What Do Landscapes Say? | 2019 – 2021
In 2019, I was invited to take part in a research project on landscape narratives in Russia, called What Do Landscapes Say? I had presented my work during a symposium detailing my investigations of mining and drawing, and the connection between the extractive mark making of mining and the additive one of drawing, looking for ways in which to address the ecological crisis within my work. What Do Landscapes Say? was supported by an open call from Creative Industries Fund NL and initiated by urbanist and researcher Yue Mao. It connected 4 Netherlands based and 5 Russian architects, visual and sound artists, writers, urbanists and graphic designers. We came together to narrate the diverse landscapes in Russia in hybrid forms of drawings, films, interactive installations, texts, and more. The multiplicity of viewpoints in the project, reflects the need for new approaches to landscape, ones not based in an exploitative, property-based view of the land as a workshop for human endeavors. Instead, the intention was to initiate more intimate dialogues with landscapes by using local contexts as starting points.
During eighteen months of research, the collective What Do Landscapes Say? sought out encounters with places both in Russia and the Netherlands. Using different media, our intention was to create speculative landscape narratives in multiple locations in Russia to challenge human-centered perceptions of landscape. Rich in boundless stretches of land, Russia’s landscape may on the surface look nothing like that of the Netherlands, where every inch of the environment is designed. Yet individual stories can uncover those areas where utilitarian approaches to these vastly different landscapes share a common ground. My area of research was the diamond mining area near Mirny, in Eastern Siberia, where I hoped to continue work on large-scale graphite drawings that contrast the slowness of geological time with the speed of economic exploitation.
Why would I want to visit an open-pit diamond mine in Siberia? The answer started with graphite, my main drawing material. Graphite is pure carbon and has the same chemical substance as diamond. Graphite and diamonds are all allotropes of carbon, meaning that though they have the same chemical form, they have different physical forms. This idea of my humble pencil being a chemical diamond has long fascinated me; all of my drawings are made on crumpled paper, and take a very long time to make. I lavish time on the damaged surfaces as a way of spending time with damage. I wish to find another way to think about what we value through my work, to see value in overlooked things. This may show a way forward to taking better care of the earth by damaging, and extracting, less.
The collective What Do Landscapes Say? made one trip to Russia in 2019, traveling together for two weeks to Moscow, Petrozavdosk, Kizhi Island, St. Petersburg and Vyborg. Each participant then made plans to continue their research through individual projects, spread throughout Russia. Some of us managed to visit our sites in time, but for many it was not to be. On the 11th of March, 2020, I was woken up by a text message from Siberian Airlines, saying my flight from Munich to Moscow, and Moscow to Mirny, had been cancelled. Suddenly, because of Covid, almost none of our plans could go ahead. As we all waited, our research continued, and we were able to write essays, convene an online symposium, and eventually even hold two exhibitions on the project, in Rotterdam and Moscow. Below are some of the results of my research, in which I started to consider the different temporal states and speeds present and entangled at the site of Mirny, typical of the current turmoil of this new ecologically disturbed era: geologic, artistic, economic and panic time.
Diamonds are very, very old. In Siberia estimates are that they formed 2 billion years ago. They came to the surface of the earth through ancient volcanic explosions, and are some of the only materials that carry information about the earth’s molten mantel. Their strength comes from carbon atoms linking together in a lattice structure, creating the characteristic facets. I always think it’s a great pity to cut and polish them, as they are so ancient, and so beautiful in the rough.
“We must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” This quote from Alice in Wonderland is (perhaps disturbingly) a cornerstone of Alrosa’s revamped diamond-mining philosophy, according to the Alrosa Magazine of September 2018. This slightly fantastical vision on economic growth is the exact opposite of a sustainable practice. This is part of what motivates me in my drawing work to slow things down, in soft opposition to the acceleration of economic time. It sometimes takes me months and months to produce a drawing, an amount of time disproportionately large in comparison with the relentlessly efficient economic time of the mining enterprise. This extreme time-taking involved in the drawing is an act of caring for a so-called failure, and a way of re-valuing something discarded. In mining, the discarded earth is called ‘overburden’, an unwanted leftover. In my drawing, nothing is discarded. I embrace what is unwanted and reveal mistakes through mark-making, by drawing around the marks in the paper left by crumpling.
There is a connection between my drawings and diamonds through the materials – graphite and diamonds have the same chemical composition, both are composed of pure carbon atoms. This has led me to think about the relationship between drawing and mining. Orebody is the term used by geologists to describe the vein of minerals or other resources they seek to locate for possible exploitation. In the graphite drawings The Other Orebody, which took a very long time to make, I try to re-frame this resource as an imaginative one, and to open space for dialogue about the relationship of human beings with our environment, and the way perception may influence the values that can have such a destructive impact on our surroundings. I would like to begin to frame drawing as an alternative form of excavation, in which undrawn parts of the paper may become a space of imagination instead of depletion.
With these drawings I would like to create a direct, emotional, fragile bodily experience for people to at some level identify with the distant, non-human-scaled activities of mining, therefore making the crisis more tangible. One dilemma of environmental movements at large, is that the changes on earth are invisible for many of those not directly effected. This might be a way for viewers to start to feel the impact of the ecological crisis so that they can identify with it on a more direct, felt level, inviting an association between our bodies and earth. In this way, the damaged drawing invites an encounter and identification with the vulnerability and limits of materiality.
Mirny, in the Republic of Sakha, is the site of a huge open-pit diamond mine. A city of about 35,000 people, it’s located in eastern Siberia, surrounded in all directions by taiga. The Mir pipe opened in 1955, and, now defunct, is now one of the largest man-made holes in the world. You can fly directly to the city, the airport is right next to the open-pit mine, and it’s easy to imagine the plane shooting off the end of the runway into the abyss. The city has a hotel, a couple of diamond related museums, and is the headquarters of Alrosa, the state controlled diamond mining company.
It’s easy to walk around the Mir pit as it’s right by the city and you can walk right up to the edge. They made the walls of the mine very steep, that is possible because the ground is frozen solid. But in the past years, the temperatures have been increasing and the permafrost is starting to melt, so the hole is growing bigger as the walls collapse – maybe the viewing platform is already gone. They have been miscalculating how fast it is caving in, and hole is expanding, quite close to the city. If the warming continues, the mine may even start to swallow up the city. Will the pit continue to expand? Nobody knows. There is an acceleration starting to take place, as the open-pits respond to rising temperatures, that may engulf the residents and workers at the mine in unforeseen ways. This is not the most desirable kind of economic expansion!
Mining conditions in Siberia are very extreme and it’s hard to imagine just how difficult the conditions for the early miners must have been. From 1954, when the first deposits were discovered, by the intrepid and long unrecognized geologist Larisa Popugaeva, excavation has been continuos. Originally all supplies had to be brought in by truck through hundreds of kilometers of dense forest. The first geologists spent the freezing Winters in tents, until the first houses were built.
The diamond mines are worked around the clock, every day of the year. For economic reasons they need to work as fast and efficiently as possible. To maintain equipment and to keep working under such conditions of extreme cold is to say the least, remarkable. The dump trucks are an essential part of the exploitation of the open pit mines, they carry the excavated earth to the processing plants, and the overburden to the slag heaps. One of the best known manufacturers of giant dump trucks is the firm Belaz, located in Belorussia. The trucks are enormous, though the largest one they manufacture isn’t in use in Sakha Republic. Even so, the trucks in use there have tires 3 meters high. Of course, a lot can go wrong, too; the image of the burning truck is from a video made by Belaz, advertising the advantages of using their dump truck driving simulator to train new drivers.
It goes too far to lay the blame for global warming at the feet of geologists. And the damage done by diamond mining itself, except for the emissions it generates through the industrial excavations and associated enterprise, is not comparable to that wrought by fossil fuel extraction, that is mainly responsible for global warming. Even so, in the larger scheme of things, geologists are fundamental in facilitating and enabling the excavation activities that are so incredibly damaging to our living world. This is a great contradiction, as many geologists are themselves lovers of the landscape and of the natural environment – they can also be extremely adventurous, exploring isolated areas of exceptional wilderness.
The so-called “drunken forests” are a result of the melting permafrost. As the ground is normally frozen throughout the year, the trees develop very shallow root systems, and are liable to tip over when the permafrost melts. That leaves the trees without support for their roots, so they tilt over as if intoxicated. Forest fires have been increasing in number and intensity in recent decades, adding to the speed of the permafrost melt.
In spite of Covid 19 having made it impossible for many of the research trips and meetings to take place, the 9 participants engaged in What Do Landscapes Say? were able to hold two exhibitions on their research and work, one in Rotterdam and the other in Moscow. The exhibition in the Netherlands, with work of all the participants’ projects, was held at Het Nieuwe Instituut (Museum for Architecture, Design and Digital Culture) in Rotterdam, curated by Naomi van Dijck and Yue Mao with exhibition design by Maria Kremer. The exhibition in Moscow was held at Na Peschanoy Gallery and curated by Naomi van Dijck and Yue Mao with production support by Ksenia Kopalova and exhibition design by Polina Veidenbakh. What Do Landscapes Say? was made possible by Creative Industries Fund NL, the Mondriaan Fund and Stroom Den Haag.
To view the exhibition in Na Peschanoy gallery click here.
For more information on the exhibition in Het Nieuwe Instituut, click here.
In 2020, the Creative Industries Fund published Tales of the TREM, to showcase the projects supported by the open call. In this publication, designers and makers from the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, Egypt and Morocco share their experiences gained in 26 international collaborative projects, involving numerous organizations, institutions, teams and individuals. To view the full publication, click here.