Austre’s white gallery rooms filled with vast colourful photographs of mankind’s impact on the world that simultaneously trigger emotions of awe and revulsion in what you see.

This is the Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition of the works by the photographic artist Edward Burtynsky, who has dedicated his practice to bearing witness to the impact of human industry on the planet.

For many of us, it can be hard at times to appreciate the scale of industry needed to fuel out modern lives, from the vast gas and oil pipelines to refineries, open cast mines and the way mankind has tried to control nature. These exceptionally crisply focused images let us see what, despite its scale, is a hidden world for most of us — far away from gentle urban lifestyles.

The photos range from the very obviously industrial to images, often of landscapes which can look almost like paintings, until you look closely and realise you’re looking at slurry waste dumped from a mine or a landscape covered in greenhouses.

The title of the exhibition, Burtynsky: Extraction / Abstraction gives a clue as to some of the descriptions, which ask whether these monumentally scaled photographs would be as appealing to people if abstract art wasn’t as prevalent either.

Is one needed for the other?

It’s a question to which almost anyone can reply with a resounding NO. The photographs can be artistic and beautiful, even in their terrifyingly brutal rampage of the landscape, without needing any artistic theory background.

There’s also the challenge often asked in the descriptions about the environmental impact these sites are causing. That’s more challenging, as while undeniably mining for example leaves a very big hole in the ground and a lot of waste, it’s less the mine than the lack of regulations that turns them into environmental disasters.

In well-regulated countries, the side effects are mitigated. Sadly, most large mines are in countries where regulations are lacking and enforcement even worse.

That’s the conundrum here in this exhibition – the ravaging of the landscape can also look quite awesome and impressive in a big engineering sort of way.

Elsewhere, it’s the contrasts between man and nature that are striking.

A wall-sized photograph of canola fields in China looks more like giant molehill mountains intruding into a sea of well-ordered yellow fields, but it’s the fields that are the intruders here. That photo particularly contrasts with another example of the almost identically shaped mountains of coal piled up in a barren wasteland. The two are almost perfect mirrors of each other.

More troubling are the later photographs in the exhibition of waste and human factories, where we’re still not quite dealing with the problems correctly. The English language slogans to be a good worker hanging all around an Ethiopian factory felt particularly dystopian.

As an exhibition, it’s beautiful, terrifying and amazing all at the same time. You’re not quite sure if you should be admiring man’s ingenuity or our stupidity.

The exhibition, Burtynsky: Extraction / Abstraction is at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea until 6th May 2024.

Tickets can be booked from here.

  • General Admission: £18
  • Concessions: £10
  • Family (2 adults + 2 children): £46
  • Children under 6 years: Free when accompanied by an adult ticket holder
  • Saatchi Gallery members: Free

There is also a late opening on selected Fridays during the exhibition.


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