Not Drowning London

Thames Barrier park, North Bank.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Thames Barrier Park. It’s one of my favourite parts of London, even if there is something spooky about it. Perhaps because there is something spooky about it. Nestled in a rather bleak bit of East London, it’s a very still place. There’s a cafe in the park and often some children playing. The Docklands Light Railway rattles behind it, in its slightly old fashioned futuristic way. There’s the Tate and Lyle factory – complete with giant tin of golden syrup stuck to the side – just to the West. But the overall feeling of the place is quite peaceful.

And yet, there are few places which, for me, sum up the power of both nature and technology. Or, to put it another way, the power of the Earth, and our ability as humans to do stuff with and to that Earth. It’s a calm spot to consider the violent destruction a flood might cause and how we may have made such floods more likely in the future. It’s also an invitation to feel grateful for our ability to protect at least some parts of our world from such hazards, at least for the time being. The river, trees, a park, a cement factory on the opposite bank and, of course, those silver triangles of the Barrier itself. The space is cultivated to consider that symbolism, with paths and gardens placed quite strategically juxtaposing and showing the complex blurs between nature and technology, security and danger. See, for example, the way the trees have been planted to echo the Barrier in the photo above. I think it showcases the shiny power of the Barrier, but in a rather humble way, one that seems open to questions.

I was maybe especially spooked by the Barrier as, the day before, I’d been to the Drowning Earth exhibition at Somerset House, a chilling photography project about the human consequences of flooding. I should probably note that the Thames Barrier dates back from the 1950s and is designed to protect central London from floods based on the best data available in the 1970s. It’s not a response to more modern worries about global warming. There’s the Thames Estuary 2100 project for larger and more long term flood defenses.

According to the Independent, the photographer behind Drowning World, Gideon Mendel, said wanted to show there was more to the iconography of climate change than polar bears. Much as I like a good polar bear photo, I know what he means. Another photography exhibition which presents a slightly different view of issues surrounding climate change, albeit causes rather than consequences, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s chronicle of our relationship with oil (at Photographer’s Gallery till July 1st, Free).

The blurb when you enter the exhibition says Burtynsky’s interested in the subcultures of oil, but it’s hard to leave without thinking how intimately linked we are even to the more alien looking landscapes he captures. It’s also quite striking the way he plays with shape, colour and light to represent spaces reminiscent of an abstract painting but, precisely because they are not abstract, with an added pathos. There’s the regularity of a car park in Houston or motorcycling parking at a Kiss concert in North Dakota. Curls of the road by the slightly futuristic Nanpu bridge exchange, China, show the movement of the cars as well sharp lines of the roads. Similarly, there’s a delicacy as well as a smoggy growl to the interlacing grey curves of a highway in LA. Long lines of pipes of Canadian oil refineries or the gold, brown, yellow and silvery-grey of oil fields Belridge in California and Socar Fields in Baku, Azerbaijan. The latter show tall, slightly skeletal machines at work: robot alien monsters about to charge, they made me think of Star Wars. A haunting series in a breaker’s yard in Chittagong, Bangkadesh shows a glorious, hopeful sunrise over huge slabs of old ships. I also enjoyed the patterns provided by detritus of mass production: crushed oil filters and a pile of wheels. The highlight for me, however, had to be the maple-leaf gold and reds pulled out in a shot of Alberta oil sands. There was a similarly clever use of colours in an image of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which brought out greens to make the oil look like landmasses on a longer shot from a satellite. The Alberta image was something extra though, projecting a sense of national identity along with nature over multinational industry.

I posted a link to a Guardian gallery of the Burtynsky exhibition on twitter, highlighting a line in their commentary that suggests the works offer a reframing of the notion of the sublime. In reply, climate campaigner Lawrence Carter suggested that with Burtynsky’s photos we’re awed at our capacity to destroy the finite, rather than comprehend infinite. I don’t have an answer to this but I think it’s an interesting point which Carter puts neatly. As I’ve argued before, there are ambiguities in a technological reframing of the sublime. I think science and technology of the last few hundred years offer new ways of thinking about long stretches of time and space, seemingly infinite or actually so; in particular our ability as humans to comprehend nature and have forms of control over it. Whether any such comprehension and control is something all humans can share, or is only for a privileged few, is something we should all keep an eye on. Or maybe we’re all collectively heading for the finite.

Drowning World closes today, but some of the images are at the Guardian or see Mendel’s website for more. You can visit Thames Barrier Park by Pontoon Dock DLR, or pop over to the other side of the river for the Barrier’s information centre. The Burtynsky Oil exhibition is on at the Photographer’s Gallery, near Oxford Circus for the next month (free). I can also recommend visiting Nick Cobbing’s website, especially the glacial stories and piece on the brown coal of Konin.

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