Early on July 2, 2021, something astonishing occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Gas leaking from an underwater pipeline burst into flames, making it appear as though the sea was on fire. A few hours later, crews extinguished this so-called “eye of fire” west of the Yucatan Peninsula. By that time, images of this unusual event had already gone viral over social media.
Emmy Lee Wall, executive director of the Capture Photography Festival, says that human beings instinctively believe that photography represents the truth. But in this instance, she points out that this wasn’t the case. That’s because under the laws of physics, water is not combustible.
“Lightning struck the gas and it looked literally like fire was burning on the water,” Wall tells Pancouver over Zoom.
This phenomenon caught the attention of Steven Beckly, a Canadian photographic artist of Chinese ancestry living in Toronto. It led him to create Phantom Eye, a huge installation on the exterior wall of the Dal Grauer Substation at 944 Burrard Street.
Curated by Wall, it’s the Capture Photography Festival’s signature public art project in Vancouver.
“Steven’s work often involves the body and light,” Wall explains. “His installation features an enlarged eye, which happens to be the eye of his partner, overlaid with NASA imagery evoking this ethereal, galactic feel. But it was really inspired by this environmental disaster.”
Moreover, Wall says an enlarged eye is ideal for a festival that asks people to consider how images might be altered to promote different perspectives.
“I think Steven’s image perfectly captures that need to be more critical and need to think more deeply about what we’re looking at,” Wall says.
Eye links public to environmental challenges
The Capture Photography Festival’s mission is to connect Vancouver to the world through lens-based art. In this instance, Beckly’s image links people to global environmental challenges resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
Coincidentally, this photograph is on the wall of a building owned by a Crown corporation that generates almost all of its electricity through clean hydropower. According to Wall, the building’s glass façade is an ideal location for Phantom Eye, which appears on a grand scale high above the ground.
“It does give you that kind of awe-inspiring feeling,” the curator declares.
In the meantime, Wall expresses appreciation to B.C. Hydro for sponsoring Capture Photography Festival public art on the substation over the past 10 years. She reveals that this space has often been dedicated to mid-career artists like Beckly who haven’t had an opportunity to exhibit in a public way in Vancouver before.
In addition, she notes that in Vancouver, conceptual practices have been at the centre of a great deal of photographic art.
“The human body is less represented here than in other cities,” Wall adds. “So I thought it would be interesting to engage Steven [for whom] the body is such an important part of his practice.”
The Capture Photography Festival takes place at a variety of venues in Metro Vancouver from April 1 to 30. Most of the exhibitions are free. For more information, visit the website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.