Most Americans never see the source locations of the oil on which their country is so utterly reliant. Nor do many see the feedlots from which almost all beef consumed in this beef-addicted nation hails. The beef and oil industries generate two of the United States’ most precious commodities, and both industries’ practices are often hidden from public view.
In two distinct but interlinked series, Manchester, England-based photographer Mishka Henner presents stunning patchwork compositions of aerial images American oil fields and feedlots. To make these large-scale pieces, Henner scours Google Earth’s publicly available satellite photographs, then knits them together. “I’m exploiting loopholes in the vast archives of data, imagery and information that are now accessible to us, connecting the dots to reveal things that surround us but which we rarely see or don’t want to see,” Henner says in a statement.
The vast oilfields of Texas and Utah alternately appear like abstract paintings, intricate circuit boards, and bleakly beautiful mosaics. The process of making these images turned Henner, an artist, into an environmental activist. “In certain parts of the USA, the country’s unquenchable thirst for oil has altered the landscape beyond recognition,” Henner writes in his artist’s statement. His work urges viewers to consider the unsavory origins of their burgers and diesel, but the commentary is far subtler than, say, PETA’s. In his current solo show, Black Diamond, on view at London’s Carroll Fletcher Gallery, the photos are presented next to research documents used in developing both series, including geological mapping data of gas and oil fields from the ’70s and ’80s.
The beef industry, like most industries, is itself heavily reliant on oil, as author Michael Pollan writes:
“The feedlot’s ecosystem … revolves around corn. But its food chain doesn’t end there, because the corn itself grows somewhere else, where it is implicated in a whole other set of ecological relationships. Growing the vast quantities of corn used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. So the modern feedlot is really a city floating on a sea of oil.”
Up close, these industries’ practices are, as Pollan describes more lengthily in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, decidedly grisly. It’s all the more unsettling, then, that from miles above, they look so eerily gorgeous.