New exhibition documents the start of the Anthropocene epoch

phosphor tailings in florida
© Phosphor tailings in Florida/ Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier

Nobel Laureate Paul J. Crutzen first described the Anthropocene epoch back in 2000 as "a means of communicating this change from the relatively stable world of the Holocene to one in which humanity has altered the earth state into a new unstable one." Now, in 2018, Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier have mounted a truly monumental exhibition called Anthropocene, that opens this week simultaneously in Ottawa and Toronto, along with a documentary film opening this fall.

burtynsky et al on stageAGO's Sophie Hackett with Ed Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier/CC BY 2.0
Spanning photography, film, and virtual and augmented reality, this rigorously researched project invites viewers to bear witness to how the planet has been irrevocably transformed by human activity. Through stunning and innovative imagery, Anthropocene achieves its goal of capturing the massive scope of human effects on land, sky, and water. We have no doubt that our audiences will leave with an unshakable sense of both awe and responsibility.

Ed Burtynsky and his giant photographs have been on TreeHugger many times; he even has his own tag. But an online photo cannot do justice, cannot begin to convey the power of these images, showing how we have changed the planet. But technology has changed in this time as well, so that the films of Baichwal and de Pencier can be presented alongside on giant high-resolution flat monitors, moving photos on the wall.

coal mine in Germany© Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany, 2105/ Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

They are spectacular, slow-moving images of trains full of coal, or moving versions of Burtynsky photos, like this one from Germany.

What unites the artists’ work is a sense that the landscapes we inhabit and the landscapes that support us, though in some cases geographically distant, are not separate—and further, that the misuse and permanent alteration of these landscapes and their resources is not only a threat but presents a potential and fundamental change to our beings.

Exhibition spaceLloyd Alter/ exhibition at the AGO, Toronto/CC BY 2.0

It is all a very simple exhibition, just a grid of posts with photos or monitors hanging on them, some graphics on the floor. But the images are incredibly powerful.

An article in the catalog by Colin Waters & Jan Zalasie looks at the Anthropocene's beginnings in the industrial revolution and its rapid acceleration into the 21st century. To be an epoch, it has to be in the geology, recognizable in the strata. And it now is there, in the record of our planet.

A range of potential stratigraphic markers is available to define the base of the Anthropocene. Many are anthropogenic in origin, entirely novel in Earth history, and hence have not been used previously to define boundaries of ancient geological time units.

There is carbon, plutonium, lead, organic pollutants, DDT, heavy metals, and plastic, not to mention urban strata like pipes and structures.

But really, you just have to look at the photographs and the videos. We have totally, and permanently, changed the planet.

the last white rhinoLloyd Alter/ The last white rhino in VR/CC BY 2.0

Less successful are the attempts at augmented reality. This white rhino is only visible through my iPhone, a visual rhino that I can walk around, watch his ears twitch. More successful (though I couldn't get on my phone) is a giant pile of ivory tusks being prepared for burning.

This show is not a dire 'oh my god it's the end of the world and we're all gonna die' rant. Nobody is going to say it is a left wing plot to indoctrinate our children. It is reporting. It is documentation. It is stunningly powerful. Ed doesn't blame anyone or any group in particular as he writes his conclusion:

Our planet has borne witness to five great extinction events, and these have been prompted by a variety of causes: a colossal meteor impact, massive volcanic eruptions, and oceanic cyanobacteria activity that generated a deadly toxicity in the atmosphere. These were the naturally occurring phenomena governing life’s ebb and flow. Now it is becoming clear that humankind, with its population explosion, industry, and technology, has in a very short period of time also become an agent of immense global change. Arguably, we are on the cusp of becoming (if we are not already) the perpetrators of a sixth major extinction event. Our planetary system is affected by a magnitude of force as powerful as any naturally occurring global catastrophe, but one caused solely by the activity of a single species: us.

solar panels in spain© Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

It is all of us, everywhere. Looking through Burtynsky's eyes, some of the environmental horror stories are striking and beautiful; others are just horror stories. There are also magnificent tunnels under mountains, giant solar power installations, and other grand accomplishments. We have made our mark on this planet, and here are the photos to prove it.

on wall of galleryLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

New exhibition documents the start of the Anthropocene epoch
Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier