; 2009, 23; Diehl 2006, 121; Bordo 2006). Burtynsky’s use of large flat blocks of colour—such a marked characteristic of his aerial photographs of the Australian mines—have been related to the deployment of colour by Post-Impressionist artists such as the Fauves and the Group of Seven. The crossed lines and complex planes in his aerial photographs evoke Cubism and Paul Klee, whilst Burtynsky’s documentation of Italian quarries recalls classical marble sculpture and architecture. 8 These allusions to classical and Modernist fine art accompanies references to a rich photographic heritage stretching from Carleton Watkins to Weston, Adams, Walker Evans, Richard Woldendorp and others. Post World War Two American art has however proved a particularly enduring and revealing trope within the critical writings on Burtynsky’s imagery. Indeed, Burtynsky himself has adopted these comparisons as part of his own rhetoric. In an interview with Mark Feeney (2009, F.1), the photographer reflected that “the gesture of machine marks and crevices in the rock” which he brings to the fore in images such as Inco-Abandoned Mine Shaft No.13 (1984) could be likened to “the work of the action painters or Jackson Pollock”, whilst the Shipbreaking series shot in Chittagong prompted allusions to the large-scale, rusted steel works of “Richard Serra”. 9

In part, these art historical references should be seen as indicative not simply of the performative potential of the imagery itself, but of Burtynsky’s own self-projection and staging of his aesthetic mastery through the creation and display of such referential material. 10 These allusions constitute photographic gestures or signs of Burtynsky’s own hand in the visualisation of the landscape. The photographer’s status as an artist is guaranteed by these historicist allusions, which secures the exhibition of his work in fine art institutions. Burtynsky observes that few devoted “photo galleries” are able to “handle” his “huge colour works” and so he has had more success promoting his images through “Painting galleries”, which are better placed to hang his prints with a respect for their monumental scale and for their generation of an affective space of exhibition (Gerald 2004, 80). Burtynsky’s prints are designed for the expansive white walls of the late Modernist gallery, demanding a large vacant space about them within which to stage their authorial effects and so engulf the viewer.

Burtynsky goes so far as to hang many of his prints as diptychs or triptychs, as with the West Australian work Mount Whaleback #2A, #2B and #2C (2007), its massive horizontal expanse of a central, deeply carved, red pit, balanced by wings whose diagonals move to the left and right of the viewer so as to embrace him or her. 11 This echoes the effects of Colour Field works such as the three groupings displayed along the northern walls of the Rothko Chapel, a series Rothko described as immersive “Voices in an opera” (see Nodelman 1997), or what Kaprow has described as being “sucked in” to a kind of “spatial extension” from out of the painted surface and into the space which the viewer occupies, such that “these marks surround us as they did” painters like Pollock and his peers when they moved into, above and onto the canvas to first produce their art (Kaprow 1993, 6; Kahn 2001, 242-289).


These comparisons are revealing because, as Rosalind Krauss and others have observed, works by Pollock, Serra, Smithson and their colleagues represented a “historical rupture” in which the formalistic self-sufficiency and self-referentiality of Modernist art works such as those by the Fauves or the Group of Seven was challenged through the generation of pieces whose theatrical staging as objects called for an active reading, or for interactivity, or which otherwise generated works whose formal qualities drew them into an interlinked relationship with multiple art-forms, styles, genres and historical processes. This constitutes what Krauss has labelled the Post-Modernist “expanded field” of post-war sculpture and related arts (Foster ed. 1989). Indeed, Burtynsky’s Chittagong series has directly inspired theatrical materials, such as designer Anna Tregloan’s rusted amphitheatre for the Malthouse Theatre production of The Odyssey (Melbourne & Perth, 2005; Marshall 2008c; Fig. 1), whilst Serra’s “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself” (“to roll, to crease … to crumple … to collect”; 1968) placed his own action-orientated approach in a dialogue with composers and performers such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Robert Wilson, Yvonne Rainer and Matthew Barney, all of whom Serra collaborated with (McShine 2007). Leaving to one side the specific linguistic justification which Krauss offers for her terminology, it is fair to say that these artists were seeking to re-humanise aspects of Modernist arts practice which had come to be seen as institutionalised, elitist and alienating by the 1950s. Serra’s work in particular increasingly addressed itself to issues of tactility and the felt mass of the object as experienced by the viewer, who moved onto and into what would have previously been the space of the plinth or frame. As with Pollock, the viewer was invited to enter the work as part of what Michael Fried identified as a “theatrical” relationship (1998, 148-172).

Burtynsky’s referencing of these artists should therefore be seen as enacting a similar series of formalistic and political gestures. The threat posed by the violently jagged, Serra-esque metal sheets of the Chittagong series is mitigated by a call for the viewer to touch or sympathetically engage with the material forms and surfaces within the space. Indeed, many of Burtynsky’s works suggest an ambivalent, unfinished temporal realm especially ripe for theatrical engagement. The barely stilled form of Shipbreaking No.9a (2000) is poised between gliding forward or sliding backwards, its extruded, quivering temporality opening up the captured moment to suggest an incomplete transition which the viewer must finish or otherwise engage with on a temporal stage of his or her own making. 12 Burtynsky’s specifically historicist iconography further layers and agitates the durations on display here, extending the elements depicted into the past and the future. Drawing on the work of Aby Warburg, Georges Didi-Huberman has pointed out that the image always contains a striated compound of staged “simultaneities” which call for the viewer to arbitrate between them (Marshall 2008b, 180-206). The space of viewing is therefore one of duration and restaging, a process whereby the possible times and mnemonic allusions of the image are organised, prioritised and distributed throughout the structure of interpretation.

Less frequently mentioned but no less salient is the relationship of Burtynsky’s iconography to that of Robert Smithson, another of the figures cited by Krauss who sought to re-enchant and move beyond Modernist paradigms of monumentality by creating and photographically documenting his relational, environmental pieces. Michael Mitchell has revealed that in 1973, Burtynsky read Smithson’s proposal to turn in Bingham Canyon Copper Pit into an art work (Burtynsky 2009b, 11). Pieces such as this from Smithson invite the viewer to move into direct physical contact with not only the work, but the very space, locale and environment which the piece itself occupied and was formulated in response to. As Mitchell observes, Burtynsky’s aerial photography, and particularly his Australian Minescapes (2007), offer the clearest visual parallels with Smithson’s land-art works like Spiral Jetty (1970). 13 The photographer’s whole oeuvre can however be conceptualised in these terms, its minimalistic engagement with the landscape transforming, through an act of framing, the entire visual field into an aesthetic object, which the viewer is invited to physically encounter by imaginatively moving into the site of spectacle.

The particular importance of post World War Two US art to Burtynsky’s practice is consolidated by the photographer’s wonderful Oxford Tire Pile group (1999) from his Urban Mines series. Geoffrey Williams (2002, 181-2) likens the jumble of rubber which rises immediately before the gaze of the viewer to Kaprow’s 1961 Happening: the installationYard, in which audiences were invited to navigate their way through a maze of discarded tires. The original piece dramatised the tensions involved in bringing art into life and vice versa, in this case staging what happened when an object very much of the world was brought into an enclosed gallery space and deployed as a sensorial art object and tool for experiential play (Kelly 1994, 80-83). Kaprow’s works were designed to facilitate greater self-realisation, while Burtynsky’s allusion elicits a more compromised response, in which wonder and tactility is mitigated by thoughts about the worldly origins of these tires and what their final fate might be. Indeed, in 1999, the state of California ordered the tire pile at Westley to be removed, but a lightning strike caused most of it to be incinerated (anon., 1999 & 2000).

The performativity of Burtynsky’s oeuvre is therefore anchored in the highly corporeal nature of his imagery, which at once depicts landscape itself as an interlinked, archival body, as well as soliciting sympathetic embodied responses in the viewer, staging a direct physical relationship with the subject matter depicted. This process of somatic stimulation, deferral and sublimation of bodily presence into the photographic iconography and its spectatorship is emphasised by the near absence of the human subject itself. Works such as Iberia Quarries #3 (2006) depict a series of monumental, stepped stone platforms across which are scattered a number of minute human machines and structures. 14 No individual can be discerned, whilst the architectonic structure and grand scale conjures images of the classical amphitheatre or similar space designed to enclose the action of heroes. It is the subjectivity and presence of the viewer which animates these scenes though, and not that of any individual visible within the image itself. Shipbreaking No.#8 (2000) does in fact show ten human figures strung out along a plane just below the horizon, but their function is largely to offer a sense of scale. 15 As with Tregloan’s set, this is a revisionist space where classical or humanist heroism fails to function (Croggon & Marshall 2006; Fig. 1). Dwarfed by the scooped and pointed red silhouettes behind them, the figures in Burtynsky’s photograph lose their individuality as they become part of a larger, impersonal spectacle. This treatment of the individual is particularly striking when compared with the work of former member of the Magnum Photo agency, Sebastião Salgado, who in 1999 also worked at Chittagong (anon. nd; Burtynsky 2003, 32). Salgado’s images are typical of the humanist photographic tradition championed by Henri Cartier-Bresson and others (1952). Salgado’s work focuses on the individual subject, whose physiognomy or tensed limbs are captured in medium close-up, eyes usually directed at the viewer, and with the individual’s form heroically shadowed in blazing, high-contrast black and white. The implication is that the indomitable humanity and pathos of individual struggle is crystallised in these images. In Burtynsky’s work, by contrast, the human figure is typically depicted as a formal or machinic element within the image; what Siegfried Kracauer identified as the “mass ornament” such as one finds in the Fordist dancing chorus line (Marshall 2009, 55-73). Burtynsky’s subjects are shot at a distance and as part of a group, such as in Chinese factory photographs, where dispersed masses of workers are subsumed into repetitive patterns of colour and form (Manufacturing #11, 2005,Manufacturing #17, 2005). 16 This tendency to displace the human form into the landscape and the image gives Burtynsky’s work some of the Surreal effects often attributed to the streetscape photography of Eugene Atget (Krauss et al 1985). The terrain becomes haptic and subjective, haunted and alive, as though our engagement within capitalism’s processes had embodied these spaces and their material relations with their own desires, actions and movements—which of course, under the fetishistic logic of late Modern exchange, has indeed occurred (“The origin of alienation iscommodity fetishism—the belief that inanimate things [commodities] have human powers [i.e. value] able to govern the activity of human beings”; various, M.I.A.).

The chief affective encounter which Burtynsky’s photographs stage however is that of the spectacle of the sublime, and it is this overarching model which frames the various haptic and performative tendencies detailed above. In Romantic philosophy from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Nietzsche, the sublime was figured as the theatrical apprehension of that which would not normally be considered beautiful. The experience of sublimity is solicited either through a fearful spectacular encounter with that which is greater than the viewing subject—typically landscapes featuring a “sky darkened by black threatening thunder clouds; stupendous, naked, overhanging cliffs … rushing, foaming torrents; absolute desert” (Arthur Schopenhauer, qtd in Eco 2007, 275), or other awesome Natural phenomena such as appear in Friedrich’s paintings or the rocky Canadian landscapes painted by Jackson and Thomson (Koerner 1990; Bordo 2006)—or, alternatively in Nietzsche’s construction, through the equally fraught process of witnessing and being drawn into an expansive or operatic, Dionysian event or performance. The tendency of the sublime to draw in and merge with the viewing subject echoes in this sense Kaprow’s discussion of Pollock and the Happening. Schopenhauer notes that perception of such an immersive, sublime spectacle prompts the subject to conceive him or herself “on the one hand, as an individual, as the frail” and temporally bounded “phenomenon of will”, perception and self-realisation, “and on the other hand, as the eternal, peaceful, knowing subject” who is aware of his or her own spatial and temporal limits, and yet is able to commune with (if not fully apprehend) that which is beyond his or her own perception or experience (infinity, the cosmos, time).

Perception of the sublime is in this sense a two-step process, whereby the individual first comes to know that which is greater than oneself and so that which signifies a threat to one’s own cohesion, to one’s extension in time and space, and to one’s individuality. In the second stage however, the Romantic subject becomes resolved to the existence of that which exceeds rational, Apollonian perception, and so reconstructs his or her subjectivity in light of this experience, becoming a stronger and more fully self-aware individual. The experience of the sublime thus has both an existential character—perception of one’s being and of its limits—and a transcendental character—a second affective, sympathetic or cognitive process whereby one perceives and reconciles oneself to these limits, thereby mitigating or moving beyond them and so producing a balanced, dynamic psychic structure. As Steven Knapp observes, the “self whose stability is served by the sublime is a self produced in the moment” of spectatorship (1985, 79). Although the theory of the sublime was most strongly connected to Romantic aesthetics and the cult of Nature, the critical, utopian and transcendental trends underpinning cultural Modernity have ensured that the rhetoric of sublime spectatorship has continued to inform theories of subjectivity and aesthetics into the present day. Much Modernist photography of the interwar period, for example, celebrated the “technological sublime” of contemporary industry and the machine age, using such imagery to champion the USA’s manifest destiny as that free, industrialised nation most representative of cultural Modernity and historical process (Burtynsky 2003, 170-3; 2009b, 22; Nye 1994), whilst many post World War Two US painters associated their own aesthetic with variations of the sublime. Barnett Newman, for example, argued that his Colour Field paintings built on the rediscovery of the transcendental sublime by “the Impressionists” whose “insistence on a surface of ugly strokes” acted as a precedent for his own works like Vir heroicus sublimis [Man, Heroic and Sublime] (1951), in which “absolute emotions” manifested themselves through a non-geometric form of abstraction “whose reality” and spiritual meaning was “self-evident” (Crowther 1984, 52-59). Robert Motherwell made similar claims for the transcendental possibilities of post-war abstraction (2007, 63-66).

The sheer scale of Burtynsky’s prints, and their allusions to Romantic landscapes and Modernist photography, ensure that the sublime is operative within his oeuvre (Burtynsky 2003, 13-36). His chosen subjects of massive expanses of radically transformed, polluted and disfigured landscapes are also well chosen to solicit those feelings of awe and dread commonly associated with the sublime. Burtynsky himself claims that his iconography functions through “a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear”, drawing the viewer in by soliciting desires which are vexed, tainted or otherwise problematised by the imagery on display (Dwyer 2009). What is less clear is the degree to which the photographer’s iconography enables or encourages a second response to the sublime of a subjective re-evaluation and dynamic reconstruction of the individual. Soenhe Zehle, for example, contends that “Burtynsky’s images suspend immediate judgement and maintain a space of ambiguity” and “fascination” which can “only initiate” a potentially political or critical response, such a later reaction being fundamentally distinct from the spectatorship of the photograph itself. The artist himself has noted that he regularly seeks:

an elevated perspective so that the foreground begins quite far away and the scene unfolds … into infinity. That hovering—looking out over a great expanse— … turns space into … a mythic space, an archetypal sense of the landscape (2003, 55).

Burtynsky’s approach abstracts and decontextualises the landscape, producing a timeless “archetypal” sublime, even as it alludes to material relations and social reality. The artist sees this as a conflicted process, melding a “desire to transcend … reality and create a work of art” combined with an awareness of the impossible and tragic nature of such a desire (2009b, 10).

The political valency of Burtynsky’s work is a vexed issue. The photographer admits that he is implicated within the exchanges of material, capital and value which complicate his imagery. He drives a car, flies on fuel-filled aeroplanes, and uses photochemical emulsions and industrial products to produce prints. He has even established his own photochemical development company, Toronto Image Works, managed by his partner Jaenine Baxter (Gerald 2004, 80; Beem 2003, 34). Perhaps most significantly, both the production of the Australian Minescapes as well as the subsequent catalogue was underwritten by BHP Billiton Iron Ore and Kalgoorlie Consolidate Gold Mines, the companies which work these fields, and the artist’s imagery adorns several boardrooms internationally (Burtynsky 2009b, 27-28). 17There is nothing inherently condemnatory in Burtynsky’s photographic praxis and the political import of these works is determined by the spectator, an approach which Burtynsky argues opens his work up to a larger audience who thereby become aware of landscapes, phenomena and relations which they might not otherwise have considered (in Baichwal 2006). It is not my intention here to critique Burtynsky’s cultivation of ideological opacity. Rather I would like to point towards a trend within his iconography, namely an affront to contemporary subjectivity which emanates from these materials as a kind of formalistic subversion arising out of the ideological aesthetics of the industrial sublime.

As noted earlier, Burtynsky’s works often feature highly textured surfaces or fields of ground and smashed material objects. Super Pit #5 (2007) for example depicts an almost endless expanse of crushed and broken timber and stone, whilst China Recycling #8 (2004) shows an all but unintelligible mound of plastic fragments and bits, as waves of colour move across its skein.18 China Recycling #12 (2007) even depicts the tools of this process of atomisation—hammers, pliers and cutting instruments—which lie strewn amongst baskets and tubs of unidentified, electronic shards. Although this emphasis on crushing, dispersal and dismemberment is most apparent in those recycling series shot in North America and China (1997-2005), this motif recurs in other groups too. The stressed surfaces and heavily incised, carved and scarified stone walls of the mines and other phenomena are redolent of processes of machinic chewing, of “densifying” (where recycled metals are compressed into semi-organised masses of visually incongruous materials; as inDensified Oil Drums No.4, 1997), of erosion, and of violent extraction (Super Pit #1, 2007). 19 The high level of detailing in Burtynsky’s reproductions make these features particularly prominent. These extraordinary effects are particularly apparent when one compares Burtynsky’s prints with the typically smaller reproductions of Woldendorp’s West Australian aerial photography. Although Woldendorp has produced prints of over 75 X 100 cm, his 2009 retrospective featured predominantly images of around 30 X 30 cm which were visibly lacking in resolution when inspected at close quarters (see also Proud 2005). Woldendorp principally distributes his work through calendars and photobooks. He is therefore less concerned with achieving the amazingly high density of visual information characteristic of Burtynsky’s large scale gallery works. The massive amount of data visible across the latter’s reproductions, by contrast, produces an effect whereby pointillist scarification and tiny dissected elements can be seen to coalesce into larger abstract forms, or to break up again into minute fragments, as one moves into and out of the image. This relentless destruction and incisive erosion of subjective and aesthetic form and matter, which operates in juxtaposition with Burtynsky’s large scale masses of clearly delineated colour and shape, produces a contradictory series of effects in which it is not altogether clear that the reconstruction of the viewer’s subjective coherence in the face of such repeated fragmentation and dispersion is either affectively or logically possible.

One must be cautious in generalising regarding subjective responses to art. Nevertheless, it is clear that Burtynsky’s oeuvre renders the reconstruction of the contemporary subject in the face of global commodity capitalism as fraught at best. Works like Ferrous Brushing No.6 (1997) present subjective form as an irreconcilable dismemberment of the individual into a collection of bits and dispersive processes whose movement is towards entropic separation, rather than the generation of a divided but still coherent form of subjectivity such as has typically been theorised as consistent with Modernity (Nietzsche 2006; Freud 1973; Lowe 1982; Gay 1984-95; Lacan 2002; various, M.I.A.). As Douglas Crimp has noted of Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraits as a series of abject bodily fragments and wastes (Untitled #167, 1986), such photographs “show that the supposed autonomous and unitary self out of which” subjects would normally “create” themselves are “nothing other than a discontinuous series of representations, copies, fakes” and abject exchangeable elements (99; Mulvey 137-50). 20 Indeed, some commentators have seen Burtynsky’s China series (2004-05) as revealing an annihilating threat emanating from this Eastern nation, whose inexorable growth continues “Piece by piece, bit by bit” (Burtynsky 2005, 13). The anxieties of the Western, capitalist subject are sublimated into and echoed by the multidirectional, pointillist forces of Chinese industry. China appears as a land of terrifying flux, where “the very fabric of the nation … continues to be … torn and rewoven” (Deane 2009). Leaving aside the Orientalising rhetoric employed by these authors, and the manner in which most downplay how Chinese industry functions via a symbiotic exchange between Western consumption and Chinese production (what Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularickz christened “Chimerica”; 2007), this psychic transferral and projection of fears regarding the collapse and dispersal of North American geopolitical power and industry is writ large within Burtynsky’s almost allegorical imagery (Ziser & Sze 2007, 384-410; Dargis 2007, E.4; Sinker 2008, 74; Burtynsky 2009b, 13). 21 The death of North American industry is figured in spectacular, corporeal terms, whereby the fetishistic body of production and consumption itself is smashed and scattered throughout a series of ever more dissected environments, forms, voids, wastes and relations.

In the final analysis, Burtynsky’s oeuvre should be read as a work of mourning for Western cultural Modernity, and those aesthetic and industrial forms which it supported. Just as the photographer’s iconography references and echoes the transition of international art from Modernist formalism into theatrical objecthood and haptic, performative styles, so Burtynsky’s own presentation of his work and ideas is increasingly acted out upon the stage rather than through visual form. Burtynsky regularly tours museums and festivals giving slideshows, in which he relates in considerable detail the industrial processes and environmental flaws of the subjects he photographs. The artist reflects that he has become increasingly “Vocal” over the years, ceasing to be recognised solely as an image maker and being seen more and more as an artist with a distinct ‘voice’ (Smith 2007). These concepts are best conveyed by the speaking subject or through Burtynsky’s direct authorship of exegetical text which, with the publication of the China series in 2005, has become a prominent feature of how he distributes and frames his work today (compare, for example, the representation of theChina series on his website with that of the Urban Mines or Tailings). As Baker implies, the artist’s practice demonstrates that if any “truth … is left to photography”, it is not one of visual explication, but rather “our thunderstruck incapacity to comprehend the … world” and its socio-economic processes (in Burtynsky et al 2003, 44; Bordo 2006), even in visual terms. For all of its formal precision and pretentions towards descriptive and archival totality, Burtynsky’s work provides a cogent lesson in the insufficiency of the image, of the inability of any representation or process of abstraction—Modernist or otherwise—to adequately depict social reality.

In conclusion, I would suggest that Burtynsky’s photographs represent an example of what Mitchell Whitelaw has described as “abject data” or imagery (2008). Burtynsky and contemporary digital artists such as Alex Dragulescu translate abstract information and statistics into visual form. Burtynsky has declared that his aesthetics is driven by a quasi-statistical search for “the largest example of something—the largest mine, the largest quarry, the most active area … the greatest and most complex transformations” whose relative economic scale and environment effects are exhaustively chronicled in the artist’s slideshows (2003, 54). Dragulescu’s Spam Architecture (2006) functions in a similar manner. The artist maps emails and social informatics into visually generative, digital programming. Both artists produce forms whose relation to these abstract concepts and flows is, however, fundamentally beyond the ken of the viewer, and certainly impossible to clearly contain and express through the form of the art work itself. 22 One is presented with an array of numbers, sizes, shapes and active relations which coalesce into apparently random structural elements and colours. With the fall of Modernism at the close of the twentieth century, the ability of art to even allude to the sublime, to be able to effectively mediate between cognitive empathy and formless chaos, has been shown as wanting in the work of these artists.

Burtynsky’s work stages for the viewer a body and an image which is at once abject and heroic; conceptually incomprehensible and visually masterful. Haptic sensations are solicited and the industrial sublime played out, but neither the corporeality of the image nor the viewing subject are able to be fully reconstituted or organised in the face of such visual data and violently dispersive socioeconomic relations. Oscillating between formalistic containment and abject disintegration, Burtynsky’s oeuvre performs an act of mourning for the Modernist subject and the visual and industrial tropes which once sustained it, producing a series of theatrical relations which are at once melancholy and critically engaged, provocative and nostalgic, disturbing and formalistically reassuring. The irresolvable contradictions of capital, commodity fetishism and Post-Modern schitzo-alienation are replayed across a visual field whose reach is both awe-inspiring and potentially limitless.


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(1.) All references to Burtynsky, et al (2009b), Australian Minescapes (Welshpool: WA Museum), are taken from the complete, 92 page hard-cover edition published by the West Australian Museum, and not the 63 page, soft-cover, pamphlet / exhibition catalogue edition of the same year and title, published by Flowers Gallery, London (2009c,Australian Minescapes, London: Flowers).

(2.) These and others of Burtynsky’s works can be browsed on and




(6.) On Modern capitalist abstraction, see Kracauer, 1995; Marshall, 2009, 55-73.


(8.) Stone mined from Carrara was used in the Parthenon, Trajan’s Column, the Apollo Belvedere, Michelangelo’s David, and Antonia Canova’s sculptures (Burtynsky, 2003, 24).


(10.) I am indebted to Prof. Richard Read for bringing this point to my attention.







(17.) FotoFreo director Bob Hewitt notes that expectations the prints would seem attractive to corporate buyers proved unfounded. Nevertheless, sponsorship and support for the project from the Australian companies BHP and KCGM, as well as Harris Steel, US (through former CEO Milton Harris), and art collectors, was readily secured.




(21.) Jennifer Baichwal’s film is particularly flawed in this respect, since the director thematically links Chinese industry and pollution not with consumption in the West, but with the luxurious furnishings and lifestyle of a member of the new Chinese capitalist class: a female Shanghai real estate agent. Baichwal recognizes that this was problematic, yet left this material in, whilst she simultaneously eulogizes pre-1980s Chinese housing (Shanghai’s longtang neighbourhoods) and crafts (a male traditional mason featured in a DVD extra; Bozak, 2008, 68-71; Baichwal, 2006). Baichwal’s construct ultimately implies that Modernity is a Western phenomenon, and its aberrant appearance within the feminised Orient (China, Chittagong in Bangladesh) is a principal cause of contemporary environmental crises.