Reverse engineering: The mining photographs of Simryn Gill

Simryn Gill Eyes and Storms, 2013, Ilfachrome print mounted on aluminium. Courtesy the artist 

You may not be enthusiastic about stromatolites and the cyanobacteria, but given that they paid for the nation's Nissan Patrols and Miele electric ovens, television sets and holidays in Provence, Australians might at the very least spare them a thought in their prayers.[1]

George Seddon

If art in the age of mechanical reproduction can still be thought of as a prayerful activity, then surely the aerial photographs of mines in Australia taken by Simryn Gill qualify as such?

For like sacrifice, prayer can be thought of as a gift creating intimacy with gods and things. Look again at George Seddon’s statement concerning stromatolites and cyanobacteria where he writes; Australians might at the very least spare them a thought in their prayers. To “spare a thought” like “Brother, can you spare a dime?,” is to give – involving a sense of loss, no matter how small. This definitely has a sense of sacrifice and even of one-way giving. A give away. You may even spare a picture or two. As for the smallness and “at the very least,” it seems that the gift is in some fundamental way felt to be inadequate.

Inadequate? Inadequate to what? Before I try to answer this question, maybe we should ask to what gods and lesser divinities are the prayers being directed? As prayers, the photographs of the mines are directed to the mines. Only indirectly are they directed towards the spectator. This is my idea – my conceit, you might say – and in the first instance I think of these photographs as presenting a panorama of Australia as a land-mass of gaping wounds, intrinsic to which is a sense of fabulous wealth oozing from these wounds. The land is here more than land. Metaphorically it is the body of the nation. These are big claims, but then so is the scale and the depth of these photographs that take you, literally it seems, into the earth itself.

We might also register, no matter how casually, that there are no people in these photographs. Absolutely none. And not only are there no people in this vision and version of the body that is the nation, but a pervasive sterility, a glowing life-after-death incandescence coats them. The use of driverless monster trucks made by Komatsu, “driven” by GPS from far-away Perth, of “autonomous trains” and now of small surveillance drones, perfect this picture of sterility and absence of life – of what we used to call “life.” We have ushered in a new sort of “life”, robotized life, in order to control life.

Mining in Australia today generates vast profits for its largely overseas owners and, so it is often said, generates trickle-down wealth for the average Australian as well – at least for the next fifty years in the case of the rich iron ore mines of the Pilbara in the northwest, after which, at the expected rate of extraction, those mines will be exhausted. What a strange word, “exhausted,” as if the mines were human or at least alive like an animal, a belated hope for life and animism in the human-less world.

Seddon himself suggests that the mines make all Australians better off financially (Nissans and holidays in Provence) and even though I find this to be an exaggerated claim, in keeping with the lavish PR campaign funded by mining interests, and even though mining on the scale undertaken in Australia (the largest exporter of iron ore in the world) has many negative economic as well as environmental impacts, the crucial point is that the mining boom is widely seen by Australians as a cornucopia of wealth for all. In effect it is a fairytale to stave off critics – a fairytale, like the tale of King Midas; whatever the mining interests touch turns to gold, not just for the king but for his subjects as well. That is the perception; or rather, the misperception, that the mining interests have been able to create using the magical art of advertising and manipulation of popular media. That is why we sorely need another magical art – an apotropaic art – a magic used to defend oneself against magic, like a magical charm, for example, like these photographs.

Since global contraction in the world economy after 2008 and diminished demand in China for minerals, there has been much talk in Australia about a significant pause or even an end to the mining boom. This is accompanied by a sense of panic as if the entire wellbeing of Australia – like a banana republic – had come to depend on mono-cropping. In other words a collective identification with the new mega-mines has developed – for the wealth they are supposed to provide everyone as much as for, I hazard the guess, their gargantuan size combined with their uncanny aesthetic character. It’s as if a giant the size of the nation has been playing in a sand pit, carving erotic shapes and not-so-sacred signatures in the face of the planet earth. What striking visual testimony this combination of size and shape provides of the eerie meddling with nature on this scale, let alone of that sense of masculine triumph involved in the domination of nature, including human nature.

The prayer Seddon suggests we might make is to be directed, in the first instance, to the ur-elements of the mines, namely to the cyanobacteria and to the stromatolites that are 3.5 billion years old, especially obvious in the vicinity of the iron ore mines of the Pilbara region. As yet nobody has been able to come up with a way of relating consciously to age of this sort. What does 3.5 billions years old mean? What is age, after all? Does age automatically evoke reverence? Are the elderly, the antiquated, and the ancient, sacred? To be in the presence of things 3.5 billion years old and find a way of registering such time, is perhaps to bear witness, no matter how remote, to the intricate work of nature in which the scope of the human is immeasurably small.

Here we enter into another fairytale, the great origin story, the beginning of life itself, for the stromatolites are the genesis of that miracle we call photosynthesis. When miners mine the earth on the unbelievable scale shown in these photographs, they are undertaking time-space travel to the beginning of the beginning, to the life-force that pulses through your body and through all things green. A prayer can also be an act of homage, a sacred thank-you note for a blessing, such as those twenty-four billion tonnes of iron ore in the ground at the Pilbara. As homage, a prayer can take the form of spoken words, song, and dance – or as a picture like these mining photographs.

As homage, a prayer is not only a request but can be testimony as well – testimony to miraculous salvation or to a trial by fire, akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome. You can emphasise the miraculous relief or you can emphasise the extraordinariness of the trauma, or both. One example would be the votive offering (ex-votos) a person makes who has survived a fatal illness or a terrible accident. I have seen paintings hung on the walls of churches in Ecuador and Mexico, for instance, which depict the sick person or a person hurtling over a cliff in a bus being rescued by divine intervention. In Brazil it is common to find metal copies of body parts such as breasts or limbs placed in shrines for the same reason.

Another example of prayerful homage is to be found in the theory Georges Bataille once put forward concerning the cave paintings of bison and birds in Lascaux, France. Bataille suggested that these were not made to magically enhance success in the hunt, but were done after the hunt to register the spectral moment of death and the transgression involved in killing animals.[2] On this reading, the pictures open up to and become part of the sacred. They are a communication with spirit. And above all they manifest the establishment of intimacy between humans and the things of the world; Bataille’s fundamental postulate is that the role of religion is to provide “shots” of such intimacy in mankind’s otherwise permanent state of alienation (a point to which the basic postulates of Hegel and Marx also relate).

As I understand this, it is important to bear in mind that the images of concern here do not passively register these “shots” of intimacy but are active agents in a process of poesis, completing the opening to the sacred and the coagulation of intimacy with things. Similarly, Naskapi Indian hunters in Newfoundland are recorded in the 1920s as singing and dancing around the body of their just-killed prey, or sitting by its side quietly smoking.[3] In the 1920s, closer to home, in the northeast of Australia Murngin speaking Indigenous people are recorded as having elaborate ideas about the souls of dead game entering the body of the hunter, for which ritual is required.[4]

The question then for me is whether we can we think of Simryn Gill’s aerial photographs of mines in the same way: can we think of them as proto-rituals and prayerful acts of homage, testimony to the outflow of the sacred created by the mega-mining now taking place in Australia and in a great many places throughout the world?

We humans living today have – as we say – “come a long way” since the cave painters of Lascaux and the beginnings of humankind in early Australia, but do we not feel at least a twinge of remorse and something more when we see these disturbingly sublime photographs? If the sublime is taken as something awesome and spellbinding that draws us in as much as it repels, these images are surely sublime, testimony to the power of horror to overwhelm us as when, to take a pointed example, we see the gaping chest wounds painted with loving care by the Flemish painters on Christ’s naked chest when nailed to the cross. These bleeding wounds on the body of the Saviour are for their time, the fifteenth century in northern Europe, equivalent to the wounds that are these mines on the body of Australia in the twenty-first century.

What the photographs also reveal – as in a biblical revelation – is the story of the modern nation-state based on land and blood. The Australian nation-state, for example, is founded on an originary violence against the Indigenous people, violence in which land has always been a central issue, as dramatically exposed in the recent overthrow of the basic British legal underpinning of conquest, namely the terra nullius concept (meaning “land owned by no-one”). In this regard Simryn Gill’s photographs are testimony to the colonial and now neo-colonial violence in the land as gaping wound, inscrutable and questioning.

In his essay, Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin argues that the founding violence of the state is reproduced continuously through time in a variety of ways. Capital punishment, for instance, is striking in its re-play of that which both founds and reaffirms law. “For in the exercise of violence over life and death more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself. But in this very violence something rotten in law is revealed.”[5] Capital punishment has been abolished in Australia since 1967 but the re-play of the originary violence acquires other outlets where “something rotten in law is revealed” – as in these aerial photographs.

Aerial observation is intrinsic to modern mining exploration as well as to these photographs. It was while flying low because of clouds that the richest iron ore deposits in the world – namely, the Pilbara – were discovered in 1952 by that “Man of Iron” and “King of Pilbara,” the Australian mining magnate, Lang Hancock, on record as recently as 1984 for counselling the extermination of the Indigenous people of Australia and for his sustained opposition to Aboriginal rights.[6] He was especially incensed by “half castes” and is said to have fathered numerous children with Aboriginal women. This was the man who, on account of his extraordinary wealth, held Charles Court, the premier of the most important mining state in Australia (Western Australia) at bay for decades. His only legitimate child, described as “the richest woman in the world,” battles lawsuits with Rio Tinto while venting hyperbolic right-wing ideologies.

Not for nothing is mining associated with the devil throughout Western history. The devil is certainly active, for example, in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven. This film depicts small time gold miners in Mexico in the twentieth century who fight over their spoils and end up killing each other; an archetypal story, that’s for sure, that no amount of smooth talking corporate lawyers and CEOs representing the new face of mining can completely assuage. In Colombia, where I have worked since 1970, here too I come across the devil and devil-like creatures in the gold mines of the Pacific coast.[7]

It is this un-ease, this sense that there is something rotten about mining in general, whether mining gold, iron ore, coal, or uranium, that permeates the aura emitted by Simryn Gill’s photographs. We could call this “superstition.” We could also think of it as a response to the hard labour and danger of mining (for the workers, not the bosses and owners, of course), and this in turn brings memories of how much industrial strife mines have incurred and how militant miners’ unions have been during the past century. Outstanding here is not only the recent and massive bloodshed in the platinum mines of South Africa, but the radical character of the Western Miners Union in the USA in the early twentieth century under Big Bill Haywood, a founding member of the Wobblies (The Industrial Workers of the World, mix of anarchists and socialists). Pat Mackie, a more modern day Wobbly, headed up the famous 1964 miners’ strike in Mount Isa in northern Queensland in Australia that lasted ten months with that racist and right wing state proclaiming emergency powers.

So what has happened to that history and that fight? It was not a fight for higher wages and better working conditions only, but for a new civilisation based on workplace democracy, abolition of the wage system, grass roots democracy, and self-management. In other words until recently mining has had these two sides – the side of avarice, greed, and the “unnatural” associated with the diabolic, but then there was also the side of the saviour and utopia.

But when one thinks of the intense mining to which the planet Earth is now subject, from Mongolia to Colombia, Peru, South Africa, and Australia, to name but a few countries, it is surely surprising how the sense of social and economic justice generated by labour in the mines has dissipated, at least in the so-called “developed” countries. If anything, organised labour now allies itself with mining companies battling environmental activists, as we now see with the coal miners of Appalachia, and the same issue arises in relation to the moves by Rio Tinto and BHP mines to buy off not only white Australia but now Indigenous people as well as with the payment of royalties under the provisions of the Native Title Act.

Anyone who has visited mega-mining projects the world over must have been struck by the intense security procedures existing at them ranging from army-like restrictions on visitors to the issue of steel-heavy boots, space-age clothing and helmets, the elaborate safety protocols in vehicles, the ubiquitous walkie talkies, the display of photographs of accidents on notice boards, the warning signs everywhere, and up to the minute postings of the safety situation. I am reminded of entering a war zone or even an operating theatre in a hospital. Of course there are practical reasons for this, yet is not “security” here also a metaphysical and symbolic gesture as well? Such “security” is an effective way of keeping the individual in place (for his or her own good, naturally) and such “security” is also very much culture – security is after all an art form – a way of keeping at bay the nameless monsters of mining that no amount of modernisation seems able to shake off.

Yet I gather from my students – in Mongolia and Peru, for instance – that shamans are increasingly concerned with the damage wrought on the earth and, although very easily exaggerated and romanticised, this may be the beginning of a more cosmic, political, orientation along the lines of what Bruno Latour has called “the parliament of things” in which nature would have a seat at the bargaining table, reconstituting the IWW notion of a grassroots democracy in which the grass roots have their say, too.[8]

What Simryn Gill is doing in effect is reverse engineering.[9] With patience she dismantles bit by bit the mythic technology of the mining companies that has mesmerised the postmodern world. In figuring out how that magic works visually, she eases us into another state of mind whereby we just might be able to quit the dream turned nightmare of the mastery over nature and, instead, find our way towards the mastery of non-mastery, the reverse engineering we now so desperately need as we confront the apocalyptic scenario presented in these photographs.


  1. ^ George Seddon, “Time, Gentlemen, Please,” in The Best Australian Essays, Melbourne: Black Inc. 2006, p. 153.
  2. ^ Georges Bataille, Prehistoric Paintings, Lascaux, or the Birth of Art, Geneva: Skira, 1955.
  3. ^ Frank G. Speck Naskapi, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1977.
  4. ^ W. Lloyd Warner, A Black Civilization: A Social Study of An Australian Tribe, Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1969 [1937].
  5. ^ Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflection (ed) Peter Demetz New York: Schocken, 1978, pp. 277-300, p. 286.
  6. ^ Ellen Fanning, “Remembering Lang,” The Global Mail, 25 June 2012. See also the video recording the 1984 TV interview where Hancock expresses these views, “Lang Hancock Father of Gina Rinehart Offers Sterilization As A Solution,” as on YouTube, December 13, 2012. Lang Hancock died in 1992.
  7. ^ Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  8. ^ Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993.
  9. ^ Deniz Duruiz brought this to my attention when she first saw Simryn Gill’s photographs.

This is an abridged version of the keynote catalogue essay from Simryn Gill’s exhibition Here Art Grows On Trees at the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013.

Michael Taussig is Professor of Anthropology both at Columbia University in New York and the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland, and a prolific author. He is well-known for commentaries on Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, especially in relation to the idea of commodity fetishism, and his many books include What Color is the Sacred? (2009).