Pure Genius

Oil as Art

Oil as Art

Posting in Environment

A photographer takes us beyond the thermostat and gas pump to see the source of our fuel.

When my motorcycle needs gas, I go to the pump. When I’m cold, I turn up the heat. I think very little about where the fuel used to power my engines and heat my home comes from; and it’s rarely that I catch glimpses of the source of our fuel (like driving through Texas last year, pictured here). Even then—a refinery on the horizon or a tanker in the ocean—it’s so many degrees away from my tiny world that I don’t bother to think about how oil gets from there to here.

But Edward Burtynsky spent 12 years thinking about it, and when I saw his exhibit, Oil, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art yesterday, I couldn’t help doing so too. The Canadian photographer traveled internationally to beautifully chronicle the life of oil, through its production, distribution and use.

Burtynsky’s collection of large-scale color photographs is broken into three parts. First, he shows oil’s extraction and refinement: an oil tanker and refineries in Pasadena, Texas, oil fields in Bakersfield and Belridge, Calif. There are aerial shots of pumpjacks, row after row; and closer shots of these mechanical dinosaur-looking creatures dipping their noses into the ground. Mazes of pipes remind me of an M.C. Escher piece—where do they end?

Then the exhibit moves on to transportation and motor culture. Burtynsky has taken overhead shots of a highway interchange in Shanghai; suburban sprawl in Las Vegas; a truckers jamboree in Iowa; rows of motorcycles in Sturgis; the starting line at the Bonneville Salt Flats Land Speed Trials.

Finally, the end of oil’s life cycle: junk piles, recycling yards, rows of junked cars and military aircraft. There is a dismal shot of a Sikorsky helicopter scrap yard in Tucson, Ariz., where dead choppers, blades removed, are lined up, head to tail. There’s the Oxford Tire Pile in Westley, Calif.—a colossal heap of tires that looks—if you squint—like it could be black eels or wet rocks. There are giant jet engines stacked up like cardboard toilet paper rolls. A series of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, a birthplace of the modern petroleum industry. Derelict oil tankers in Bangladesh.

If the machines and contraptions in Burtynsky’s photographs were Skittles-colored instead of brown and grey, they’d look like Willy Wonka’s factory. But while I appreciated the art, there’s nothing fun or light about this exhibit. It’s a sobering peek into a world we barely see, in locations generally far from civilization. These remote landscapes look alien because, to most of us, they are. And for most of us, the source of our fuel is far from everyday thoughts.

Burtynsky’s work is just one artist’s view of our oil industry. But it’s an important one, and I recommend you see it. The exhibit runs at the Corcoran through Sunday and tours through 2012. Click here to see the upcoming exhibition schedule.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure