Environmental Matters

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Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #1
Three Gorges Dam, social consequences, environmental consequence, flooding, river, Yangtze River, manufacturing, rubble, steel, hydro-electric power,flooding, farmland, irrigation, riverbank, debris, , photograph, dam, people, rubble, river,

In this image from the MacKenzie Art Gallery  collectionTo collect is to accumulate objects. A collection is an accumulation of objects. A collector is a person who makes a collection. (Artlex.com)  we get a glimpse of the social and environmental consequences of China’s controversial $180 billion Three Gorges project. This mammoth project is designed to stop the seasonal flooding of China’s largest river, the Yangtze, and to provide hydro-electric power for the country’s rapidly growing manufacturing industries.

Three Gorges Dam from Space

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam (satellite view seen to the left) began in 1994, and the main dam was completed in 2003. The entire project will be completed in 2009. It has been criticized because it requires the displacement of at least 1.3 million people (and perhaps millions more) and because of possible environmental damage to this scenic section of the river. More than 570,000 acres of farmland will be flooded when the lake behind the dam is completely filled, although more irrigated land will be available when the project is complete.

start quoteWhen we're looking at the collective appetite for our lifestyles and what we're doing to the landscape, that for me is a sobering moment for us to contemplate.end quote-- Edward Burtynsky

Wan Zhou is a small city along the Yangtze that is affected by the project. In the image presented here, Burtynsky shows a few people picking through the rubble of buildings near the riverbank. The buildings have been demolished and the residents relocated in advance of the rising waters that will eventually cover this part of the city. The figures of the people are dwarfed by the rubble around them, and particularly by the single  steelAn alloy of iron and carbon capable of being tempered to many degrees of hardness. (Artlex.com)  beam that rises out of the debris. The people’s clothing provide the only  colourProduced by light of various wavelengths, and when light strikes an object and reflects back to the eyes. Colour is an element of art with three properties: (1) hue or tint, the colour name, e.g., red, yellow, blue, etc.: (2) intensity, the purity and strength of a colour, e.g., bright red or dull red; and (3) value, the lightness or darkness of a colour. When the spectrum is organized as a color wheel, the colours are divided into groups called primary, secondary and intermediate (or tertiary) colours; analogous and complementary, and also as warm and cool colours. Colours can be objectively described as saturated, clear, cool, warm, deep, subdued, grayed, tawny, mat, glossy, monochrome, multicolored, particolored, variegated, or polychromed. Some words used to describe colours are more subjective (subject to personal opinion or taste), such as: exciting, sweet, saccharine, brash, garish, ugly, beautiful, cute, fashionable, pretty, and sublime. Sometimes people speak of colours when they are actually refering to pigments, what they are made of (various natural or synthetic substances), their relative permanence, etc. (Artlex.com)  in an otherwise drab scene. The rubble and the mist-shrouded river in the  backgroundPart of the picture plane that seems to be farthest from the viewer.  almost blend together, further emphasizing the immense  scaleThe proportion between two sets of dimensions.  of the project.

For more examples of Burtynsky’s work on Wan Zhou and the Three Gorges Dam project, go to:

additional resources Things to Think About
  • Ed Burtynsky has said that the West built itself on the idea of efficiency, and the Chinese are just doing what we did, but with a vengeance. What do you think about what is happening in China?
  • Burtynsky uses large format view cameras that use 4”x5” and 8”x10” plates, which enables him to capture very detailed photos. Using large cameras also forces him to slow down when he’s preparing a shot. He says this helps him avoid the photojournalistic approach that can occur with a small 35 mm camera. Look at more examples of his photos on the many websites about his work presented here. What do you like, or not like, about his photos?
  • Burtynsky says how a viewer interprets his photos tells a lot about that person. What is your interpretation of Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #1 2002, and what do you think it reveals about you?
Online Activity
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Look closely at Burtynsky’s photograph above (use the zoom tool!)  Choose an area of the image and describe what you can see in detail.

Look for the following:

  • geometric shapes
  • broken concrete
  • loose wires
  • water
  • people working (what do you think they are doing?)


Studio Activity
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Look at Edward Burtynsky’s website http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/ and follow the links there to view videos of his work. Gather information about what he is doing to document massive changes in landscape through projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China. Hold a debate in your classroom or group setting about the issues he brings into focus through his photography. Consider:

  • Should artists be in the frontline to reveal changes that may have astounding effects on the world?
  • Is image-making more powerful an activity to engage the public than politics? If so, Why?
  • What risks do artists take in the pursuit of socio-political material that they need in order to express themselves?
  • Does Burtynsky’s work have potential to sway opinions on environmental matters?

Identify as a group or as a student working alone, an environmental issue in your community that you might draw attention to through visual means. (This issue may be anything from water contamination or unsightly or dangerous refuse, to pollution or the wasting of precious fresh water that we take for granted, because it is available in abundance, and so on.)


  • Creative ways to focus on the issue through visual art that are within your capabilities.
  • Your focus for exhibiting your documentation to the public.
  • Your objectives in exhibiting your artwork, and any consequences that might occur (positive or less positive).

Possible methods (you may also have some better ways):

Create one of the following: a video, a  seriesA number of things or events standing or succeeding in order, and connected by a like relation; sequence; order; course; a succession of things; as, a continuous series of calamitous events. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  of photographs, a poster, or an installation.

  • Note on the installation: You might include a combination of all or a few of the following – photographs, video, text, drawings/paintings, and objects. Try to organize your material so that it is eye-catching and interesting to look at, and so it also engages your public audience in conversation or commentary.
  • Determine what you will do with your installation or other objects of expression when the exhibition period is over so you are not contributing to environmental problems.

Adams, James. ‘Burtynsky wins Roloff Beny award.’ Toronto Globe and Mail, June 16, 2004.

Burtynsky, Edward. ‘Exploring the Residual Landscape.’ Artist statement, Galleries West, Summer, 2004.

Cybermuse. ‘Edward Burtynsky.’ Artist’s Page. Retrieved from the Internet on October 20, 2008 from: http://www.cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/search/artist_e.jsp?iartistid=815

Dixon, Guy. ‘A warning from the wastelands.’ Toronto Globe and Mail, April 7, 2005.

Mays, John Bentley. ‘A melancholy beauty.’ National Post, April 25, 2001.

McQueen, Alison. Constructed Identities: Ed Burtynsky and Suzy Lake. Exhibition catalogue. Burlington Art Centre, Burlington, Ontario, 2001.

Media release. ‘Major  retrospectiveAn exhibition of work by a senior artist representing all the stages of the artist’s career.  of photographer Edward Burtynsky on view at the National Gallery of Canada.’ National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, January 29, 2003.

Milroy, Sarah. ‘Burtynsky’s view of China rising.’ Toronto Globe and Mail, October 15, 2005.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning