Red mud: Art and the post-mining landscape
Amelia Hine, Philipp Kirsch and Iris Amizlev on building sustainable landscapes and land shapes from post-mining space
Out in the humid regions of Central Queensland a new medium is being produced. A thick, red paste, derived from the earth and processed, is being baked in the sun and built up layer by layer to reinforce expansive dam walls. Over the course of time these walls will grow to become hills, and inadvertently emerge as a new, manufactured landmark dominating its local context. A vestige of the early 21st century, this form will embody a message for future generations, recounting the history of society; our soft drink cans and our window frames, our statues and our quantum clocks. It will remind us of the many hundreds of workers who journeyed weekly across the country in the name of industry. The mud is a neutralised and thickened bauxite residue, the place is Gladstone, and there are no artists.
There are over four hundred operating mines in Australia. As whispers of an end to the boom become confident murmurs, there is increasing motivation to reflect on what that means for the future of these innumerable sites and, more broadly, the state of the land in a post-mining future. Currently, rehabilitation of post-mined land focuses on restoring the site to its original ecological (but not aesthetic) state prior to the mining intervention. With a growing disconnect between satisfying ecological needs and envisioning an appropriate response to the landscape, there is a critical need for creative intervention. So, where are the creatives?
Anti-mining activism has been a dominating force in the Australian visual arts community, but there has been little support for art to establish itself as a legitimate force within the post-mining process. As such, artists have forfeited their ability to influence the physical outcomes of the land following mine closure. In Australia, a tentative union between artist and corporation tends to be immediately disparaged and is therefore left unexplored. Nevertheless, there is significant precedent in the work of land reclamation artists that originated as an ecological subset within the American Earthworks movement active from the latter 1960s. These artists forged specific applications as a restorative influence within damaged environments. The movement lost definition as many branches of ecological art emerged, and over time it has become increasingly interchangeable, not only with eco and public art, but with the landscape architecture vernacular. Alongside this loss of unified identity, practicing land reclamation artists have, for many decades, been subject to the whims of politicians, with many works reliant on the fickle enactment of rehabilitation policies for exhausted industrial sites. Alongside American Earthworks, reclamation art is now in steady decline, paralleling the maturing of many of its primary exponents.
Landscape architecture projects have since replaced the work of artists in most reclamation sites that experiment beyond ecological restoration. Whether because land reclamation art has been waning or landscape architecture has a better organisational structure for working with the mining industry, there is significant overlap between the works produced by these creative fields that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. A recent example of this can be seen in the McLeod Tailings project for Barrick Gold in Canada by American landscape architect Martha Schwartz and in the newly opened Australian Garden constructed in a former sand mine in Victoria, Australia, by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson.
In contrast to the decline in reclamation artworks, a combination of industry-wide regulations, impending site closures and the growing pressure on mining operations to maintain a “green” image, have led to a rise in ecological rehabilitation processes that cover complex scientific and engineering requirements. These address issues such as land stability as well as irrigation and species diversity, but do not respond appropriately to the less technical needs of the site. The enduring threat of a new Australian landscape fraught with the absurdist topography of engineered non-places looms large, and with it comes the knowledge that an intersection between art, design and science is crucial if the new post-industrial landscape is to respond comprehensively to its context.
Perhaps the key is to remember “earth is nowhere pristine”, as the impact of human existence over millennia has pervaded every facet of the planet, from the chemical makeup of the atmosphere to the wilful reshaping of topography. It is too easy to allow this discussion to be dominated by biocentric ideas related to a landscape’s inherent moral standing, rejecting collaboration on the basis of ideological differences. We rapidly assume that our temporally immediate “natural” environment is untouched without remembering the cascading loss of species numbers, biomass and complexity that has occurred everywhere following human expansion. Our willingness to consider the environment unspoiled, despite the overflow of humanity into its every instance is a staggering cultural feat. It is a confusion of both language and environment that triggers a practical misunderstanding of how best to manage and reform spaces altered by industry. This mode of perceiving the world as a dichotomy – touched by humans, or untouched – allows the land to experience a form of reification, mirroring the social values of the person who perceives it. Its role as an empty signifier allows it to become imbued with abstract ideals that do not reflect its actual physical state.
The idea of the landscape enables it to exist physically. We constantly observe the land, but it is only when we apply a particular value that it transforms into a landscape. In the case of post-mining environments, our society has imbued the manufactured landscape with negative values that forgo desirability or beauty.
From this expectation, the somewhat deluded environmentalist values of the sacred, moral earth are born. This worshipful approach, envisioning a nature that is to be protected rather than exploited, again exists separately from the physical world. Richard Weller notes in the Art of Instrumentality that “a pastoral modernity holds sway in the public imagination, and thus landscape remains popularly defined as the absence of infrastructure”. Integral to the success of this imagery is an assumed indivisible unity of “nature”, which allows it to be transformed into a material state of existence within the world and the antithesis of non-nature, or human intervention into the landscape. Our current environmentalist understanding of nature as a pristine ecology perpetuates the illusion of total separation from the negative human environment, casting infrastructure as a symbolic evil. This polarisation of good nature and bad infrastructure leaves “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honourable human place in nature might actually look like.”
The Earthworks movement, and more specifically land reclamation art, regardless of its relevance to current stylistic or intellectual trends, presents itself as a readymade solution to this need. The mine site provides an appropriate medium (overburden), method (readily available industrial machinery) and motivation (environmental and social responsibility, PR campaigns, governmental regulations) for the creation of works, with the capacity to host large-scale, long-term and sustainable interventions that respond to the aesthetic, social and political elements of the site. In turn, the works address an alternative and more relevant conception of the “natural” landscape within the context of the Anthropocene, presenting a perceptual challenge to the separation of nature and humanity. Effectively, they offer an opportunity to begin reintegrating ideals with reality and creating a new environment that allows us to exist within nature, experiencing rather than observing.
This hybrid landscape has the potential to reframe a viewer’s understanding, to change the context of vision and challenge our valuation of the “touched’. It represents a precious opportunity to experiment with new relationships between the natural and the artificial, resisting the fictitious morality of the ecological landscape. “[I]n the end, we all need to shrug off the embrace of the romantic landscape and reengage with the world.”
While there is latent utopian potential hidden in post-mining sites, Robert Morris, as one of the first artists to produce land reclamation art, acknowledges the ethical dilemma of the artist and concedes that “[i]nsofar as site works participate in art as land reclamation, they would seem to have no choice but to serve a public-relations function for mining interests”. Acceptance of destructive industry is a highly contentious issue amongst the Australian art community, with a complex history of subservience to industry patronage playing no small role in prevailing attitudes. But there is a distinction to be made between cooperation and acquiescence, and we may simply look to Morris’s own Untitled Johnson Pit No. 30 to find this in action. Indeed, while fundamentally concerned with the connection formed between the artwork and context, reclamation works historically retain a subtlety that speaks to an acceptance of destruction without providing absolution.
If artists could reconcile themselves to the idea of partnering with mining companies, they would hold the potential to produce a better outcome for the devastated land than is currently available. One of Morris’ contemporaries, Robert Smithson, wrote in 1972, “our new ecological awareness indicates that industrial production can no longer remain blind to the visual landscape. Earth art could become a visual resource that mediates between ecology and industry. Current land reclamation projects lack sufficient imagination to catch the public eye ... Many ecologists tend to see the landscape through nineteenth-century eyes, while many industrialists see nothing but profits.” More than forty years later, art and industry still have an opportunity to look beyond the tensions of the present and consider the condition of the land over the coming centuries; do we want a landscape whose form reflects the economic priorities of the 20th and 21st centuries, or a landscape that has embraced the change forced upon it and emerged with values updated for future generations to gain a better understanding of their place within it?
The temporal characteristics of land reclamation art are particularly evocative, both in terms of the need to anticipate the requirements of an indeterminate future, and the work’s physical evolution. Through the incorporation of flora and/or the impact of natural forces upon the form, significant changes often occur over the lifespan of rehabilitation. Works such as Tree Mountain by Agnes Denes (built in a former quarry in Finland) stretch far into the future, with the forest created by Denes contractually obligated, through careful programming, to remain untouched for the next 400 years. In addition to longevity, the use of materials available on site provides a direct connection to the destructive processes that altered the same area prior to rehabilitation; its transformation is the result of both ruin and renewal.
In Canada, landscape architect Martha Schwartz worked with Barrick Gold to rehabilitate and reshape 14 million tons of tailings into a beautiful and powerful earthwork, the McLeod Tailings Project, at the closed Geraldton Mine in Ontario, Canada. The transformation was the result of a co-operative effort between a far-sighted community, a mining company and the government ministries that shared their vision. The new landform becomes a cultural artefact, highlighting the location and role of mining in the life of the town, and serving to spur economic redevelopment by reshaping access to the town.
Another classic of the genre is Angelo Ciotti’s Twin Stupas project, created as a long-term rehabilitative solution for an abandoned strip mine near Pittsburgh, with forms created from existing earth on the site and shaped through the use of industrial machinery. The symbolism of the contours, one an 18-metre high mound and the other inverted and reaching almost 14 metres into the ground, is reminiscent of Nancy Holt’s partially constructed Sky Mound project (in New Jersey) and indeed many other reclamation works which echo (or inform) the archetypal eco art aesthetic. The artist’s intention is threefold; to facilitate the site’s ecological recovery, to create a “powerful aesthetic entity”, and to promote engagement and collaboration with the surrounding community.
These objectives are consistent throughout most examples of land reclamation art and have a history of success when implemented. Through the creative application of integrated landscape design at the large scale of mountains, rivers and lakes, it is possible to rework the cumulative overburden and voids of the mining process to create an ongoing dialogue that engages, empowers and challenges. Within Australia, ambitious schemes that combine long-term community engagement with land reclamation art are the next logical step within an evolving awareness of the remedial role that art can play within the devastated landscape. There are a number of projects that have emerged recently to work with affected mining communities, most notably the Paraburdoo public sculpture currently being developed by Alex Mickle as part of the FIVE Project in Western Australia, and these are a positive step towards a reconciliation of place, industry and people. Mickle’s sculpture, Resilience, responds to the impact that industry has had on the community, with the form symbolic of the blasting processes and equipment of mining. But we suggest that in the face of imminent mine closures over the next fifty years, the next stage is for artists to recognise the potential for the site itself to become the work. Innovative, far-sighted leadership within communities, companies, governments, artists and designers will be necessary to facilitate open participatory discourse that engages all voices interested in re-imagining and building sustainable landscapes and landshapes from post-mining space.
- ^ Martha Schwartz Partners, McLeod Tailings, Geraldton, Canada (2014). http://www.marthaschwartz.com/projects/reclamation_tailings.php.
- ^ Josh Donlan, ‘Re-wilding North America’, Nature 436 (7053), 2005, pp. 913–14.
- ^ J. B. Mackinnon, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013.
- ^ Richard Weller, ‘An Art of Instrumentality: Thinking Through Landscape Urbanism’ in Charles Waldheim (ed.), The Landscape Urbanism Reader, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, pp. 69–85.
- ^ William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton, 1996, pp. 69–90.
- ^ A. M. Ellison, ‘The suffocating embrace of landscape and the picturesque conditioning of ecology', Landscape Journal: design, planning, and management of the land, 32(1), 2013, pp. 79–94.
- ^ Robert Morris, ‘Notes of Art as/and Land Reclamation’, October, vol. 12, Spring 1980, p. 98.
- ^ Robert Smithson, quoted in Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, University of California Press, 2002, p. 231.
- ^ See note 1 and John Martschuk, ‘Facelift for the Future’ in the Canadian Mining Journal, 1 January 2001: http://www.canadianminingjournal.com.
- ^ Angelo Ciotti, The Twin Stupas Project: http://www.angelociotti.com/projects/twin_stupas.html.
Amelia Hine is a Research Assistant with the Sustainable Minerals Institute – Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre (SMI-MISHC) at the University of Queensland.
Philipp Kirsch is Associate Professor and Projects Manager at SMI-MISHC at the University of Queensland.
Iris Amizlev is an art historian and independent curator, and is currently Educational Programs Officer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada.