Rachel Bacon — What Do Landscapes Say? | 2019 – 2021

What Do Landscapes Say? | 2019 – 2021


What Do Landscapes Say? is a research project on landscape narratives in Russia. Sponsored through an open call by the Creative Industries Fund NL, 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. My area of research was the diamond mining area near Mirny, in Eastern Siberia, where I planned to continue work on large scale graphite drawings contrasting the slowness of geological time with the speed of economic exploitation.

Mirny, Sakha Republic, Russia, image courtesy of Ilya Varlamov


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. 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.

My proposal was to visit an open-pit diamond mine in Siberia. This idea 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.

Overview of the different projects and locations of the participants

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 by a text message from Siberian Airlines, saying my flights to Moscow, and then 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 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.

Uncut diamond crystals, found in Siberia.

Geologic 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.

  • Screen shot from an informational film from the Alrosa website, showing the process of the selection of diamonds at the processing facility in Mirny.
  • Diamond surface as seen through stereoscopic microscope.
  • Diamond macle, the term for a twinned crystal.

“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 to slow things down in my drawing work, 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 wish to re-frame this resource as an imaginative one and 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 understand drawing as an alternative form of excavation, in which undrawn parts of the paper may become a space of imagination instead of depletion.

The Other Orebody, 2019, graphite on paper on foil, 116 x 166 cm. Photo Brian Mac Domhnaill
Historic photo truck drivers Mirny, from the Alrosa webiste

Economic Time

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 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.

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 continuous. 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.

  • Screen shot open pit mine from Alrosa informational video
  • Alrosa's Jubilee pipe
  • Jubilee pipe at night

It’s easy to walk around the Mir pit as it’s nearby 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. An acceleration is starting, as the open-pits respond to rising temperatures, that may engulf the residents and workers at the mine in unforeseen ways.

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. 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.

See here how big these trucks really are.

Photograph of geologist from Alrosa website

Panic Time

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. In the larger scheme of things, though, 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 effects of global warming are especially visible in the Northern areas of the globe, as taiga burns., permafrost melts and methane is released into the atmosphere. These occurrences create feedback loops in which effects multiple and start to spiral. The dizziness and disturbance this engenders might be compared to so-called drunken forests, in which trees that previously had been rooted in the shallow area above the permafrost, come unstuck and start to tilt at odd angles as the permafrost melts.

Exhibition 'What Do Landscapes Say?' in Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, 2020. Photo by Jhoeko


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.

View the exhibition in Na Peschanoy gallery here

More information on the exhibition in Het Nieuwe Instituut

What Do Landscapes Say? 2020, exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, NL, 07 September – 15 November 2020, 12 graphite drawings hung on a free standing wooden panel wallpapered with digital print of open-pit diamond mine in Siberia, 405 x 203 cm, image courtesy of Ilya Varlamov. Photo Jhoeko
  • Exhibition 'What Do Landscapes Say?' in Na Peschanoy Gallery, Moscow, 2020. Photo by Mitya Lyalin
Tales of the TREM, Creative Industries Fund publication, 2020, title page.

In 2020, the Creative Industries Fund published Tales of the TREM, to showcase the projects supported through 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.

View the full publication here

Tales of the TREM, Creative Industries Fund publication, 2020, pages 46-47

Related works


Related exhibitions/residencies