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Manufactured Landscapes

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Progress, as far as the eye can see: Edward Burtynsky's "Manufacturing #18," shot at Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China
  • Progress, as far as the eye can see: Edward Burtynsky's "Manufacturing #18," shot at Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China

Manufactured Landscapes opens without preamble, with a slow pan past aisle after aisle after aisle of workers in a Chinese factory. We note the intent laborers in their brightly colored smocks, the clean and tidy workspaces, the low hum of machinery; ironically, what we don't register is what is being made. Each worker is bent to a small, repetitive task, but the scale of the production is too enormous to discern what product is being manufactured.

The gulf between worker and industry, between raw material and product, and between consumption and discard -- these are the disparities explored in Jennifer Baichwal's film essay highlighting Edward Burtynsky's photography.

It was a wrong turn in Eastern Pennsylvania that took Burtynsky through a coal-mining region. Struck by how completely the topography had been altered, the Canadian photographer began a decade-long series of artful, large-format photographs depicting the enormous changes that extractive industries had wrought upon the earth. Now, in Landscapes, Baichwal follows Burtynsky on a recent journey to China, whose exploding industrialization is the gaping maw into which many of these raw materials are poured.

Burtynsky, who provides the film's only narration, seeks to document "the landscape that we change [and] disrupt in the pursuit of progress," thereby creating a new landscape. Nature made the breathtaking Himalayan range; an inconceivably large mountain of discarded automobile tires is a geographic feature wrought by man. Some of Burtynsky's photos suggest that these man-made landscapes have their own, unnatural beauty -- whether it's the uniformly concentric tiers of an open-pit mine or a gorgeously surreal river that runs bright red with nickel tailings.

While these static images can be aesthetically satisfying, Landscapes' larger point should give more pause. Everything organic -- from the littlest speck, to us, to our ecosystems -- has a birth-life-death-rebirth cycle. Today's huge mines, tire mountains, mile-long factories and other creations of man are the evidence that we have willfully super-sized this natural order, and likely to our peril.

From a super-sized workforce manning a super-sized factory comes zillions of items; these are sent through a super-sized port to temporarily sate our super-sized consumption; then our discarded super-sized waste returns on super-sized ships to where it was made -- where, lastly, the items are reduced to micro components, suitable for re-use in the cycle.

Among the surreal stops in this loop are the fields of "e-waste," the detritus of three decades of personal computing and high-tech gadgets, now scavenged for tiny bits of metal; and the dead tankers run aground on Bangladesh's shores that are subsequently dismantled into scrap by hand. (While there's something horrific about watching ragged children scrape toxic materials off motherboards, one is struck by man's unlimited capacity for adaptive industriousness. If the natural landscape that once nutured life has been subsumed, then a new subsistence will be eked out of what replaced it.)

Throughout the film, clever editing shifts the viewer seamlessly from on site, as the photo is being captured, to a world away, admiring Burtynsky's photograph on a gallery wall. It's a reminder that there's an element of Burtynsky's work, and of this film, that risks simply fetishizing not only the awfulness of this destruction, but also the people whom it impacts directly (though many of Burtynsky's photos contain no humans and are especially abstract).

Near the film's end, Burtynsky states that his work is apolitical, and that his goal is to document and let the viewer draw conclusions, or not. Likewise, Baichwal's film has no stated agenda; Manufactured Landscapes isn't a rallying cry, or even an indictment, so much as a visually stunning record of fact.

It's an artistic decision I respect, but I couldn't help wondering whether the film might have benefited from some outrage. After all, what's depicted aren't inevitable occurrences, and we all made this world by subscribing to the current political and economic ethos; nor are we doomed to continue in such a reckless manner. Yet while the images are horrifying, they are presented with such dispassion that viewers may simply note them, tsk-tsk and carry on as if these manufactured landscapes are as inviolable as any enormous natural spectacle. In English, and some Mandarin, with subtitles.

Starts Fri., Oct. 5. Regent Square

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