The Anthropocene—Coming Soon to a Theater (and Museum, and Bookshelf) Near You

Three artists have created an entire body of work to get to the heart of the ineffable human epoch.

November 28, 2018

“Log Booms #1”. Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2016

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Anthropocene is a clunky word for an even more unwieldy concept. But props to the Merriam-Webster team who have given us a dictionary definition that’s easy enough to follow.

Anthropocene: (n.) The period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.

Try to list those planet-altering human activities, though, and you’ll quickly realize that you could go on forever. Even geologists, those who decide if the Anthropocene merits an official geologic epoch, disagree on which specific markers characterize this nebulous yet distinct time. (Plastic pollution, nuclear tests, concrete particles, artificial fertilizers, and even domestic chickens are all contenders.) Our impacts on the planet are so vast and multifaceted, there’s just no simple way to illustrate their scope.  

“Dandora Landfill #3”. Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

But filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, photographer Edward Burtynsky, and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier are giving it a try. Wisely, these collaborators don’t limit themselves to one approach or even one medium. The Anthropocene Project fuses photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and research, resulting in a body of work that attempts to give audiences a panoramic view of the Anthropocene. The project, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, takes the form of a traveling exhibit, educational program, book, and documentary film.

The three Canadian artists have teamed up before. The documentary portion of the project, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, is the third of a film trilogy that also includes Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. The documentary has also been announced as part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

For their latest endeavor, the trio spent four years traveling to 20 countries across the globe, shooting at potash mines in the Ural Mountains of Russia; lithium ponds in the Atacama Desert; Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; the German open-pit coal mine that houses Bagger 288, one of the world’s largest machines; and many more of earth’s human-altered landscapes and seascapes. Seeking to describe humanity’s relationship with the environment rather than prescribe one, the team took an expansive approach to collecting material, shooting some 400 hours of footage to produce their 90-minute film. Their photography ratios tend to be even higher—Burtynsky sorted through an astonishing 26,000 photos to select just 110 for his previous book, Water. (He didn’t keep an exact tally for The Anthropocene Project, but you get the idea.)

“Lithium Mines #1”. Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2017

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The scenes Burtynsky captures with his camera reflect a strange and surprising beauty in the world we’ve created. Potash mines appear as vibrant, psychedelic corridors; lithium mines in the Atacama Desert look like DJ boards for giants; a massive highway through California’s Imperial Valley strikes a satisfying note of symmetry.

“Uralkali Potash Mine #4”. Berezniki, Russia, 2017

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The tension in these images between despoilment and allure makes it hard to look away. Still, the artists are quick to acknowledge that engaging with their subject matter is not always easy. Burtynsky reminds us that these are our industrial landscapes, designed to produce materials that we use every day. “We’ve created them, but we turn our backs to them,” he says.

Yet taking a long, hard look in the mirror doesn’t have to lead to despair. Even after everything Baichwal has seen in her travels to some of the most polluted sites in the world, she describes herself as an optimist. “In every one of these places that we were, there were these little hints of hope,” she says. “We had the ingenuity to do all of this; we can also use that to change . . . We just have to summon the collective will, and the will of our governments, and the will of our corporations, and the will of individuals.”

“Building Ivory Tusk Mound”. April 25, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

That’s a tall order. But if we’re going to address our anthropogenic footprint, it seems only fitting to start by exploring it through the lens of that uniquely human endeavor: art. 

The Anthropocene Project is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through January 6, 2019, and at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa through February 24, 2019. Having had its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is now playing in select Canadian theaters. It will make its international premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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