Sights of Desire; Sites of Demise: The Environment in the Works of Edward Burtynsky and Olafur Eliasson
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This thesis argues that the environmental undertones of artists Edward Burtynsky’s and Olafur Eliasson’s work have clearly aligned them; however, the focus of my study is not an evaluation of the artists’ abilities to express environmental concerns, but rather an exploration of the effects of their representations on our understanding of the surrounding environment, and of the artists’ contributions toward a definition of Nature that now includes its own demise as a site of aesthetic pleasure. This study focuses on Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls and on Edward Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings photographs. Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings photographs, among them in particular, his well known Nickel Tailings No. 34, depict a barren grey and black landscape centered primarily around an intensely coloured red and orange river of molten metal. Eliasson’s recent New York City Waterfalls consists of four artist-constructed waterfalls, ranging from 90 to 120 feet tall, located within the waters of Lower Manhattan, Governs Island, and beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. In his monumental New York City Waterfalls, Eliasson has made an intervention into the landscape that effectively works to contaminate the established aesthetic upon which it is based. In his monumental photographs, in contrast, Burtynsky does the opposite; he aestheticizes the contaminated. Here I would add that both artists have carefully called upon the elemental in order to reference the idea of wilderness or a “pure” form of Nature. Reference to the elemental in Nature—to air, water, and fire— has allowed these artists to challenge the viewer’s perception and experience of the nonhuman world. These manufactured landscapes are undeniably owned by humanity, yet is this the type of landscape we are comfortable to claim as our own?