From the writers of Dallas to the gas-pipe dictators of certain less than savoury regimes, it is known that it is oil that makes the world go round. It is oil that defines our age and the structures that show what we do with it and how we get it, and the scars and relics we leave when it is gone, are what will most fascinate those who come after us. Edward Burtynsky’s Oil is the first major show at the reopened Photographers’ Gallery in London and in both the scale of its works and the scope of its ambition it is more than worthy of such an honour.
Burtynsky has said that it was in the late 90s that he realised that without oil the modern world, the very landscapes he was photographing, would not exist. He has since turned his camera to the tangible markers of oil – from the drilling stations on California oil fields that stand in rows like an apolocalyptic invading robot army to tyres left abandoned in pits after use. The swirling magnificence of US freeways as they lead into cities or stand all out of scale to the neighbourhoods they cut through are also recorded. We have burning oil rigs at sea; we have discarded planes stacked like carcassses to rust in the desert. But there are also nods to pleasure: car enthusiasts gather on the salt plains; an Ernst Haas landscape of bright signs and petrol stations.
This is, though, a dehumanised world. There is for the most part no relief from the mechanised, no personalisation to show humanity emerging or surviving. There is a bleak inevitability to the cycle of discovery, collection, use and abandonment. Burtynsky makes us stand in awe at the functioning magnificence of the New Brunswick oil refinery whereas the recyclers in Chittagong are in grubby conditions, ankle-deep in sludge. Oil has made this world and controls it too.
The clarity of the works on display is astonishing; the depths revealed almost too much. The pallette is controlled rather than muted with soft light being used to guide the eye through the confusion. It always feels like we’re seeing something in the evening twilight – a fading of the grandeur. Burtynsky’s ability to draw out the surprising shapes of his subject is consistent: from the twisting ribbons of intersections to the rigs on the sea in Baku.
This, then, is an impressive exhibition. One that shows nicely the type of work that the new spaces at the Photographers’ Gallery will be able to do justice. There is own downside. If you want to take home a reminder of the work you’ve just seen then that will set you back some £60 for the catalogue and that’s the kind of price that only the oil barrens of Dallas and the controllers of oil-happy regimes don’t flinch at.