Since a couple of years Tanja Engelberts has been on the trail of the fossil fuel industry. In former projects she investigated the search for riches in Wyoming and the quickly changing landscape of the offshore industry on the North Sea.
This year she developed Petroleum Borealis during a residency at the Banff centre for arts and creativity in Canada. The tar sand industry, its scale, history and environmental impact fascinated her, encouraged her to visit the Athabasca area.
Looking over the riverbanks that surround the Athabasca Tar Sands, it is hard to comprehend that this far stretching landscape with its sticky dark earth is of any value. However, 4 million barrels of oil are extracted out of this soil daily; it contains Canada’s largest oil fields.
With most of the operations hidden to outsiders, the only way to experience and see the vastness of this industry is when you fly above it. The boreal forest surrounds the mining area. When you arrive at the enormous, open mines, the sheer scale of the pits, the tailing ponds and machinery reveal themselves.
In Petroleum Borealis, Tanja Engelberts captures the tragic result of the fossil fuel industry. She took aerial shots above the boreal forest, the tar sand industry, and photos of an abandoned tar sand mine depicting the wild landscape torn by human ingenuity.
She uses actual tar sand to print various images. The texture hereof stands as a tangible memento for a landscape lost by destruction. Some of these prints have the sand scraped off, leaving only a ghostly trace of a landscape. Other prints are produced with the dull black carbon of petro coke: a heavy residue from the oil refining process.
The installation is tied together by texts from Man and Nature by George P. Marsh. He was the first to write about man-made climate change in 1864. Describing the discomfort that comes with irreversible consequences, but also voicing the excitement of technological development and the resilience of nature. The following quote in Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action by Marsh describes his concern.
Natural arrangements, once disturbed by man, are not restored until he retires from the field, and leaves free scope to spontaneous recuperative energies; the wounds he inflicts upon the material creation are not healed until he withdraws the arm that gave the blow.