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Beautiful Destruction?

Beautiful Destruction?

Walking home the other day, I was struck by some ads for a photo exhibit now showing at Ottawa City Hall. Called “Beautiful Destruction”, it is a series of aerial photographs of oil development in Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands (AKA “Tar Sands”).

The oil sands contain a great deal of Canada’s energy reserve, but the open-pit mining methods used to extract the bitumen have left massive scars on the land,
violated the rights and lives of indigenous people, and poisoned the environment.

As a bulwark of Canada’s resource economy, the oil sands developments are a controversial issue to Canadians. Supporters believe that taking advantage of Alberta’s trapped oil is essential to protecting jobs and revenue. Detractors call it “the most destructive project on Earth”.

But to photographer Louis Helbig, they are also art:


In his Artist Statement, Helbig says “My hope is that these images will encourage all Canadians to start talking and asking questions; engaging with the photos, each other and the issue of the Tar Sands.”


He also addresses the oil workers’ side:

“As an artist it has been my good fortune to have met many people who either live or work or once lived or worked in the tar sands or Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay or Fort Chipewayn. Each has, in sharing his or her experiences and opinions, provided a nuanced, human view of the tar sands full of the contradictions and drama inherent to seeing both the good and the bad of what they are part of. We and our institutions might do very well if we paid more attention to those closest to it. They don’t shirk the reality of the tar sands. They’ve affirmed for me what I saw, felt and responded to, that the tar sands are as good and bad, as beautiful and destructive as we are as human beings.”


There are 24 photos on the site, and they can also be purchased for framing or stock use. The exhibition will be at Ottawa City Hall until September 26, then will move a few blocks north to Canada’s National Art Gallery on September 29 and 30. The next destination will be at COEXIST Gallery, Tokyo, Japan sometime in 2011.

Overwhelming, upsetting, and yes — weirdly beautiful. Whatever your views on the sands, the pictures are definitely moving.

Beautiful Destruction

I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more