Sunday, 01 February 2015 00:00

Edward Burtynsky's Photography Exhibition Shows Our Stressed Relationship with Water

Written by  Kerri VanderHoff
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It’s no secret that we have a love affair with water in West Michigan. We choose to live in a state that, while the four seasons are beautiful, the winters can make less-hardy people question our sanity. But we know how much sweeter that makes the sunsets at Lake Michigan in the summer, how clear blue is the water and how soft the sand that makes zipping noises as you walk barefoot through it.

We also have a growing awareness of the importance of caring for our lakes and rivers. The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. According to the Great Lakes Restoration Conference, scientists were warning that this significant fresh water resource was on the brink of an ecosystem breakdown. Faced with this threat, local businessman and philanthropist Peter Wege and other visionaries gathered in Grand Rapids 10 years ago and provided the funding to start the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Edward Burtynsky: Water 
Grand Rapids Art Museum
Feb. 1-April 26, 2015,, (616) 831-1000
It is fitting that a major art exhibition on the subject of water, exploring humanity’s increasingly stressed relationship with this vital resource, should come to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM). GRAM is the world’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified art museum, in the midst of a city known for its sustainability, in a state that is surrounded by a tremendous amount of water.

Edward Burtynsky: Water is a traveling exhibition organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). It includes about 60 large-scale color photographs taken around the world, from Iceland’s mountains to the shores of the Ganges.

Burtynsky is a world-renowned Canadian artist who spent several years photographing this particular subject. Through his colorful images, several facets of water are examined: its source, collection, control, displacement and depletion.

Water is intermittently introduced as a victim, a partner, a protagonist, a lure, a source, an end, a threat and a pleasure," said Russell Lord, curator of photographs at NOMA. "Water is also often completely absent from the pictures. Burtynsky instead focuses on the visual and physical effects of the lack of water, giving its absence an even more powerful presence."

Ron Platt, chief curator at GRAM, also notes the diversity of the subject matter and points out that the exhibition is more commentary than indictment. While some aspects elicit concern for the environment, often it is the majesty and the power of water that is revealed, presenting a greater understanding of how people coexist with this force of nature. He appreciates the strategies Burtynsky uses in creating these stunning compositions, which are largely aerial photographs.

It’s not a typical view that we get, it’s the kind of perspective that you get when you have some distance from a subject, literally and figuratively. … You really begin to see the larger picture, and the apparatuses at work, and the kinds of control that we’re trying to assert, and what it really looks like from a bigger perspective. I think that’s fascinating,” Platt said. “Very simply, [people are] seeing things they couldn’t see otherwise. That’s what artists do, they bring us visual information in new ways.”



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