The image is divided in half: on the left, the trees taken from above are bright green, healthy, with compact foliage, while on the right, the colors are dull and the foliage sparse, diseased, destroyed by Xylella fastidiosa. It is one of the most evocative photographs in the exhibition “Edward Burtynsky: Xylella Studies”from 25 November to 9 April at the Pino Pascali Museum Foundation a Polignano a mare (Bari). The Canadian photographer documented the ecological disaster that hit the olive trees in Puglia with a project started with the Sylva Foundationa non-profit organization that deals with environmental regeneration through reforestation activities.
A year ago the Foundation, which was born in 2021 with the very aim of regenerating the Apulian landscape, hosted Burtynsky in residence in Salento, one of the most internationally appreciated photographers for his civil commitment in witnessing the impact of man on the planet. Indeed, one of his most significant works is Antropocene, work that combines fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality and scientific research to investigate human influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth. the Sylva Foundation asked Burtynsky to translate the destruction of the millenary Apulian tree heritage caused by the bacterium into images and videos xylella. The result was a work synthesized by the Polignano exhibition and by “Xylella Fastidiosa. Puglia: The Lost Olive Groves. Photographs by Edward Burtynsky” which was from 21 to 27 November at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, as part of the Science Festival.
It was Burtyinsky himself who accompanied us on our visit to the exhibition in Rome, revealing a curiosity: “Before arriving in Puglia, my team had made an inspection and sent me some images in which the landscape was parched by drought, with the olive trees stood out against the brown earth – says the photographer -. One rainy day was enough, two days before I arrived, and everything changed, I found myself facing a completely different scenario, but I think that the green makes the death of the trees and at the same time underlined the vitality of Nature”.
The first photo he stops in front of documents the social aspect of the destruction of the Apulian olive trees. At the center of the image is a tree without a crown, but the width of its trunk suggests that it is a very ancient plant. “The locals called it ‘the old church’, because it was 1,200 years old and is one of the oldest destroyed by the pathogen. It always excites me – admits the photographer – to think that it has survived wars, droughts and then this plague and broke its existence. Its story is no different from that of humans killed by the pandemic: Xylella arrived through fruits imported from South America, just as the virus passed from animals to humans through markets. , unlike Covid, Xylella does not leave any trees alive. Yet there would have been a way to stop it”.
Burtynsky moves in front of the image mentioned at the beginning. “There is a way to stop the Xylella, and it is taking care of biodiversity, not relying on monocultures. In this photo it is clearly seen that the bacterium only kills olive trees and different plants would have prevented its spread. It would have been enough to leave green corridors between the crops to avoid this disastrous outcome. Nature knows how to defend itself, biodiversity is its best defense weapon”.
The photographer gets excited, speaks with the skills of a botanist, refers to the work done by the Sylva Foundation for reforestation and scientific documentation: “I believe that our task as artists, once we have collected the information, is to give it back to people in a more ‘digestible’ and immediate form, in order to create awareness. It is particularly important for climate change – he continues – and I firmly believe that the important thing is to show without accusing, in order to put people in front of the facts, trust them and let them reach conclusions. We must give hope and encourage those who are still undecided, but we must do it in a revealing and not an accusatory way”.
Burtynsky stops on one of the photos taken with the drone, to give an idea of the extent of the phenomenon: “I traveled almost all of Salento by car – he says – it is impressive to see the extent of the destruction, field after field, after field”. Then he points to an image in which the gray of diseased hair almost seems like lace: “Old dying trees seem to give life to an enchanted forest. Mine cannot be a detached work, however scientific, there is beauty too in portraying the tragedy, otherwise we wouldn’t be here looking at these photos.”
But the aesthetic accompanies the denunciation. A burnt trunk is the symbol of the tragedy in the tragedy, because to the disaster of the Xylella negligence, irregularities, late interventions also subject to investigations by the judiciary also contributed. “The exhibition does not want to show only the trees – underlines Burtynsky – it is the testimony of people who have lost everything or who have been blind and deaf in the face of science. Some families had olive groves for generations, it is the story of a great loss and the fragility of our world. This tree is burnt because the farmers have not yet had permission to cut down the olive trees and plant new ones. Thus, often at night there are those who go to set fire to their olive grove, something extremely violent when you think about what it meant to them”.
In the photo of a twisted trunk in the foreground, the artist glimpses “a muscularity made up of tendons and bones, like a sculpture”, of the tree taken from above and split in two, he says “there is something magical, I was looking for a way to communicate the sense of wonder that Nature knows how to amaze us even in death”. There is also beauty in the cut and stacked roots: “I wanted to give the sense of their incredible heaviness, which comes from all their years lived and suddenly ended”.
“This work is a kind of passionate story about many things – concludes Burtynsky – it speaks of the need to rely on science, because if one had listened to the experts the disaster could have been limited, but above all it is a cry of alarm for biodiversity “because monocultures are always a danger. This is why the work of the Sylva Foundation is important, which seeks to give new life to these places with reforestation and to indicate a way to learn from one’s mistakes”.