Exhibitions Film Photography

The Anthropocene Project at the MAST Foundation in Bologna: A Wake-up Call to Save the Planet

When was the last time you felt mesmerised and guilty at the same time, while looking at a piece of art? It happened to me last Saturday more than once when I was visiting the Anthropocene exhibition at the MAST Foundation in Bologna. I knew I was going to experience an impactful show given the topics – pollution, deforestation, mining, climate change, urbanization – but did not fully realise the beauty that came across the powerful images captured by the cameras of world-renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky and award-winning directors/producers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. 

Phosphor Tailings Pond, near Lakeland, Florida, USA.
Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida, USA 2012. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Admira Photography, Milan. Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

The Anthropocene Project is the attempt to capture the human footprint on Earth in the form of a multimedia exploration that combines photography, film, augmented reality and scientific research, ranging from Australia’ Great Barrier Reef to Africa’s biggest dump. The title itself defines the current geological epoch and was proposed by members of the Anthropocene Working Group, an international team of scientists who study the impact of humankind on the planet. Although the term is still under debate and not recognized globally, this new geological era is said to begin mid-twentieth century, a timeframe in which humans are seen as the primary cause of permanent planetary change.

Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia.
Clearcut #1, Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia 2016. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Admira Photography, Milan. Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Anthropocene was born out of the artists’ necessity of opening a window on what’s changing the world we’re living in, and by the idea that capturing the process through visual media can slow it down in the mind of the viewer, leveraging one’s own critical thinking and allowing more space to sink in and fully appreciate its impact. “While the geological reality of the Anthropocene epoch remains up for debate, the immense scope and complexity of the influence that humankind exerts on the Earth, is not. This changes everything, and forever”, recalls Urs Stahel, MAST Photogallery and Collection Curator, one of the curators of the exhibition along with Sophie Hackett and Andrea Kunard.

Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande, Carrara, Italy.
Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2, Carrara, Italy 2016.
© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Admira Photography, Milan. Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Astounding images, I was saying in the beginning, which leave you with the uneasy feeling of liking something you are supposed to reject in this context. How can we find the effects of people on natural processes attractive? Is it because of the perfect framing and sound editing? Or is it the surprising quality of digital prints, which can render the smallest detail even on massive formats? Anyway, I was drawn to the images, almost hypnotized by them – whether they were eerie long shots of oil refineries taken from the helicopter, aerial overviews of forests destroyed by palm oil plantations, or the impact of human activities on British Columbia’s woods captured by drones.

Saw Mills, Lagos, Nigeria.
Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria 2016. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Admira Photography, Milan. Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Baichwal and de Pencier’s film extensions and thirteen HD film installations complement Burtynsky’s thirty-five large-scale photographs and four large-scale high-resolution murals, as well as three Augmented Reality Installation that can be experienced on-site through the AVARA App, allowing the viewer to get a glimpse of what it meant to be on so many different locations across the globe. The exhibition also features the screening of the documentary ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch, which is co-directed by the three artists, and is closed by an interactive educational itinerary which offers tips on how to preserve the planet with small daily gestures.

Anthropocene is on at MAST until 6 October 2019 (free admission). To learn more about it, check MAST’s official website and The Anthropocene Project’s online platform.