Most of us are aware that, over the course of the past century, oil has become the crucial element in shaping cultures and societies across the globe. It’s such an obvious observation that it ought to go without saying. The problem is, it often does. Oil is an invisible ingredient which evades our attention, requiring a conscious effort to become aware of its far-reaching impact.
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s most recent project, currently on display in London’s brand new Photographers’ Gallery, offers a fascinating insight into precisely this issue. Exploring the numerous ways in which we exploit oil, the project ranges from landscapes of urban environments to evocative images of motorways. But in addition to the myriad benefits of our relationship with oil, Burtynsky alsoe examines the environmental impact. Incidents such as oil spills always generate headlines, and require little further explanation, but as activities from shipbreaking to oil recycling create issues of their own, as well as scrapyards filled with crushed oil drums, tyres and helicopters, the exhibition begins to illustrate the array of problems presented to us.
The key image of the exhibition, though, is the oil field in California, with oil wells dotted throughout the landscape, as far as the eye can see. It evokes a strong sense of the extent of oil drilling throughout the world, and provokes the question of what happens next as wells begin to run dry and costs escalate accordingly.
I’ll be making an effort to visit this exhibition before its conclusion next month. The Photographers’ Gallery seems an exciting new venue for London – the early signs are that it deserves the attention it is currently receiving.