July 31, 2007

From on High

Jennifer Baichwal has again made a film about what photography captures and the contradictions of what it represents. Again, stills are set into motion, their impact as photographs quietly explored through their contrast with the film that houses them. If one left her critique in The True Meaning of Pictures with a greater appreciation for the complexities of encountering a culture through the limits of the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes uses the limits of documentary to illustrate the sublime scale of industry and its corrosive grip on humankind.

Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the industrial process has become a much-used lens through which to feel humankind's creative destruction. Through Baichwal's editing, his large-format scenes slide by one after another, backed by a soundtrack of electronica and chant that, recalling Ethan Rose's relentless compositions, worms its way through one's apprehension of the images. They are portraits of man-made sites the likes of which Robert Smithson, in his most audacious moments, surely dreamt.

Burtynsky's photographs are vast and saturated with their subject matter, just as the subject matter -- the systems of industry -- saturate the landscapes they both inhabit and create. Burtynsky is drawn to the symmetry of strip mines and quarries, the heaps of metals and the ruins made in the madness of progress. We are given the surreal colors of polluted waters, the lush reds of rusted steel, the thick sick blandness of cities drenched in coal dust and new constructions. The people, if they are there, are inevitably small, like some forgotten tribe never properly studied.

The film takes Burtynsky's recent China images for its focus because the changes there are so dramatic and of such a scale that they come to stand for the long history of extracting from land the resources needed to make innumerable goods.  The construction and destruction of the vast ships that circle the globe with that cargo and the appetite to both consume and make, over and over, and through it all, an exhale in the a wake of wreckage that is otherwise always out of sight. And upon it all, Baichwal throws us a furtive glimpse of Burtynsky, with tripod and camera, waiting for the right light, bending, holding his breath for that crucial instant, capturing "it."

The it is never in the photographs, though, for it is the saturation that exceeds any single shot, and it is through that feeling of an inescapable and tragic trajectory that the film achieves its affect: the chilling recognition of a twilight time. There is no eschatology, no threat of an eleventh hour, but rather the Boschesque vision of being overtaken by the plot of history. There there is nothing stilled, no singular images, just the interlacing of weave of the system.