Shaping the country: The open-cut-mine series of John Gollings

Photography has the capacity to lie and make fantastical but to also conjure truths from the unexpected.

The fleeting moment of this single frame by John Gollings, has found an angle that reveals the shape of the Australian continent inscribed into the sides of one of the largest man-made holes in the world. This line that unconsciously replicates the swelling coastline of Western Australia to the tip of Cape York, is the route up and out for a fleet of giant trucks as they labour their way from the dark bottom of the pit up to the real surface of the earth. These vehicles, taller than a two storey house, are rendered toy-like by the aerial view – and their scale virtually unimaginable. As a visual metaphor, the image speaks of the way now that mining and the wealths it generates, profoundly shape both the economy and, increasingly, the national character.

John Gollings, Mt Newman Mines Abandoned Hole, 2010  © John Gollings/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013 

This photograph also shows the late nineteenth-century boom and bust and boom again town of Kalgoorlie, seemingly perched precariously on the edge of this perfectly crafted abyss. To have a population centre in such close proximity to the industrial frontline is now an anachronism within the world of mining in Australia. These places where minerals are extracted are more often now far from towns and cities, and as places of Vital National Security, are controlled by strict rules of access.

Nor are slag heaps, dark pits and gouged earth supposed to be the stuff of creative visual engagement, let alone the stars of a new iconography of Australian identity. It was so much easier when the export wealth of the nation could be represented by images of fluffy sheep being guided over rolling hills by laconic stockmen.

Johb Gollings, Mt Newman Mines Overburden, 2010  © John Gollings/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013 

This series of photographs of open-cut mines in Western Australia was taken in early 2010 as part of Gollings’ work as Co-Creative Director of the Australian representation at the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Gollings is best known as an architectural photographer of landmark buildings; however, one long-term strand within his practice is concerned with finding ways to visually understand and comment upon the growth, functioning and decline of cities.

The Venice exhibition, Now and When, was a thirteen-minute sequence of images, originally projected on large screens in 3D in two parts. Gollings structured his Now sequence of three cities—Melbourne, Sydney and Surfers Paradise—which were all shot at golden dusk, their soaring towers glittering with wealth and confidence, and set them in contrast to far-less-known aerial views of the pits and heaps of the Mt Newman and Kalgoorlie mines. The two sets of images are dramatically poignant for their reversal of space and form; the towers thrusting upwards, their power derived from the deep holes dug into the vast arid landscape of the West.

John Gollings, Super Pit Kalgoorlie, 2010 © John Gollings/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013 

This reading treats the pits and heaps as architectural form, equally calculated and precise as a building. At Mt Newman the dazzlingly coloured sculpted mounds of overburden lie revealed by the Gollings photograph and display an uncanny visual resemblance to contemporary Aboriginal desert art. The actions of a now-absent fleet of gargantuan equipment, has drawn the earth to give up its mysteries and laid out what would normally lie just below the surface, in a constellation of colour.

Virginia Rigney is Senior Curator at Gold Coast City Gallery. Now and When was exhibited there in April 2011 and subsequently toured. She recently curated the exhibition and co-authored the accompanying publication John Gollings Learning From Surfers Paradise: A Rephotography Project 1973–2013.