Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Absence through Visual Representation: Bingham Canyon Mine at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

How many views does it take to depict the steady, human-formed creation of absence on the land? In the case of Utah Museum of Fine Art’s (UMFA) current exhibition Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine, the answer is over one hundred. This well-researched, historical view of the mine — Donna Poulton’s last exhibition as the former curator of art of Utah and the West — is an in-depth, multi-media exploration of both how the land in the Oquirrh Mountains has been changed through industrialization and how artists have chosen to depict these changes. Works in the exhibition show us the land through an artistic lens, from a silver plate gelatin print of 1873, through the development of the mining industry, up to the landslide that took place at the mine in 2013. Through paintings, drawings, photography, prints, watercolors, books, and magazines, the exhibition continues the regional interest UMFA has shown in the past few years.

First, information about the mine. The region where copper was discovered in the late 1800s began as an 8000 foot tall mountain, and, through mining of various minerals that has taken place since 1863, is now a void of space three quarters of a mile deep. Utah Copper Company took over initial mining operations and in 1906 began to dig for copper, at first employing steam shovels. In 1936, Kennecott Copper Corporation acquired Utah Copper Company, and in 1997 it became a division of the international company Rio Tinto. While it mines other products, Rio Tinto is best known for its production of copper, an ore that is extracted, converted, and employed today in many uses including in electrical wires, due to its excellent conductor properties.

Walking into the exhibition, the viewer is struck by an extreme photographic blow up of the mine by NASA. Drawn by both the image’s size and placement, it is tempting to walk through the first gallery into the second. Don’t. The first gallery establishes the show’s foundational focus on history and multitude of media. Here you will find paintings of Bingham Canyon by early landscape painters Jonas Lie and H.L.A. Culmer, when the landscape was still verdant and lush, as well as ads for Kennecott in Fortune Magazine, shot by none other than the famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
The second gallery provides an interesting juxtaposition of the wall-sized NASA image with a series of small photographs of the working mine from 1906. These early images of industry and the men involved in its development are fascinating, providing an early record of the industry’s magnitude as men were included in each photograph for scale. I was drawn to one photograph in particular: the entire image, except for a small white circle near the top, is black. The photograph was taken inside the mine, looking out: the white circle includes a gathering of men at the entrance of the mine. Both eerie and oddly intimate, the deep blackness of this one photograph metaphorically depicts absence in the extreme.

Continuing on, one encounters two more photographic series, now from the 1940s, of the mine’s day-to-day operations: forty images by William Rittase (provided by Rio Tinto), and a room devoted to the photographs of Andreas Feininger. Rittase’s images were obtained by Rio Tinto from historical materials found in their vault, and have never been seen before. Feininger, the son of the Expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger, was interested in portraying depth in his images through an exquisite layering of foreground, middle ground, and background. A more contemporary view of the mine is presented in the following gallery, which includes three artists: Jean Arnold, Zig Jackson, and Robert Smithson.

Arnold is the only female artist included in the show, which Poulton explained “was not from our lack of trying” to include additional female artists. A Salt Lake City-based artist, Arnold has been investigating and rendering our regional landscape for some time. About her work on the Bingham Copper Mine, she wrote: “This is a strange new landscape, created by our enormous thirst for raw materials—its massive size and depth strikes awe and causes vertigo. We have little reference for viewing scenes such as this, as few of us ever see these places—thus it is also an exploration of society’s shadows.”

Jackson’s image of a Native American, back to us as he overlooks the mine, renders a different, complex shadow reality of land rights, ownership, and use.

Smithson’s drawing was created through his interest in land reclamation: he submitted art proposals to over a dozen mining industries nationwide. In 1972 he wrote: “A dialectic between mining and land reclamation must be developed. Such devastated places as strip mines could be recycled in terms of earth art. The artist and the miner must become conscious of themselves as natural agents” (Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 1996, p. 379). Smithson’s proposal to Kennecott to turn the pit into Land art should they terminate operations, was declined, but resulted in several works that depict the overlay of art as intervention on industrialized land.

On April 10, 2013 Kennecott’s mine experienced a slide on its northeastern wall. The company knew the slide was about to take place, evacuated the site, and recorded the slide as it took place. An audio recording of the slide is found in the exhibition’s education gallery: one of the more visceral experiences a viewer can have is to listen to this occurrence. Within 48 hours of the event, two artists flew to Salt Lake City to photograph the mine’s new profile and configuration. Positioned before entering the education gallery and before moving back into the first gallery, is a photograph shot by Center for Land Use Interpretation. It is a stunning, formally beautiful image of a natural event that occurred in a highly industrialized and contained space.

Back in the first gallery, on the opposite end of the exhibition’s start, are images of the mine by the contemporary photographers David Maisel, Edward Burtynsky, and Michael Light. Light was the second artist who flew to Salt Lake City upon hearing of the mine’s slide in 2013. His aerial black and white image of Black Rock along Great Salt Lake’s south shore next to the mine’s smelting operations is strategically positioned on an easel. The photograph’s placement is intentional: museum visitors who walk through the exhibition The Savage Poem Around Me: Alfred Lambourne’s Great Salt Lake (on view at UMFA through June 15) will appreciate the synergy created between Lambourne’s many Romantic paintings of Black Rock as seen from the lake’s shores and Light’s contemporary view from above.

The education gallery includes three stations to explore Bingham Copper Mine through the lenses of History, Science, and Art. Virginia Catherall, curator of education, amassed a collection of UMFA objects related to mining and fabrication; the UMFA also procured historical artifacts from the mine. Catherall explained their intent was to show “the wide range of curricular perspectives” the exhibition presents. It is in this space the viewer can listen to the mine’s 2013 slide, and also see a promotional video of the mine from their currently closed visitor center.

Viewing the exhibition poses important questions of our place within nature, our power to alter and manipulate nature, and the role artists play as they depict our increasingly industrialized world. Historian David E. Nye wrote about these landscapes in his seminal book American Technological Sublime (MIT, 1994). Our fascination and awe with landscapes shaped by industry has a long history, as “the industrial sublime combined the abstraction of a man-made landscape with the dynamism of moving machinery and powerful forces . . . Rather than provoke an inward meditation that arrived at a transcendental deduction applicable to humanity as a whole, these landscapes forced onlookers to respect the power of the corporation and the intelligence of its engineers” (126). UMFA’s Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine presents the land, the engineers, and the workers of the mine. The forces that literally shaped the land are in the forefront. What this exhibition does not address are the environmental impacts the mine has had on the land and the peoples of Utah: that would be a different, equally compelling show. Regarding Rio Tinto’s support of the exhibition and ideas of the industry’s place within the show, museum director Gretchen Dietrich stated “we’re not here to make big statements, we’re here to show great art.” With Creation and Erasure, they are indeed showing great art with a regional focus that will inspire meditation and awe.


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