Beautiful Destruction by Louis Helbig

by Sarah Munro, page 98, Photo Prefix Issue 31 – Natural Resources (June 2015)

In recent years, the photographic documentation – and uneasy aestheticization – of industrial landscapes has become something of a national pastime. Depictions of oil-infused waterways and irreparably eroded land have become ubiquitous, effectively undermining the subgenre’s dual intent to repulse and seduce. How, then, might such an image-maker reclaim attention for himself – or, more importantly, for the significant social, environmental and economic implications of his subject? In Beautiful Destruction, Ottawa-based artist Louis Helbig does so by generously diverting much of the attention elsewhere.

What elevates Helbig’s work is his notably egalitarian approach. His study of the Alberta oil and tar sands was partially financed through the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, the patron saint of the less-privileged creative practitioners. The sceptre of the projects’s inclusive origins lingers in its final product. The hefty publication presents 230 stunning reproductions of Helbig’s abstract aerial landscapes. Featured just as prominently, however, are sixteen diverse essays that both bolster and temper the terrifying beauty of his images.

Helbig’s attitude is never authoritative; he allows ample room for criticism of his work, and the polarizing industry it depicts. Accordingly, he presents multiple perspectives on the planet’s largest industrial initiative through the inclusion of essays by incendiary conservative activist Ezra Levant, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Athabasca First Nation Chief Allan Adam, among others. The essayist’s opinions – pointedly presented in their respective native languages of English, French, Denesuline and Cree – are equally weighted and seemingly uncensored, successfully encapsulating a diverse dialogue on Canada’s intersecting ecology and economy.

Helbig’s sole call to arms is issued as politely as one might expect from a Canadian: “I would encourage you to contact the contributors,” he suggests, “… especially if you disagree with them.” It is with simple statements and striking images that Helbig optimistically opens the lines of communications, encouraging a new national pastime of unapologetic debate.

Rocky Mountain Books, 304 pages, 230 colour illustrations, hardcover, $75.00, November 2014.


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