Salinas #2, Cadiz, Spain, 2013. Photo Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London.

The Saatchi Gallery in London is the perfect space to showcase Edward Burtynsky’s spectacular and deeply troubling work. The scale of the gallery in the heart of London echoes the epic scale of Burtynsky’s prints. The images are, literally, breathtaking. Burtynsky: Extraction / Abstraction is also a monumental exhibition by the number of photographs on the wall: 94 large format prints divided into 5 sections: Abstraction, Agriculture, Extraction, Manufacturing & Industry, and Waste. It is the largest exhibition ever dedicated to the work of the Canadian photographer, covering 40+ years of his career. 

For over four decades, Burtynsky has roamed the entire planet to bear witness to the impact of human activities on the planet - from 3,000 km tunnels 800 meters underground to strip mining to gold mines’ tailing ponds in South Africa or giant salt extraction in Spain all the way to the stupendous scale of the mountains of trash. We also see the giant poultry packing factory in China or the shipyards building the huge vessels. 

Uralkali Potash Mine, Berezniki, Russia. photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London 
Thjorsá River #1, Iceland, 2012 photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London 

These images are a deeply troubling record of the devastation caused by human activities on the Earth and the obsession of humans to extract every single ounce of minerals from the soil or from oceans. The irony is that each of these images is deeply beautiful and awe inspiring. The salt mines could pass as a Gustav Klimt painting, for instance. The tailings ponds from a mine in South Africa look like an Abstract Expressionist’s work. The colors, the shapes, the scale transform the images of destruction into delicate and beautiful artworks. The Earth is the beautiful canvas on which human activities create their patterns. 

Thjorsá River #1, Iceland, 2012  photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London  

The exhibition also features a 22mm multimedia experience - In the Wake of Progress - immersing visitors into the dizzying activities of humans and their terrifying impact on the Planet and on humans as well. 

The exhibition is also following Edward Burtynsky’s use of technology and its evolution over the past 40 years. 


Burtynsky on the Bonneville Salt Flats, USA, 2008. Photograph by Joseph Hartman, courtesy of the Studio of Edward Burtynsky 

“I have spent over 40 years bearing witness to the ways in which modern civilization has dramatically transformed our planet,” explains Burtynsky. “At this time, the awareness of these issues presented by my large format images has never felt more urgent. (...) I hope the exhibition experience will continue to provide inflection points for diverse conversations on these issues and move us all to a place of positive action.” The hope of the exhibition is that it will stimulate visitors to act, to realize that the satisfaction of our present needs is leaving the Planet in a state of exhaustion and destruction. 

Jean-Sébastien Stehli

Burtynsky: Extraction / Abstraction. Saatchi Gallery. Until May 6, 2024.  

©Justin Piperger, 2024 Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London 

Oil Bunkering #9, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016.  photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London
©Justin Piperger, 2024 Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London 
April 30, 2024 — Jean Sebastien Stehli