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The new landscape of our time

Manufactured Landscapes, an art film that brings to life Edward Burtynsky’s still photographs of China, exposes the strange intimacies of a globalised world in crisis, says Sam Geall.

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The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose large, majestic prints focus on human construction and industrial landscapes, says he aims “not to glorify industry, nor to damn it.” But when he turned his lens to China's rapid industrialisation, what did he find? And how can his striking images help us understand the environmental challenges facing the world's fastest growing economy? These questions are asked subtly and artfully in Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary film directed by Jennifer Baichwal, which opened in the United Kingdom on May 9. 

I meet Baichwal at the British Film Institute in London and start by asking her why she was first attracted to Burtynsky's vast images of factory production lines, ship-breaking yards and mountains of electronic waste. “When I first saw Burtynsky's work,” she says, “I was struck by the capacity of the pieces to change environmental consciousness non-didactically.” Baichwal, whose previous films include a portrait of the enigmatic writer Paul Bowles, says she was drawn to the images' ambiguity and sense of mystery. “They are beautiful to look at, but you're looking at garbage. The somersaults that your mind goes through when you're confronting one of these prints – I think it takes you to a different place.”

This complexity stands in sharp contrast to the green politics of an earlier time, she says, politics which were often polarising and out of touch with the ethical imaginations of ordinary city dwellers. “Not everybody's going to move to the country and become an organic farmer and make their own clothes.” Instead, Manufactured Landscapes suggests another way to begin to think about ecology. Rather than being a documentary with a didactic political message – in the style of Al Gore's global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truththe film’s stately pace allows the viewer to “slow down enough to meditate on your own impact on the environment.”

Baichwal admits that Manufactured Landscapes reaches similar conclusions to Gore's film, “but through a completely different path that is much more experiential, allowing you to be in the places you are responsible for, but would never see.” The film animates these hidden places in Burtynsky's work with on-the-ground reportage, the photographer's own words and a dissonant, industrial soundscape. At its heart is the seeming contradiction between the rapid, noisy process of industrialisation in Asia and the eerie serenity of Burtynsky’s monumental photographs.


Burtynsky was inspired to shoot in China, Baichwal tells me, when he started to wonder where his computer would go to die once he had finished using it. Searching for the answer led him to China’s vast recycling yards for waste electronic equipment, where the United States sends at least half of its “e-waste”, and where substances like lead and cadmium often pose environmental and health risks to workers and local residents. His bold photographs of junked computers and televisions, therefore, aim to make the viewer aware of the consequences of his or her own consumption. “There is no 'away' to throw garbage away to,” Baichwal says, quoting the sustainability-focused American architect William McDonough. “The whole film is meant for you to reflect back on yourself. It's about all of us; it's not about people in China.”


However, the film is mostly shot in China and its subjects range from workers in the country’s booming manufacturing-for-export sector to construction at the Three Gorges Dam project, from coal mining to urban nightclubs for the country’s new middle classes. As different as these sites may seem, landscape is the film's organising principle and – as the title suggests – this is exclusively of the man-made variety. During the film, Burtynsky is heard to reflect: “The new landscape of our time is the landscape that we change, that we disrupt in the name of progress.” And Baichwal tells me, too, that she was struck by these places' unique effect. “Being in some of those landscapes, you literally can do a 360-degree turn and there is nothing natural left in the environment – nothing.”


But in concentrating on the changing landscape of China’s rapid development, does the film single out the country for criticism? “They are doing what every other industrialised country has done: industrialise; make a lot of money; get incredibly dirty; clean up later,” says Baichwal. Many in the country understand the consequences of this growth, she adds, and are working to change the way it is handled. “People in China know the cause, they know what's going on, but I think there is this constant tension between being outspoken and advocating for change, and not going too far so that you become marginalised.”


“I never wanted anyone to think this was an indictment of China, because it's not,” she continues. “This is really more about thinking about yourself and your own participation in cycles of consumption.” The film takes you to sites of frenetic transformation and environmental degradation not to excuse your own inaction, but to inspire a personal transformation. “Once you witness a place that you are responsible for but would never normally see, it changes you,” says Baichwal. And this ties you intimately to lives on the other side of the world. “I'm heartened by the fact that most audiences… look at themselves and think about their own intimate relationship to that woman [in China] who spends her life making spray mechanisms for irons.” 


It is the strange intimacy of an increasingly globalised world facing a shared, looming crisis that underpins the environmental consciousness of Manufactured Landscapes. “We all have to recognise that there is no ‘far away’ anymore,” says Baichwal.

Manufactured Landscapes is released in the United Kingdom on May 9. For more information and venues, visit www.bfi.org.uk/manufactured


Sam Geall is the deputy editor of chinadialogue


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匿名 | Anonymous



Ecological aesthetics

I would like to compare manufactured landscapes with ecological aesthetics. I attended a lecture on ecological aesthetics last night. Although I did not quite understand the lecture, I have got a clear message——We should promote aesthetic appreciation of the nature. We used to neglect the aesthetics of nature, focusing on the aesthetics of arts created by ourselves. Now we are losing more and more natural landscapes, which prompts people to go back to the nature and spend money on sightseeing despite all the troubles on the road. As a result, the aesthetics of nature we are advocating may serve the conservation of nature as well. --Loyi,Nanjing

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匿名 | Anonymous


我们习惯于观赏艺术作品中美丽的、有时是理想化的风景,而不是正视环境恶化后的严酷景象。因此,观看Edward Burtynsky和Jennifer Baichwal这样的摄影师与制片人的作品,是一种非常重要而且鼓舞人心的体验。他们的作品向我们反映了人类对地球的所作所为的真实后果。敏感的Burtynsky还注意到了他自己的行为中的矛盾:他拍下了中国对自然资源进行掠夺性开采的照片,与此同时,“我开着铁制的、加满汽油的汽车抵达拍摄地,拿出用金属制作的三脚架,抓着镀银的胶卷。”“人造风景”是一部既感人又发人深省的纪录片,值得一看。 -- Matthew

Landscape in art

We are used to viewing beautiful -- and often idealised -- landscapes in art, rather than harsh scenes of environmental devastation. It is important (and very heartening), therefore, to see that photographers and film-makers such as Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal are reflecting back to us -- in their artistic work -- the reality of what humans have done to the planet.
Burtynsky also sensitively noted a contradiction in his own activity as he captured scenes of resource-plundering in China: "I arrive in my car of iron, filled with gas, pull out a metal tripod and grab film made with silver".
"Manufactured Landscapes" is a moving and thought-provoking documentary, and well worth seeing. -- Matthew