“It appears that Edmund Husserl’s idea of the earth as ‘original ark’ is now obsolete; we now have to recalibrate our sensorial systems to adjust to contradiction, catastrophe, and ecological volatility born of human activities that override and neutralize long-standing histories of local knowledge.…The Anthropocene has altered the terms and parameters of perception itself.”—Amanda Boetzkes, Art in the Anthropocene1
Art historian Amanda Boetzkes is referring here to Inuit communities in the Arctic who can no longer read their environment due to global warming, and must therefore change their subsistence rituals. They must “recalibrate [their] sensorial systems to adjust.” How do other communities and individuals who live far from these phenomenological realities read different kinds of environmental trauma? Artists Edward Burtynsky and Justin Brice Guariglia challenge and alter our perceptions of anthropogenic landscapes in their photo-based art of industrial mining sites around the world. In this essay I discuss the notion of rupture in thinking about art and the Anthropocene, via consideration of mining as a hyperobject. Both Burtynsky and Guariglia force us to acknowledge loss, damage, potential illness, and danger inherent in mining endeavors. Human geography scholar Kathryn Yusoff asserts that “if we are conscious enough of loss and violence [of environments], it can provide the rupture that is crucial to the redistribution of the sensible in how we continue or break with the destructive logic of industrial capitalist modernity.”2 I will focus on the ways these two artists meet mining rupture with aesthetic rupture. Instead of helping us “adjust to contradiction, catastrophe, and ecological volatility,” Burtynsky and Guariglia stimulate viewers to question, admire, be shocked, or feel disoriented by prodding us with specific neurological, aesthetic, and philosophical entry points to landscape. Their use of artistic strategies such as sublime beauty, ambiguous realism, abstraction, and unexpected materials slow down our tendencies to synthesize data quickly, and we are more inclined to question our ethics related to land use for human material gain.3
While the visual evidence of mining’s impact on ecosystems is jarring—land loss and scarring, unnaturally colored quarry pools, red wastewater, disappearing verdant forests, gutted and slivered mountains, bright orange nickel tailings, and blackened vegetation—these effects remain largely invisible to many people outside of the communities directly impacted.4 By rendering mining effects visible in a way that engenders prolonged looking, Burtynsky’s and Guariglia’s work can lead to a deeper awareness of the geological and sociopolitical consequences of mining.
When I analyze the work I am simultaneously thinking about the artists’ personal stories, shared with me in interviews. Of particular interest is the fact that Guariglia is an avowed activist while Burtynsky, until recently, maintained a more neutral sociopolitical position.5 Burtynsky’s purview of the world has been engendered by opposites—a passion for nature in his native Ontario, Canada, and the necessity of working summer jobs in mines and factories as a teenager and college student to meet his financial needs. The camera was the vehicle that allowed him to personally connect these disparate worlds. His photographic series have been dedicated to producing awareness around the junctures of natural resources, human consumption, and sustainability.
Guariglia’s approach to image making was initially shaped by his work as a photojournalist for National Geographic, Time, and Smithsonian in Asia from 1996 to 2015. He remembers witnessing the “Great Asian Acceleration,” which included deforestation in Indonesia, the collapse of animal stocks in Mongolia, and rivers polluted with rubbish across China. “In Beijing in the mid 1990s, you could walk down the street in the winter and within minutes your nose would run black from all of the particulate suspended in the air you breathed, all coming from the coal that was being burned, to generate the power needed to fuel the economic revolution.”6 Wanting to bear witness to climate change, he began accompanying NASA flying missions over the Arctic glaciers. These profound experiences sharpened his resolve to pursue environmental activism through art.
A comparison of Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings #30 (1996) with Guariglia’s Mining Landscape No. 129/Au (2014–18) illuminates how different approaches—one tangible, the other abstract—provoke a disruption of the normal habits of seeing. In both cases, wall labels in a gallery space provide factual information that further triggers that disruption. Burtynsky is captivated by the picturesque/horrifying landscapes that result from mining and quarrying. His aim is to present truth so he does not engage in digital manipulation. Guariglia, driven by ecophilosophy and exploration of print media, translates the idea of mines into photo-based objects. Although mining is a human endeavor, humans do not populate these landscapes. That notion stays in the back of our minds as we decode the images.
I would venture that for many viewers the landscape in Nickel Tailings #30 initially appears beautiful or intriguing, and then, as the subject matter is revealed, it turns into an experience of the terrible sublime as Edmund Burke defined it in 1757. That is, it evokes extremely strong emotions including awe, wonder, dread, fear, and terror. Critics and scholars have described Burtynsky’s photographs alternatively as the toxic sublime or the industrial sublime. Environmental communications scholar Jennifer Peeples defines the “toxic sublime” as “the tensions that arise from recognizing the toxicity of a place, object or situation, while simultaneously appreciating its mystery, magnificence and ability to inspire awe.”7 When I view this image I am overtaken by the beauty of the knowable and the unknowable. The muted horizon line is distant, empty, and vast. At mid-distance the silver water appears calm, gently meandering from side to side until it meets up with the branching orange presence that sweeps across the picture plane and toward us like pulsating veins. A variety of brown and gold topographical textures remind us that this is a landscape, but what kind of natural landscape looks like this? What is that orange substance, from where does it emanate and where is it going? Is the human/nonhuman world in danger? We know from the picture’s title that we are looking at tailings, but are we sure we know what they are? (They are the toxic leftovers from processed ore.) So the mental search for answers causes a delay in making a decision about the work, and that delay creates an opening for deeper contemplation.
Guariglia’s Mining Landscape No. 129/Au, one of a series completed in 2018, inspires a different kind of looking because the photographic realism at its core is obscured by a variety of added materials. This blurring of the local toward the incomprehensible is one way to visualize the notion of a hyperobject, a term coined by philosopher Timothy Morton for things such as ecosystems, global warming, and the internet—things that are “massively distributed in time and space” as compared to local entities or individuals.8 Hyperobjects defy quick visualization. Guariglia’s mission has been to evoke the hyperobject of mining in a variety of media. His photo-based prints, when seen as a series, are particularly effective.
Although the title Mining Landscape No. 129/Au might indicate a specific site and I can detect some topographic details, I quickly lose my orientation. The dark voids are punctuated with bright gold fields, which in turn contain asymmetrical Rorschach-like inkblots. The repeating horizontal striations recall television static of old. Shiny metals deployed throughout the surface add visual richness and variety, which attracts prolonged viewing. Unlike the direct realism of Nickel Tailings #30, Mining Landscape is made up of clues and references to geography, but also to something cosmic or unknowable. I am brought back to earth by the label, which lists all the media used: acrylic, 23 karat gold leaf, gesso, linen, and aluminum panel, much of it industrially extracted and processed. Mining Landscape was shown as part of a series in the exhibition Topographies (2018). In addition to the prints were two steel plinth cases, each filled with two unusual objects: a taxidermied cane toad and a meteorite that had been gilded using a centuries-old technique.
These juxtapositions are multivalent. Resources mined from the earth have for centuries been used as artists’ materials, presumably for the betterment of humanity. But those same resources, and the human labor involved in extracting them, have been exploited for human material desires. The metals function as signifiers of both material beauty and plunder.
Neurobiologist Semir Zeki’s theories of art and ambiguity in the brain9 play a role in the experience of viewing both works. When there are high levels of ambiguity in certain works of art, the viewer must engage longer to make sense of it (which is the function of the brain). Different micro-consciousnesses work at different speeds and in different parts of the brain. For example, we see color before we see motion. So, one viewer of Nickel Tailings might focus first on the color orange, then perceive its flowing qualities, and then take in the surrounding site and begin to interpret the context. A viewer of Mining Landscape could be attracted to the gold at first glance, then maybe the irregular black spots, then the lines of static that pulsate across the panel. Finally she will be compelled to look at the label, which elucidates the meaning of the work.
Burtynsky’s Mines #22 (Kennecott Copper Mine, Bingham Valley, Utah) (1983) and Guariglia’s Mining Landscape No. 132/Cu (2014–18) offer further examples of intellectual and aesthetic ambiguity. Although Mines #22 is a stunning example of photographic realism, it is laden with simultaneous references and uncertainties. The majestic scale and form of the structure remind us of the technically accomplished Egyptian pyramids, Sumerian ziggurats, and Greek amphitheaters. The regularity of the mine’s cuts are impressive and harmonious, and the green pool offers a stunning visual contrast to the earth tones of the mountain. But melancholy ensues. Informed viewers know that the quarry pools can be toxic and dangerous and that knowledge can lead to anger. Burtynsky’s framing, which excludes human and nonhuman life, forces us to contemplate extinction due to human processes. That produces another kind of sadness. Art critic Murray Whyte noted that the subject matter meets ‘‘different eyes in very different ways, from environmentalists, who could easily see the work as damningly anti-capitalist, to industrialists who adopted the images as heroic tributes to their empires.’’10 This observation allies with Zeki’s definition of neurological ambiguity: “it is not vagueness or uncertainty, but rather certainty, the certainty of different scenarios each one of which has equal validity with the others.”11 Either interpretation acknowledges that a physical rupture of the earth has occurred, and this leads to different emotional outcomes.
A comparison can be made using Marshall McLuhan’s proposition of “hot and cool media.”12 Mines #22 is hot because it offers a great deal of pictorial information and the viewer has little decoding to do. Mining Landscape No. 132/Cu is cool because it requires extended viewer participation to fill in the blanks. Guariglia takes McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” literally, utilizing copper in an artful way although he is ultimately rallying against the processes used to extract it.
Mining Landscape No. 132/Cu does not supply concrete images to pin a meaning on. Once again we must rely on the label for tangible information from which to build an understanding. “Cu” designates copper on the periodic table and copper is actually used on the surface of the print. It appears to hover and spread above the muted gray ground much like thick pigment in an abstract expressionist painting. At this large scale it metaphorically represents copper mining’s impact on ecosystems. Copper here is ambiguous—it is a metaphor, a material signifier, and an appealing aesthetic element that expresses warmth and mystery. Copper functions differently in Mines #22. The copper mine and the void it leaves is the subject; the copper colored rocks, although descriptive, play a secondary role.
The aesthetics are not neutral in any of these works. Burtynsky’s selection of specific mining sites over pristine sites, his vantage points, and the tension we feel between beauty and danger actually illuminate the issues. We might need to dig more deeply into Guariglia’s abstract treatment of the hyperobject. Once we gather the didactic information, then look afresh at the images, the implications are clear. The works of both artists prompt viewers to pause and contemplate their role in resource exploitation. When mines around the world are seen in aggregate rather than just one specific instance in one place, we ponder these massive interventions and begin to fathom their sociopolitical implications. A new epistemology of their danger emerges. With frames devoid of people, we might even make the existential leap to the end of humankind and that would certainly engender a rupture.
There is irony in the fact that Burtynsky, who was avowedly neutral in his stance on anthropogenic interventions when he made these photographs, uses detailed realism, scale, and aesthetic drama in his mining photographs to great emotional effect. His use of sublime imagery, which can instill awe or horror, keeps the viewer in front of the work for an extended period, trying to puzzle out and come to terms with its deep implications. His selection and framing of dangerous sites is a position in itself. Like a car crash, we cannot avert our gaze.
On the opposite side of intention is Guariglia, whose vocal activism is diffused into something otherworldly and metaphoric in his multimedia prints. The hyperobject of mining finds its visual equivalent in topography witnessed from the air. Surface details are submerged in large-scale abstraction, but the descriptions found on display labels supply the information that roots the images in material reality. Both artists are successful in disrupting our perceptual processes by “mining” our neurological, psychological, and intellectual depths while we gaze at landscapes shaped by humans in the Anthropocene epoch.
Amanda Boetzkes, “Ecologicity, Vision, and the Neurological System” in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 272. The term “Anthropocene” refers to the proposed present geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
Kathryn Yusoff, “Biopolitical Economies and the Political Aesthetics of Climate Change,” Theory, Culture and Society 27, nos. 2–3 (March 2010): 78, 81.
I do not wish to assume a universality of experience, or seeing, or response to the art discussed here. Certain brain functions are likely universal, but the kinds of perceptions discussed here have a cultural component.
Case studies of the causes, networks, and effects of global resource wars including mining are illuminated in Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
Justin Guariglia, interview by author, artist’s studio, Brooklyn, New York, November 15, 2019. Edward Burtynsky, interview by author via Skype, February 18, 2020.
“Justin Brice Guariglia with Phong Bui,” Brooklyn Rail (April 2019), https://brooklynrail.org/2019/04/art/Justin-Brice-Guariglia-with-Phong-Bui.
Jennifer Peeples, “Toxic Sublime: Imaging Contaminated Landscapes,” Environmental Communication 5, no. 4 (December 2011): 375.
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Semir Zeki, “The Neurology of Ambiguity,” Consciousness and Cognition 13 (2004): 173–96.
Peeples, Toxic Sublime, 378. Peeples is quoting former Toronto Star art critic Murray Whyte in his article “His changing world,” Toronto Star, December 3, 2006, C-04. Ironically, the Kennecott copper mining operation received the 2019 Clean Air Business Partner of the Year Award from Utah’s Clean Air Partnership for “its collaboration to solve air quality challenges,” www.riotinto.com/operations/us/kennecott.
Zeki, “The Neurology of Ambiguity,” 189.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).