Edward Burtynsky: Quarries
Charles Cowles Gallery
November 1 – December 1, 2007
In Quarries, Edward Burtynsky’s most recent series of photographs, sites of marble and granite quarrying in Vermont, Italy, Portugal, China and Spain are documented in varying stages of activity. While some are currently being mined, others are abandoned and progressively reclaimed by nature. Organic and natural forms are juxtaposed against the sharp cubism of the miners’ cuts, but what should depict only harsh contrasts in fact reveals surprising similarities between these disparate elements.
Burtynsky’s saturated colors, vast panoramas and sharply-focused details emphasize the beauty of nature’s transcendence of industrial waste. In the triptych Iberia #15, Marmol Rojo Alicante, La Romaneta de Monovar, Alicante, Spain (2006)—all the photographs are roughly five feet, off-square—the rows of olive groves and trees in the foreground are emblematic of a pastoral countryside, in contrast to the chiseled blocks and heaps of rubble in the background, yet the landscaped trees are as regimented as the background is manufactured, both by human intervention.
By describing these quarries as “organic architecture” and “inverted pyramids,” Burtynsky seems to argue that the carved-out remains of the quarries should be regarded as a structured void. In Iberia Quarries #3, Cochico Co., Pardais, Portugal (2006), layers of unmined marble—the wall of a ravine—bear the markings of individual blocks, as if the mountain itself were assembled through human construction. And in Carrara Marble Quarries #12, Carrara, Italy (1993), what appears to be a rectangular corner of a building emerges from raw, untouched marble. After they are abandoned, however, many quarries fill with water, becoming small ponds or lakes hospitable to trees and foliage, a fact that suggests a sustainable approach to mining, as demonstrated Rock of Ages #38, Abandoned Section, Rock of Ages Quarry, Barre, Vermont (1991).
The quarry sites in Burtynsky’s images display the painstaking craft involved in the removal of the stone. This skillful execution stands in stark contrast to the environmentally ruinous practices that are becoming increasingly widespread, such as strip mining and mountaintop removal. The latter process, most closely associated with coalmining in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States, is an extremely destructive and unsustainable form of surface mining. Mountaintop removal involves using explosives to excavate thousands of vertical feet of rock to access underlying minerals. While it may be safer for miners, this practice causes catastrophic topological and ecological damage. Not only are mountains permanently leveled, but toxic oceans of coal slurry and waste sludge completely overwhelm nearby rivers, destroying everything in their wake. While Burtynsky’s photographs evoke a near-harmonious grandeur, these surface mining sites are as visually repugnant as they are environmentally devastating.
Burtynsky instead depicts these quarries as altered landscapes of intricate geometric patterning amid organic forms. Through the intervention of time, the quarries have slowly and silently transformed into sublime, otherworldly places, almost becoming aspects of the natural world in their own right. Burtynsky’s photographs invite a comparison of visual and moral complexities that, even while evidencing past or ongoing destructions of once-pristine nature, implicitly condemns our current relationship to nature as running against what should have been an inviolable pact.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.