Waste and the Sublime Landscape

Amanda Boetzkes


Ecological imperatives have played an increasingly important role in the production of contemporary art.  But while “eco-art” is frequently traced back to the land art movement of the nineteen-sixties, in fact many contemporary artists have turned to the landscape tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries as a source of aesthetic inspiration and ethical reflection. This article considers the revival of the sublime aesthetic in the works of two contemporary Canadian artists, the photographer Edward Burtynsky and the installation artist and sculptor Jérôme Fortin. While these artists operate in different media, their works resonate for two reasons. First, their practices are hinged on the use and representation of industrial trash, specifically, metals and plastics. Secondly, both aestheticize waste by presenting it in the visual vocabulary of the sublime landscape. By constructing sublime landscapes out of industrial wastes, Burtynsky and Fortin raise crucial issues about the human-earth relationship. Rejecting a straightforward historical revival of the sublime, they interrogate the structure of the sublime experience with a view to uncovering its ecological implications. I argue that both artists demonstrate how the sublime landscape is founded on an absenting of the earth that results in the retraction of natural presence from the parameters of the representation. Instead, they confront the viewer with a pictorial screen of trash that occupies the position that nature held in traditional sublime painting. Thus, the magnitude, quantity and threat of human waste replace nature as the mechanism of the sublime experience. 


art & the environmnent; industrial waste & the sublime aesthetic; Edward Burtynsky; Jérôme Fortin

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