Anthropocene Exhibition Review – Part 1

Art, Ottawa

Anthropocene is a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It includes work by renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The exhibition “explore the impact of human activity on Earth through photography, film installations and interactive technologies.” The exhibition runs until February 24th, 2019. Its companion exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto runs until January 6th, 2019, which will be part 2 of my review that you can read here

Many of the artworks in the exhibition are visually striking and compelling but I felt that some aspects including the use of augmented reality fell a little flat. The exhibition includes new photographic prints by Burtynsky and large high definition murals that visitors can interact with through the augmented reality components either with their own smartphone or a tablet provided by the gallery. There are also film installations by Baichwal and de Pencier that add an additional dimension to the exhibition and make it more dynamic.





I found many of Burtynsky’s photographs to be beautiful, particularly the more abstracted views of nature touched by humans. Uralkali Potash Mine #2, Berezniki, Russia, 2017 is one of the most beautiful works from the exhibition depicting a vividly coloured mine 350 meters beneath the sea floor. These beautiful images pull us in but remind us of the extent of the destruction and impact humans have caused on Earth. Works like this effectively communicate the message of the exhibition that we are now in a new era or epoch that is essentially destroying the planet by causing irreversible harm.



(n) The proposed current geological epoch, in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.


The work that really stuck with me from this exhibition was by Baichwal and de Pencier. The video Elephant Tusk Burn, Nairobi National Park Kenya, 2018 shows over $100 million worth of confiscated ivory being burned to demonstrate that poaching will not be tolerated by the government and that the ivory has no value. Prior to colonization there were some 20 million elephants in Africa and there are now only 352,000. The video is captivating and heartbreaking. The crackling flames around the tusks sounds like thunder and it has a real emotional impact. The extent of elephant poaching and the illicit ivory trade is shocking and devastating. I found the other video installations in the exhibition to be less compelling but they were still interesting in the context of the exhibition.


“Augmented reality” is used in the exhibition to allow visitors to interact with the artworks in a more dynamic way and to allow them to experience the artworks in new ways. I love the idea of this and I even wrote a paper in university about the use of new technologies in art museums and how it is a useful educational tool. However, while some of the augmented reality components were interesting and added a dimension to the exhibition I found that others really didn’t add anything and just detracted from the artworks. I wish they had been integrated into the exhibition a bit more. The augmented reality was activated by pointing the tablet or smartphone with an app at one of the large murals by Burtynsky and a video would play. The app was a little clunky and not very clear. There were three murals in the exhibition but I found only one of the augmented reality videos added anything to my understanding of the exhibition. Pengah Wall #1, Komodo National Park, Indonesia, 2017 was a large mural showing beautiful colourful coral but when you activated the augmented reality a video played showing the extent of the coral bleaching that has occurred revealing the shocking before and after. While this use of augmented reality worked very well the other videos of logging on Vancouver Island and the market sprawl in Nigeria were less successful and I felt that they didn’t really add anything to the exhibition. I also feel that it’s a bit of a stretch to call these components “augmented reality”, they’re more just a video extension of the photographs.



The part of the exhibition that really did use augmented reality was for the installations by the trio; AR #2 President Kenyatta’s Tusk Pile, April 28, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016 and AR #4 Sudan, The Last Make Northern White Rhinoceros, Nanyuki Kenya, 2016. Both these installations were boxes with details of photographs on all sides creating a sort of abstracted image. The tusk pile installation actually turned into a giant pile of elephant tusks when you activated the augmented reality. I was able to walk around the giant pile and see it from all sides. I thought this was very successful and gave you an some idea of the size of these tusk piles. It worked as a nice companion piece to Elephant Tusk Burn but in the end I found it to be a bit unnecessary since the video was more compelling. The other augmented reality installation of the rhinoceros was less successful. Although it did work to show a rhino in the gallery I felt that it didn’t really add much to the exhibition again. The use of these augmented reality tools is still really new in museums so I felt that although not everything component was needed it was a good attempt at making the exhibition more interactive for visitors and in some ways it did work to enhance my understanding of the artworks and exhibition and my overall experience of the exhibit.





Overall I found the exhibition to be very interesting and successful in communicating an important message of how human activity has impacted the Earth in a devastating long term way. Although the theme of the exhibition was slightly depressing it was still really beautiful and very important to showcase. At the end of the exhibition was a group of photographs showing green technologies that are being employed such as wind and solar power to try to mitigate the effects of climate change. These photographs added a small hopeful note to the end of the exhibition but I felt that their placement in the gallery didn’t really work. The message got a bit lost since although they were on the last wall in the gallery the visitor could easily miss them or view them in a different order than I’m guessing was intended. I found them to be less impactful because of their placement.



This exhibition is definitely worth seeing and it is included with regular admission to the gallery. For the fall and winter season the National Gallery of Canada is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10am – 5pm, on Thursday the national collection is free from 5pm – 8pm.

The documentary film ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH, part of the larger Anthropocene Project is also playing this week at the Mayfair Theater until October 25th and at the at Bytowne Cinema in early November and December.

As I mentioned I will also be seeing the Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’m curious to see how different the exhibition will be. Even if the artworks are the same an exhibition can feel completely different depending on the gallery and how it has been curated. Read my Anthropocene Exhibition Review – Part 2!


2 thoughts on “Anthropocene Exhibition Review – Part 1

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