I like to think I’m alert to what’s happening to different parts of the planet. I’m fooling myself. The mission of these photographers is to deliver the bad news, again and again, that we have fouled our nest, and sustainability means everything to the future of everybody on Earth. As I write, the Nebraska crude oil pipeline is in the news while presidential aspirants hector us about an oil-independent America (thanks to more drilling in more places) while the world’s oil extraction rate (thanks to China and other emerging nations) has surpassed 1000 barrels per second. If fossil fuels are our destiny, Edward Burtynsky’s photos of oil spills — he’s the most righteous photographer now working — will make you dread our destiny.
The German Andreas Gursky makes congested photographs of congested sites. He specializes in overload and shoves as much visual information as possible right up against the picture plane. His image of a town dump in Chimachuacán, Mexico City, is an intentionally hideous travesty of landscape art. Debris and waste of every kind colorfully choke a space capped by a “horizon line” of garbage. The massive mess calibrates massive consumerism and the ethic embedded in a civilization dependent on disposables. Look closely and in the visual pandemonium you discern dump-gleaners, a couple of animals, and shanties. The humans look like more throwaway stuff. The picture tells us, if we need to know, that as we now live, plenitude and abundance generate deprivation and devastation, and that we need new models for sustainability, as if we didn’t already know. ■
Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art’s Downtown venue through Sunday, February 5. For additional information, call 858-454-3541.
Infinite Balance: Artists and the Environment is on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, through Sunday, February 5. For additional information, call 619-238-7559.