Anthropocene exhibit shows how humans have permanently changed Earth

Nov 23, 2018 | News

These large tatrapods will be used to create seawalls and protect shorelines. Formed on-site from moulds like those at the bottom of the image, each one can weigh up to 80 tons. (M Aranha)

M Aranha

A new exhibit at the AGO, Anthropocene, confronts viewers with the magnitude of human impact on the environment.

Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier have collaborated on a collection of large format photographs, short films, murals and augmented reality installations, that reveal how we have profoundly and permanently altered the planet.

The artists travelled all over the world, including to Kenya and Chile’s Atacama desert to document landfills, mines, forests and oceans. The result is having enormous impact on gallery visitors like Richard Partington.

“It’s staggering. I was just reading Burtynsky talking about our extractive world. Things are being taken and things are being dumped so it’s an incredible kind of spectrum of both dumping and taking,” he said.

AGO member, Hannah Chan, loved the exhibit and found it very effective.

“I find this is beautiful and also devastating at the same time,” she said.

For the last 12,000-odd years, Earth has been in the geological epoch known as the Holocene, a period of stable climate since the end of the last ice age.

Two decades ago, scientists proposed we have entered a new epoch called the Anthropocene, one in which humans are changing the Earth’s systems more than all natural forces combined.

The artists wanted to avoid preaching and blaming humans for the negative consequences of our presence on earth, instead intending simply to bear witness, and in doing so, hopefully shift consciousness.

A statement by Burtynsky described their mindset and approach while working on this body of work over the last five years:

“We have always taken from nature. This is normal, part of the human condition and, indeed, a fact of life for all life forms. What is different today is the speed and scale of human taking, and that the earth has never experienced this kind of cumulative impact.”

The exhibit is not limited to portrayals of human waste and exploitation of natural resources. It also includes images of our attempts to transition to more sustainable ways of living or find solutions climate change.

One photograph, for example, shows large tetrapods that are used to create seawalls and prevent coastal erosion along China’s shoreline. Made of concrete, tetrapods are technofossils- human-produced objects that cannot naturally decompose, a geological marker of the Anthropocene.

“I guess there’s an ambivalence about it. For example, if you look at the solar panels, it’s great that we’re looking for alternative sources of energy but we have to consider how those things are impacting the environment,” said Chan. “They have to be created so where are those materials coming from?”

Anthropocene runs to January 6 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.