Taken over five years, this collection of epic photographs by Edward Burtynsky documents the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of China as it rushes to embrace 21st century commercial production. The awe-inspiring scale of so much of this formidable country’s endeavours are portrayed in sections of images on the Three Gorges Dam, Steel and Coal, Old Industry, Shipyards, Recycling, Manufacturing and Urban Renewal. His photographs record both the pace of progress and the accompanying side effects of mass obsolescence in old industries and the destruction of traditional ways of life. It is both coffee table book and awareness-raising photo-essay.
Three contextual texts provide a preface to the work: the first, by curator and writer Marc Mayer combines his personal response to and a broader art historical critique of the work. Journalist and author Ted C. Fishman concentrates on the expansion of Chinese cities in a political/historical context and Mark Kingwell places them within a debate on photographic truth in which he asks whether Burtynsky’s pictures “are critiques of landscape degradation and the costs of technological fetishism, or merely glossy celebrations”.
Burtynsky’s artist statement at the front of the book talks about the environmental effects of Chinese development, yet one also gets a real sense of his wonder at and engagement with its visual manifestation. These are both documentary photographs and beautiful formal compositions. As in the exhibition at the Flowers East gallery, London, the plates are reproduced luxuriously large. They appear as if in a commemorative photographic portfolio from the 19th century, like those commissioned to record large-scale industrial projects in the first age of industrial revolution. This is probably not entirely accidental as the scale, reach and type of construction, although bigger than anything that could have been imagined at that time, is similar to the concerns of industrial development in the West in that Century. As a counterbalance the captions at the back of the book are incredibly informative, introducing the facts and figures relating to each section beside small reproductions of each image.
Burtynsky’s first trip to China was planned to document the Three Gorges Dam project. Located on the Yangtze River, this is the world’s largest and most powerful hydroelectric dam. Two km across, its completion, planned for 2009, will result in the creation of an adjacent 600 km lake. More than one million people are being displaced as land is cleared to make way for the flood. The huge architecture of the dam itself and the vast clearing operation of the settlements in its path are both depicted in great detail. Looking closer, among the mighty machinery and demolished, almost post-atomic, townscapes, small figures get on with their work or their daily lives, a reminder of the human struggle at the heart of this project.
Steel and coal are the raw material for China’s vast construction industry. Focusing on one location, the Bao Steel plant, Burtynsky hints at the scale of production by recording the huge pipelines and furnace chimneys, and in a series of images, plays with the formal elements in the volcanic landscape of gigantic coal piles. Old industrial zones are suffering due to China’s economic restructuring. Burtynsky depicts the huge decaying shells of factories in the city of Shenyang to the North East of China in what was once the country’s industrial heart. These are desolate empty structures, their furnaces, and kilns crumbling back into the ground, or being slowly dismantled.
Shipbuilding is one of China’s biggest growth industries. Burtynsky depicts the production line of construction in the port of Qili, where on any day there can be up to 100 ships in various stages. Impressive in scale, this operation also retains traditional tools such as the bamboo ladders propped up against the sides of boats. Small, basic huts built from concrete blocks serve as office and storage for the workers whose main mode of transport still appears to be bicycles. In this ants’ nest of industry, the ships hulls line up along the water’s edge at every stage of construction. Burtynsky echoes the production line in a sequence of images of the prows of the boats and zooming in to capture the reds, blues and rust of the metal and the welding marks incised in its surface. Recycling gives him the chance to show the sheer scale of wastage through vast piles of scrap metal – radiators, telephone dials, wiring and circuit boards – separately depicted, each taking on their own distinctive texture. In Manufacturing, one cannot help but think of Andreas Gursky in the repetitive architecture of the factory buildings – except Burtynky’s are not manipulated.
A block of flats has an array of pastel coloured shirts hanging out to dry on almost every one of its uniformly sized balconies, hundreds of workers in their pastel uniforms sit at identical tables in a huge canteen or go about their tasks on massive production lines.
These are fantastic pictures. The depiction of scale, repetition and attention to detail effectively portray the huge industrial production line that is China. This is an interesting and timely record both beautiful and rather terrifying – for who knows where China’s unchecked development will lead. Clearly Burtynsky is fascinated by this country and we may yet see other publications on his explorations.