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Nature Transformed: Edward Burtynsky’ s Vermont Quarry Photographs in Context

Hood Quarterly, spring 2012
Juliette Bianco, Assistant Director and co-curator of the exhibition

Nature Transformed takes as its starting point a remarkable series of photographs by internationally celebrated artist Edward Burtynsky. His now signature pursuit of conceptual subjects—from oil extraction in the United States and in Azerbaijan to shipbreaking in Bangladesh, electronics factories and immense wire recycling yards in China, and nickel and uranium mine tailings in Canada—started just fifty miles north of the Hood Museum of Art in the granite quarries of Barre, Vermont. Hope Cemetery in Barre is an extraordinary place to discover the little-known history of one of Vermont’s most extensive and profitable industries—stone quarrying. The monuments therein attest to the creativity and skill of many generations of local carvers: a couple holding hands in bed, a propeller plane ready for takeoff, an armchair, a replica of Michelangelo’s iconic Pietà. Many of these stoneworkers emigrated to Barre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries primarily from the ancient quarrying town of Carrara, Italy, as artists and artisans to contribute their expertise to an industry in the throes of expansion.They brought along with them a love for opera, political activism, and strong values that made their assimilation into American society relatively easy. In fact, their impact on life and culture in parts of Vermont is still acutely felt today.

The exhibition reconsiders a selection of Burtynsky’s monumental photographs—seven of which Burtynsky is showing here for the first time, including two he took in the little-known but extensive underground quarries in Danby, Vermont—within the context of Vermont’s social and cultural history as well as the much longer history of the geological formation of northern New England and its marble and granite deposits. Interestingly, Burtynsky made the reverse journey of those Italian immigrants with his Quarries project—first he discovered the quarries in Vermont and then he was pointed toward Carrara by a quarry owner. This was in turn the artist’s first international trip for his work and represents the genesis of the global exploration of nature and industry for which he is renowned today. Nature Transformed showcases several of his photographs from Carrara as well, signaling the geographical aspect of this story of human migration.

The interdisciplinary approach of this exhibition is consistent with the purpose of the Hood Museum of Art as a teaching museum, and Burtynsky’s powerful artistic vision of the interaction between humans and the environment is the force behind its conception. In the exhibition catalogue, co-curator Pieter Broucke writes,“Burtynsky subtly combines his instinctive appreciation for the powerful formal aspects of the quarries with his growing subjective awareness of the devastation that large-scale industrial quarrying has wrought on the landscape.The detritus of abandoned equipment, derricks, sheds, stairs, cables, tanks, discarded blocks and stones, and other litter becomes increasingly prominent in the photographs. The artist’s initial impression of the monumental voids as formal presences inserted within the landscape gradually includes recognition of the quarries as ecological wounds inflicted upon the landscape.”

Searching out these monumental voids was indeed the idea that drove Burtynsky to Vermont in the first place, after he had spent time photographing ore mines. In an interview for the exhibition catalogue, he recalls,“I thought of our cities, which are made from stone that is kept intact . . .The type of excavation that resulted from dimensional stone seemed to indicate that there had to be a more orderly removal of the materials than at an ore mine. The idea I had was that I might be able to find the reverse of a skyscraper somewhere, an inverted pyramid where the blocks were being removed. So I pursued that.”

The resulting images on display in Nature Transformed are often breathtaking in their scale and visual power. We invite you to visit Nature Transformed this spring and to participate in the programs offered, including a lecture by artist Edward Burtynsky on May 11.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by Raphael and Jane Bernstein / Parnassus Foundation, Laurie Jean Weil D.V.M. in honor of her parents, Jean and Bucks Weil, Dartmouth Class of 1935, the Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund, and the Ray Winfield Smith 1918 Fund.

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