Toronto Art: Go See Anthropocene

The Anthropocene Project is a culmination of all the conversations we have ever had about art’s capacity to provoke change, as well as the merits and drawbacks of doing this experientially: to not preach, harangue or blame, but to witness, and in that witnessing, try to shift consciousness.

 Flood Damaged Cars, Royal Purple Raceway, Baytown, Texas, USA, 2017 | Edward Burtynsky

Flood Damaged Cars, Royal Purple Raceway, Baytown, Texas, USA, 2017 | Edward Burtynsky

With these words, award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichal, along with husband and fellow filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier and renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, captures the necessary role art plays in providing perspective on troubling issues, such as the indelible impact humankind is having on our planet.

Anthropocene is what we call the period of Earth’s history in which humans have had the greatest influence on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, frequently for the worse. It is appropriately the name of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest blockbuster exhibition, running now until January 6, 2019.

If you are or are planning to be in Toronto during that time it is worth your while going to see this show. Through Burtynsky’s instantly recognizable large and impossibly crisp photographs and murals, along with Baichal and de Pencier’s videos and excellent lighting by the AGO, we are given rare insight into parts of our planet rarely (if ever!) seen. The power of this exhibition lies in the contrast between the art’s beauty and the horror as you realize that what you’re viewing is frequently problematic - often devastating “technofossils” - from an environmental perspective. It’s not surprising that in the exit survey the most popular word to describe visitors’ feelings is “worried.” It’s a shame the AGO doesn’t capitalize on this concern by offering visitors an immediate and visceral way to take action in the form of a donation.

 Big Lonely Doug in Galleria Italia. Too bad AR didn’t work.

Big Lonely Doug in Galleria Italia. Too bad AR didn’t work.

The exhibition includes augmented reality (AR) through the free AVARA app which can be downloaded in advance on your phone from the Apple App Store or Google Play, or accessed by one of the AGO’s provided tablets. Frustratingly, I was only able to get the app to work twice, and despite repeated efforts I was very disappointed it didn’t work on Big Lonely Doug in Galleria Italia, a tribute to a 226 foot tall Douglas Fir tree located in a clearcut in B.C.'s Gordon River Valley.  (Around 39 feet in circumference, Big Lonely Doug is estimated to be about 1,000 years old.) On a more positive note, I was delighted to solve the mystery of the small Edward Burtynsky sculpture I had discovered back in June 2017 at (of all places!) Toronto’s Galleria Mall: it was a model of the Kenyan government’s elephant tusk pyre, as featured in Anthropocene.

It’s hard to be unmoved. Whether it’s an aerial shot of the 20-million inhabitant Lagos, a video of coral dying, copper mines that look like decaying gilded frames, dazzling-yet-perilous emerald green lithium mines, or a walk through a colossal garbage dump outside Nairobi, you won’t be able to unsee what we’re doing to the planet (and you may never think of Florida in the same way again.) The AGO is also hosting a number of supporting events, and there is even an Anthropocene podcast.

Go see this show.

And if you’ve read this far, thank you. A donation has been made on your behalf to Environmental Defence.