Detectives, expecting to find what is unmentioned and invisible, are always rooting around in trash cans for clues in the thriller novel. In like manner, trash or waste, offers us a story. Waste is an alternative history of our times, say commentators, a history which shows us the undertext to the well-worn story of progress and development. One such commentator is Edward Burtynsky.
Edward Burtynsky (www.edwardburtynsky.com) has spent years photographing mounds and seas of waste. Among his most stunning works is the China Recycling series. He has photographed, as part of this series, landfills of circuit boards (#9), toy parts (#8), and others. During 17-20 May 2018, Burtynsky launched his Augmented Reality installation in London. Burtynsky’s photographs are now iconic and ask us to stop at the garbage mound.
Burtynsky’s expanse of trash is an equivalent, says critic Amanda Boetzkes, of the sublime in nature. While the sublime in nature is all about expansive horizons and awe-inducing landscapes, Burtynsky’s landscape is toxic, filled with detritus and waste.
It induces awe, let us make no bones about it, over the sheer quantum of waste we produce. These are remnants of our technological, cultural and economic achievements, ghostly remainders and reminders of our hyperconsumptive march into the future which will, given that these contain non-biodegradable toxins, last forever.
The China Recycling series (now part of a book) also induces revulsion, at the chips and boards, seemingly alive in the form of a large leviathan, snaking across the landscape, having apparently devoured the land itself. There is occasional vegetation and sometimes a path through the piles, both of which manage to look even more tragic and ironic, given that these seem more like sorry excuses than paths or plants. Waste, Burtynsky’s image suggests, erodes and erases the frontier itself.
The remainders of ancient cities, Pompeii being a famous example, have always been revered: because they were erased in a natural catastrophe. We do not give this kind of privileged status to Pripyat, Three Mile Island, Bhopal or Fukushima because these are remainders from man-made disasters.
In Burtynsky, time is never quite done with us precisely because, unlike ash from volcanoes, the toxicity of the materials here has a half-life beyond human civilisation’s.
We recycle, yes, but Burtynsky makes us wonder about what we might end up depositing in the earth even as we do so, whether, in the process of ‘cleaning up’, we are not introducing other forms of poisoning, for instance, since we know that chemicals from all forms of waste leach into the ground even before treatment. Burtynsky’s waste is, in effect, timeless, and death will take a long time coming.
Burtynsky also forces us to ponder on those who work with and in toxic wastes. In his artist’s statement, he notes that in China, workers handle these wastes with their hands. Are the ones who, at grave risk of injury, work with these materials themselves wasted humans? They waste away, we know, through the slow poisoning entering their system.
Ruled by Trash
Processes such as industrialisation have not only produced material wastes, such as the ones Burtynsky films, but also ‘wasted lives’ (Zygmunt Bauman’s neat title). There is an entire industry around waste materials, but what forms of humanity enter these spaces and what (not who) do they leave as?
Some humans, Bauman notes, are consigned to the category of ‘wasted lives’. Waste, therefore, may also be seen, then, as a classificatory and organising principle for humans, some of whom are placed, often from their moment of birth, on the rubbish heap of history, and are doomed to work with waste.
The China Recycling series does not quite capture this, but it definitely gestures towards a larger concern: a world ruled by trash, overwhelmed by it, unable to do anything about it. He captures waste as excess, as surplus because waste is also a certain kind of value that we impose on goods or objects we deem redundant or superfluous.
The fields of redundant objects constitute the creation of surplus, of excess (we produce more than we need, always: ‘people had more than they needed’, says a character in the dystopian film, Book of Eli), in the process of modernisation. Waste is an end-product of a series of actions enunciated by the remorseless human-machine complex and as such is a byproduct of time as well.
Further, Burtynsky, one notes, contributes to the trend in dystopian representation (notable authors of literary fiction on the theme include Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and numerous Hollywood films as well), where the pride of human civilisation all collapse into waste.
Fuelless cities, empty malls, deserted streets, starving populations are the staple of these texts as our cities are rendered into waste. That is, our very act of uncontrolled production and consumption produces a state where eventually things run out, run down. The land itself wastes away because the air is too polluted, so is the water, and humans die by doing the one thing they need to stay alive: breathe.
Cultural decay follows this material decay, as lawlessness, terror and chaos erupt over food shortages, fuel and just plain breathable air. Burtynsky’s fields of waste are metaphors for cities that may eventually be rendered into waste, where it will be difficult to distinguish between cities that once produced waste and wasted cities.
If life imitates art, as the Wilde-man once declared, Burtynsky’s art shows us the future life.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)