Sign & Signature: Ed Burtinsky's Terrible Beauty

Below are the opening remarks I shared at the University of New Brunswick Art Centre's,  celebration of Ed Burtinsky's photographic exhibition, A Terrible Beauty: The Seductive Lens of Ed Burtinsky, comprised of about 25 photographs donated to the Centre's permanent collection, under the direction of Marie Maltais.

“A Terrible Beauty,” great title, isn’t it? Two perfect words, sitting side-by-side strike at the heart of this exhibition, and much of Ed Burtinsky’s work. Words that compel us to engage the complexities they betray—complexities that reside in the work absolutely, but also, and perhaps a bit terrifyingly, in us.

What is significant here? How something can at once be terrible and beautiful is the fundamental question, or thing we are asked to reckon with I think. Hovering in liminal space, it is at the threshold of anxiety and exhilaration that we tentatively, but eventually surrender, because through the seductive lens of Ed Burtinsky, we have no choice.

Fortunately the hierarchical divide, the riff or better still, the midriff, between a valorized masculine sublime and a demonized feminine beauty, ranging from roughly the mid-18th to the mid 20th centuries, that resulted in the silencing of any talk of beauty in art and criticism has, since the millennium, been bridged by artists such as Burtinsky, who understand that it is the very fact of beauty, wily though she may be, that we spend any time at all looking at these images. The argument against beauty went something like this,

The sublime rejects beauty on the grounds it is diminutive, dismissible, not powerful enough. The political rejects beauty on the grounds that it is too powerful…[that it so] overwhelm[s] our attention…we cannot free our eyes long enough to look at injustice. (Scarry, 1999, p. 85)

Yet as Elaine Scarry (1999) explains in On Beauty and Being Just, and what Edward Burtinsky demonstrates here, is how beauty renews our search for truth and our concern for justice.

Burtinsky’s images elevate the mundane and like any powerful work of art make the ordinary extraordinary. Terrible though it may be, they rely on beauty to do so. Beauty is why the political import of his work is not lost on us. It is why our eyes don’t glaze over when for example, we submit to Densified Cans #20 Hamilton, Ontario the effects of which surface with subsequent visits to our local landfill.

Densified Cans #20  Hamilton, Ontario

Densified Cans #20 Hamilton, Ontario


China Recycling #10 –like Jackson Pollock’s “drip paintings” inspire larger interpretations including the implied threat of global atomic destruction.

China Recycling #10

China Recycling #10

Car Terminal Ritthem, Zeeland, The Netherlands speaks to the

Car Terminal  Ritthem, Zeeland, The Netherlands

Car Terminal Ritthem, Zeeland, The Netherlands

manufactured circuitry of social and cultural interdependence at the expense of nature, and I am reminded of Ed Burtinsky’s own words, taken from his website, that “[we] come from nature.…There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it... If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”

Alberta Oil Sands #6, speaks to this dimension

Alberta Oil Sands #6

Alberta Oil Sands #6

of Ed Burtinsky’s artistic vision and fulfills what sociologist, Dennis Cosgrove describes,

"[His] is an unalienated, insider’s apprehension of the land: of nature and the sense of place, together with a more critical, socially conscious, outsider’s perspective: what Cosgrove calls, a landscape way of seeing” (Cosgrove, 1984, p. xi).

Beauty is significant here. Beauty is the sign.  It signifies. As Dave Hickey (1999) in The Invisible Dragon explains, beauty is the signature that underscores the grace and beneficence these images bestow (p.21).



Cosgrove, D.E. (1984). Social formation and symbolic landscape. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Hickey, D. (2012). The invisible dragon: Essays on beauty, revised and expanded. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scarry, E. (1999). On beauty: And being just. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.