05/29/2011 09:20 EDT | Updated 07/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Edward Burtynsky: Oil at the ROM

Like the substance itself, the inky, impenetrable origins of our relationship with liquid petroleum are not exactly clear. There is a bleak, post-apocalyptic beauty in it all.

Like the substance itself, the inky, impenetrable origins of our relationship with liquid petroleum are not exactly clear. There are records of the Sumerians and Babylonians using its crude form for their own inventive purposes more than 5,000 years ago; and the Egyptians put it to medical use, as wound dressing and as a laxative; but there was no historical eureka, no epiphany to definitively structure our understanding of what the subterranean resource could, and presently does, mean to our species. What is clear is that it has been present at every stage of what we would consider human civilization. Edward Burtynsky's latest photographic exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum explores what that substance's cultivation and utilization means in our ravenous present, at a time where oil has been tapped to the point of scarcity nearly everywhere we have found it around the globe. He has captured the harvest with an exacting, mechanical eye.

The primarily focus of the endeavour is, of course, scale; it is the scope of the operation that is under scrutiny. Both the topic and the work are enormous. The photographic prints are open vistas that suggest the transgression of limit in any sense. The frame of each image contains merely a fraction of each subject's possible depiction: California's pumpjacks tirelessly piston mid-motion, frozen in labour from horizon to horizon; in Houston massive ash-grey cylinders smoke towards an unseen sky, an industrial reality crowding out the boarders of vegetative life; and captured in Alberta we witness the oil sand's decidedly devastating, and quite evidently un-green, refinement methods carving the landscape into fields of ebony reflections. There is an undeniable message that we have gone too far. The parameters of this point of development in our mechanized maturity are outside our ability to conceptualize it adequately. It's too big. It's too awful.

But it is still only a part of oil's complex, self-perpetuating life cycle: the stupefying grandiosity of its gathering gives way to aerial shots that depict our epic consumption of its product. Fields of motorcycles, cars, roads, and homes define the strictures if its existence, its role in our continuing alienation from our natural origins and our progress towards a point where every resource at hand is transformed into a tool for human continuance. When you consider how vibrant the act of combustion is the products of its effect look remarkably inert when taken from afar. Through the lens of distant perspective the achievements generated from burning oil present a variety of nightmarish landscapes sculpted from a palette more easily associated with death than life. The paradox of our existence feels undeniably weighted with pessimism as the viewer is drawn through an arresting photographic narrative.

There is a terrible sameness that permeates the accomplishments of this age of oil. Weather it is Los Angeles or Shanghai, St. John or even Birmingham, the mark of industrial ingenuity resonates with the same monochrome aesthetic, and a physics of exploitation that will remain the legacy of tapping the latent energy reserved in the residue of expired life. The used tire is one of its emblems. The rusting, abandoned engine is another.

There is a bleak, post-apocalyptic beauty in it all. Indeed, after looking at the exhibition's array, and taking yourself from one end of the pipeline to the other, it is easy to think that the apocalypse may have already happened, slowly, gradually over two hundred years, all around us as we've continued on in the most useful way we can. There is also a stark, satisfying articulation to be found in the directness of this flow from intention to product. It is the currency of human ambition reflected in Burtynsky's work. The structures of pipes and smokestacks, the lines of roads and bridges, these are things that travel from an origin to a telos -- they all have an end. What strikes the observer, once granted a framing distance, is that the terminus and dissolution of these manufactured things might be beyond our own. The bones of our tools might well exist long after ours are submerged in oil.