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This large colour landscape format photograph by the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky depicts an aerial view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster which began on 20 April 2010, three weeks before this image was taken. Near the centre of the work is the vessel noted in the title, Discoverer Enterprise, an enormous drillship measuring over 250 metres in length used for deep water exploration. A smaller ship can also be glimpsed at the top of the image. These vessels sit within a wide expanse of sea where the dark blue water is coated with large streaks of silvery oil, the brightness of which are heightened by the glint of sharp sunlight. The work consists of a digital chromogenic print adhered to a rigid laminated board.
This work is one of fifteen photographs taken by Burtynsky during the first six weeks of the Deepwater Horizon disaster when he repeatedly travelled over the Gulf of Mexico in helicopters and small seaplanes. Other images in the series depict boats attempting to extinguish flames on a drilling platform and additional aspects of the clean-up operation. The manner in which Burtynsky captured the immediate environmental impact of the disaster, and his inclusion of the exact date in the titles of the works in this series, suggests that the photographs can be read as documentary evidence of the oil spill. At the same time the images also indicate a fascination with the abstract sea patterns and contrasting colours generated by the leaking oil. The artist and writer Julian Bell, who has considered this photograph in relation to notions of the sublime, has pointed out that its depiction of ‘the sea’s deathly swirling at once imposes and mesmerises’, but that the image also ‘has the status of reportage’ (Bell 2013, accessed 28 July 2014).
Burtynsky’s photographs of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are part of a broader project entitled Water that the artist completed between 2008 and 2013. Shot in nine countries in North and Central America, Europe and Asia, this series features images of dams, lakes, irrigation systems, wetlands, shrimp farms, tourist resorts and waterfront housing schemes. The artist has outlined his motivations and methodology for exploring this range of international landscapes: ‘I wanted to find ways to make compelling photographs about the human systems employed to redirect and control water. I soon realized that views from ground level could not show the enormous scale of activity. I had to get up high, into the air, to see it from a bird’s-eye-view perspective’ (quoted in Schubert 2013, p.9). To achieve the images in the Water series Burtynsky utilised a variety of aircraft (some of which were operated by remote control without humans on-board), as well as large masts. ‘This pulling away from the earth has allowed me to see our world in ways once unavailable to artists’, Burtynsky has claimed (quoted in Schubert 2013, p.9). Curator Russell Lord has argued that the landscapes in the Water series ‘are some of [Burtynsky’s] most abstract to date, and they demand close and steady study as sequences, just to recognise them as landscapes, or even, as photographs’ (Russell Lord, ‘Into the Deep’, in Schubert 2013, p.187).
The Deepwater Horizon photographs also have a particular relationship with the subject of Burtynsky’s previous work. Between 1998 and 2008 the artist completed a series entitled Oil, featuring massive industrial structures and damaged landscapes connected with the production of oil, images which Lord claims ‘can alternatively be read as emblems of an exhaustively harvested earth or as icons of human achievement’ (Lord in Schubert 2013, p.188).
Burtynsky’s work, which has also included images of mines and quarries, can be connected with that of other contemporary photographers, such as the German artist Andreas Gursky, who have explored on a large-format scale and often from an elevated perspective massive industrial and manufacturing processes, particularly those associated with globalisation. In both Gursky’s and Burtynsky’s work, human figures are rarely present, but the impact of human activities on the natural environment is emphasised.
Sarah Milroy, ‘Deepwater Blues: Edward Burtynsky and the Gulf Oil Spill’, Canadian Art, Fall 2010, pp.110–17.
Julian Bell, ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/julian-bell-contemporary-art-and-the-sublime-r1108499, accessed 28 July 2014.
Marcus Schubert (ed.), Burtynsky: Water, exhibition catalogue, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans 2013, p.192, reproduced p.13.
Supported by Christie’s.