Visual Arts DepartmentWestern Arts and Humanities

Clint Burnham Enjoy your Petro-symptom!

Clint Burnham - Enjoy your Petro-sympton Poster

Enjoy your Petro-symptom!: Burtynsky’s Oil and the Žižekian Sublime    

Tuesday September 24th @ 5:30pm
John Labbatt Visual Art Centre Rm 148
Enjoy your Petro-symptom!: Burtynsky’s Oil and the Žižekian Sublime

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's images of industrial waste and natural despoilation have shown in galleries around the world and been the subject of books, critical discourse, and a film (Manufactured Landscapes, directed Jennifer Baichwal, 2006). So what I am interested inBurtynsky's Oil series is how there then obtains an antagonism between their epic grandeur & size (which in effect bullies the viewer into a sublime submission) and their putative content or images (which in classic fetishistic disavowal, convey a formal beauty which nonetheless functions as a screen for desire: in effect, Burtynsky's photographs allow us to enjoy our petro-symptom). His work is often described as “sublime” for its large-format depiction of landscapes and ecological disaster: but what sublime are we talking about here? Burke's disquiet when confronted by natural disorder, or Kant's absolute breakdown of cognitive faculties?
I will discuss Burtynsky's pictures first of all in terms of Žižek's properly dialectical sublime (that which is both Kantian and Lacanian). That is, for Žižek, the sublime object – the objet petit a, Lacan’s Thing or das Ding – is what structures our desire but also serves as a screen against the abyss of desire, which is to say against the sublime; in a way, for Žižek, Lacan is the sublime object to counter the abyss of Kant. In a similar fashion, Burtynsky's gentrified sublime is what protects us from confronting the disaster that is nature. Finally, as counter-examples to Burtynsky's reified sublime, I will discuss two photographic practices that engage with the sublime of the industrial archive: Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan's Evidence (1977) and Bitter & Weber’s Events are Always Original (2010).