Seeing art in water

Seeing art in water

Five years and more than 25,000 images.

That is what it took award- winning Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky to present his Water series.

In town for the Singapore premiere of his documentary film Watermark at Sundaram Tagore Gallery last week, the approachable Burtynsky told

Life! he wanted to "test the very limits of technology", while illustrating the impact of manufacturing and human consumption on the world's rapidly depleting water supplies.

Eventually, 100 photographs from the initial 25,000 made the cut for what he calls his "largest, most ambitious and most challenging" project to date.

Thirty-five photographs from the Water series are now on show in his solo exhibition that runs at the gallery in Gillman Barracks, off Alexandra Road, till Sunday.

The 90-minute documentary, shown last week for the first time in South-east Asia, was also shot by him. It is about his global journey to capture human impact on water supplies.

Burtynsky, 59, looked a little tired when he sat down to speak to Life!. But his relaxed and easy-going manner showed he puts people first, even after the screening of his film and the post-show dialogue. He did not say no to anyone who asked for a signature or a photograph, whether at the gallery or during a late dinner hosted by gallerist Sundaram Tagore at Masons restaurant in Gillman Barracks.

The international touring exhibition Water opened at the New Orleans Museum Of Art & Contemporary Art Center in the United States last year. After Singapore, it heads to Hong Kong.

Tagore, who also owns galleries in New York and Hong Kong, explained: "We wanted to introduce Singaporeans to a world-renowned photographer and to address the social issues that we find to be important and pertinent."

The images are not only socially conscious but have also been commercially successful. Over half the works at the gallery, priced between US$18,000 (S$22,700) and US$45,000 and available in editions of 10, have been sold.

For Burtynsky, Water is not a project that was born in isolation.

Growing up in wildlife-rich Canada, he said he first started documenting the impact of mining activity on the landscape as early as the 1980s. This was followed by the documentation of quarries.

"It is all connected in a way," he said reflectively.

"I think the most immediate and direct connections perhaps happened when I was working on oil refineries as well as the documentation of the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh in early 2000. These projects took time and they allowed me to see how connected our world is.

"When I started documenting mines, the world's population was about 3.5 billion. We now have more than seven billion people on the planet. As a photographer, this interests me. I want to explore how our presence and what we do impact our planet."

But he likes to make his point subtly.

In the past, his critics have alleged that his images "prettify the terrible".

He said all he wants to do is make his point without "stating the obvious, without the expected finger pointing".

So in the Water series, you do not get to see the expected. There are no images of rivers filled with garbage, plastic or toxic dump.

The point is made through sometimes eerie images that capture a pristine blue river surrounded by mountains or a photograph of what looks like the parched earth.

His image of the Thjorsa River in Iceland, for instance, looks more like an oil spill than a river.

"At some level, we are all aware of the damage we are causing to the environment. I want people to think about it."

His images do make you pause and reflect. One of the most arresting visuals in the Singapore show is his documentation of the Kumbh Mela, one of the world's largest religious gatherings held in India along the banks of holy rivers such as the Ganges and Yamuna, and is attended by nearly 100 million people who gather to bathe in the water.

Burtynsky said this was one event he wanted to document, to capture the "sheer impact" of so many people in one space. He called it "a really challenging shoot" in his Water series, one which took almost three years to plan and get approval for. Eventually he did not get the shot he was after, but what he captured - a teeming mass of humanity on the river banks - perfectly portrays the impact of people on one water source.

His large-format colour photographs, most of which measure 48 by 64 inches effectively explore the impact of humanity's expanding footprint on the planet.

He uses a 60-megapixel Hasselblad camera. For Water, several photographs were taken from over 7,000 feet above sea level either in helicopters, drones or a single-propellor Cessna with a hole at the bottom.

When his camera is not air-borne, it is often mounted on cranes. As a photographer, he is all for technology.

"The technology is there. I want to see how far I can take it. We are at the cusp in terms of what technology is allowing us to do even for the very creation of art or a photograph."

He said he knows exactly what image he is after even when he is programming a photograph, and it is always backed by extensive research. "The planning can take years sometimes," he said, a soft smile lining up his face.

Though he started taking photographs in the 1980s, he had his first museum solo show only in 2003 and there has been no turning back since.

He has multiple awards to his name, including the inaugural TED award in 2005 given out by the non-profit organiser of short talks to an individual with a bold vision for social change, and is a huge draw wherever he goes.

More than 200 people showed up at Sundaram Tagore Gallery last week to hear him speak about his work. Visitors who had not registered for the documentary screening had to be turned away as the gallery was too packed.

Among the audience was Mr Bill Condon, founder and chairman of Hong Kong's The Multitude Foundation and The Multitude Art Project, which organises key art conferences in the region. He flew in specially for the event and called Burtynsky's film "a very powerful and emotive experience".

Mr Condon, 54, said the photographer's work "highlights our absolute dependence on water which is contrasted by spectacular examples of the irreparable damage caused by tampering with the planet's water systems".

As a viewer, he said, he was drawn into "the fragility of the link between water in the chain of life which we underestimate at our peril. It was worth travelling to Singapore for this visual experience".

Private banker Alexandre Dardel, 37, who first saw Burtynsky's photographs at the premier contemporary art fair, Art Stage Singapore, said his images made him "think and reflect".

"What I like about his work is that there is a touch of positivity. It does not preach," he added.

As a photographer, Burtynsky found his initial inspiration in the backyard of an Ontario industrial landscape. More than 30 years ago, he was a pioneer in addressing environmental issues in his artistic practice.

Today, the Toronto-based photographer, who is separated and has two daughters, Megan, 19 and Katya, 16, focuses on more massive projects that take him years to complete.

His photographs are now in the collections of more than 50 museums around the world, including prominent ones such as the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, both in New York.

Water started in 2007. He calls the series "a grand and enormous one to tackle. We come from water, we are made of water and life cannot exist without water".

He is not sure where this body of work might take him, or what he will do next.

"It is entirely likely that out of this series will emerge my next one."

Travelling the world

1951: Edward Burtynsky's parents migrate from Ukraine to Canada.

1955: He is born on Feb 22 in St Catharines, Ontario, Canada.

1966: His father buys a darkroom from a widow. The younger Burtynsky starts learning how to make black-and-white photographic prints.

1982: Gets his Bachelor of Applied Arts degree specialising in Photographic Arts from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, Canada.

1983 - 1985: Embarks on his first photographic series, Breaking Ground: Mines, Railcuts And Homesteads, travelling across Canada and the United States.

1985: Sets up Toronto Image Works, a darkroom rental facility, custom photo laboratory, digital imaging and new media computer-training centre for Toronto's art community.

1999 - 2008: Works on his famous photographic series on the oil industry, travelling to many parts of Canada, China, Azerbaijan and the US.

2000: Travels to India to document the Makrana Marble Quarries, in the north-western state of Rajasthan.

2000 - 2001: Documents the shipbreaking industry - the breaking up of ships for scrap recycling - in Bangladesh. The industry there is widely regarded as dangerous and deadly. Burtynsky is among the first to present these images in the West.

2003: Manufactured Landscapes, an exhibition observing changes in landscapes due to industrial work and manufacturing, opens at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It travels to various places around the world for the next two years.

2005: Receives the inaugural TED Prize for his work documenting humanity's environmental impact on the planet.

2006: Becomes the subject of the documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes, that is screened at many festivals including the Sundance Film Festival.

2006: Awarded the title of Officer of the Order of Canada. Holds six honorary doctorate degrees.

2007: Begins work on the Water series, now on show at Singapore's Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Conceptualisation and planning take almost two years and he starts travelling in 2009.

2009: His five-year international touring show Oil opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

2013: The international touring exhibition Water opens at the New Orleans Museum of Art & Contemporary Art Center in the US before travelling to Singapore. Its next stop is Hong Kong.

View it


Where: Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 01-05, 5 Lock Road, Gillman Barracks

When: Till Sunday. 11am to 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am to 6pm (Sunday)

Admission: Free

Info: Go to or call 6694-3378

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