Rendered in exquisite calligraphic brushwork and soaring white space, many later-era Chinese landscape paintings depict both the artist's interior terrain and the visible world. Artist Edward Burtynsky's photographs of industrial wastelands work the same way, even though their disturbing beauty inverts the pristine ideal by drawing on mountains of rubble and polluted rivers.
The subject of a new documentary by Jennifer Baichwal, Manufactured Landscapes, Burtynsky takes the art form that graces hotel walls and doctors' offices and gives it bite – the pastoral, poisoned.
Landscapes is set almost entirely in China -- "the world's factory," as Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang termed the country recently, in response to a report that China is now the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world.
"The developed countries move a lot of manufacturing industry into China," said Qin. "A lot of the things you wear, you use, you eat are produced in China. On the one hand, you shall increase the production in China, on the other hand you criticize China on the emission reduction issue.''
Apologist edge aside, Burtynsky might agree with one of Qin's points. The depiction of toxic interdependence between developed and developing nations is what makes Landscapes such a powerful film -- and not a polemical one. Burtynsky interrogates the ways in which his critique of environmental destruction is only possible because of it. His tripod is made of metal, he muses, the film with silver, the car he uses to get from shoot to shoot runs on oil.
In keeping with that inward focus, Landscapes begins not with an external natural vista, but with an eight-minute tracking shot inside a Chinese factory. The camera pans past machinery, long rows of workers stooped over tables, on and on, a never-ending visual drone. Is this what progress looks like? Landscapes poses the question without ever openly asking it, or providing an answer.
Burtynsky began to focus on China after years of photographing "the largest industrial incursions by man" -- wastelands left by mines, quarries, oil fields, and refineries. He followed the products of these extractive industries to China, where they are processed into different products that are then shipped back out. China's role as a massive manufacturing hub makes it the perfect case study for the perils of the global economy. What toll, Bertynsky seems to ask, does pell-mell industrialization take on fragile human and environmental resources?
Burtynsky visits endless factories, and then a village devoted to recycling "e-waste," where computer parts are harvested, broken down, or burned, poisoning the water table and blanketing the village in smoke that can be smelled ten kilometers away. Landscapes trails Burtynsky to the Three Gorges dam site, the largest such project in the world. And then to Shanghai, China's beacon of progress, where long-time residents are thrown out to make room for gauche condos and housing developments.
Burtynsky's photos are unsettling in their beauty. Recycled material looks like slate-grey moon rock, a tangle of computer wires like silken yarn. Colors seem supersaturated -- a landscape so black it looks volcanic is seamed not by lava, but by a river the color of orange-highlighter ink. A mountain pool flares Star Trek green. The ugly condos of Shanghai resemble salt-crystal formations. The overall effect is either otherworldly or disruptive of scale -- Bertynsky makes our world alien. And it is, for these are all blighted landscapes we never see – or do not want to see.
Baichwal adds a delicate context to Bertynsky's work. Where the photographer often poses iconic figures in his frames -- a stooped grandma, a tiny worker shadowed by a great decaying ship -- Baichwal is interested in individuals' stories, those of factory workers and Shanghai nouveau riche. She fills in just enough to resize Bertynsky's work in a human frame.
The film is full of such subtle juxtapositions -- a super sci-fi model of urban development is contrasted with the countryside, martial rows of trees give way to an obscenely luxe private garden. When Bertynsky travels to the Three Gorges dam area, he captures pictures of incredible emotional complexity. Over one million people were displaced by the dam, and Bertynsky photographs the villagers dismantling their houses brick by brick. They're being paid to do so. It's a compelling vision -- he's framing fragmentation, memorializing decay.
Landscapes doesn't fail to question its audience. In one masterful piece of editing, Baichwal fades from Bertynsky's set-up of a factory shot to the actual picture, hanging in a gallery. What does it mean for these images to be consumed by audiences that benefit from the subjects' toil? For them to be rendered such beautiful art?
Berytnsky, Baichwal and their crew are confronted at one factory by officials, who argue, "It's very dirty... I don't think it's a good day to make beautiful pictures. It's very gloomy here." But that is precisely the point. Beauty and gloom coexist in Bertynsky's pictures. And they operate on both aesthetic and activist levels because they don't push either viewer or subject into easy opposition with one another.
In one of the film's final shots, Baichwal's lens settles on a tiny shack in a barren, neon-lit landscape. The image looks a dark rendering of the sage hut that appears in many Chinese landscape paintings -- a picture of meditative solitude, of harmonious co-existence. Bertynsky's version reminds us that, despite the disproportionate environmental toll China and developing countries take, or are forced to take, we are all living in the same house, in the same decaying landscape together, and that no paradise manufactured can replace a paradise lost.
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