Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Manufactured landscapes

It's a very long way from the subject of my last posting to the industrial landscapes of modern China, explored in Jennifer Baichwal's film Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes. Then again, Burtynsky's photographs are still a Western take on China - the exotic Rococo dream replaced by a nightmare of environmental apocalypse...

I tend to agree with Mark Sinker's verdict: "visually, the film is rich and subtle - Burtynsky finds an eerie beauty in the starkest, most poisoned, emptied vistas; what's deathly here is also potent and haunting. The words and music are less successful - the former somewhat diffident and unspecific, perhaps tactically, the latter rather off-the-peg, an Eno-esque soundtrack to an arch suspension of judgement. And the problem of the cliché of the Chinese as a teeming, purposeful yet inscrutable ocean of humanity is perhaps not quite pushed back against as much as it might be."

Sinker may be hinting here that the 'diffident and unspecific' commentary was necessary to get agreement to shoot the film. I suppose I was expecting something more creative, like the poetic science fiction of Herzog's Lessons of Darkness. The relative banality of the narrative in Manufactured Landscape does allow you to focus on the visual imagery, but it left me pondering (no doubt unfairly) whether the photographer and film maker had sufficiently reflected on what they were filming. Sinker provides an example in highlighting the Ballardian landscape of the Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh, "where huge rusting tankers sit stranded on otherwise naked mudflats, scavenged and dismantled by local teenagers. We're told almost nothing about this set-up - except that it's very poorly paid and very dangerous - but Burtynsky perhaps judges the force of the image more effective than any lecture about economics or sociology."

How far would the emotions felt two hundred years ago in front of a painting like Coalbrookdale by Night have differed from those experienced by a modern viewer of Manufactured Landscapes. There is the same frightening power to alter landscapes and replace natural with manufacturing forces, and the same human and environmental costs (which were, of course, evident to poets like Blake and Wordsworth). But the sense of scale is far greater in this film - there is something of Kant's mathematical sublime in Burtynsky's photograph of seemingly endless mountains of coal, or in Baichwal's long opening shot of a vast factory floor. The enormity of the Three Gorges Dam, where Burtynsky photographed a city about to be drowned, is difficult to grasp. This awesome construction seems to have been unscathed by the recent Sichuan earthquake, in which terrifying natural forces have created new lakes through landslides, as well as weakening dams built by the Chinese (including one that is over 2000 years old).

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