Egill Saebjörnsson, The Egg or the Hen, Us or Them, Installation view, courtesy STUK, Leuven, Photo Kristof Vrancken

Human and Mineral

This Rare Earth — Stories from Below

Issue no1
Feb / Mrt 2018
Life & Work

Ever since J.M.W. Turner’s interest in the geological sublime at the latter half of the nineteenth century, the geological world has never ceased to fascinate artists. Nevertheless, there currently seems to be a vivid revival of the topic, most notably in the context of the Anthropocene discussion. With manifold projects adopting a clearly ecological slant, there is a larger trend in recent exhibition-making and artistic production.

It is precisely within this momentum that geology and ecology are enjoying in the art world, that the exhibition This Rare Earth — Stories from Below resides. The show opened on 14 February 2018 at the STUK Center for Dance, Image, and Sound in Leuven, in the frame of the Artefact yearly festival. The overarching theme for this edition is the deep underground of the earth as an (in)finite source of minerals, often related to global political controversies. Economies of mineral extraction today induce a complex network of actors, one where humans and non-humans hold equal sway, a reality with which several artistic propositions grapple.

This Rare Earth — Stories from Below boasts a lengthy list of artists and starts on a joyful note, only to end on a darker one as it unfolds in several parts of the ancient university building that houses STUK. One of the first works we encounter is Julian Charrière’s Future Fossil Spaces (2014), an installation of blocks of salt, taken from the world’s largest salt-flat in Bolivia, soon to be exploited by international companies for lithium, a leading material of the digital era. The sheer size of the work, reminiscent of monumental land art installations, in fact portrays the materiality of a world highly mediated by technology: Charrière seems to perceive geology as a deterritorialised process, as introduced in Jussi Parrika’s Geology of Media (2015), wherein geology is analysed as allowing metal and minerals to become mobile themselves, thus enabling technological mobility. Another work attentive to the material determinations of technological culture is Suzanne Kriemman’s radioactive photography project RAY (2013-4), that deals with gadolinite, a mineral used in the beginning of electricity for light bulbs.

Julian Charrière, Future Fossil Spaces and Otobong Nkanga, Taste of a Stone, Installation view, courtesy STUK, Leuven, Photo Kristof Vrancken

Susanne Kriemann, Ray, installation, courtesy STUK, Photo Kristof Vrancken

The deeper underground is at the heart of other works, like Lara Almarcegui’s Mineral Rights (2015), that directs our gaze vertically down, in an attempt to acquire the rights to iron, that lays deep under the surface of the earth. Or Justin Bennet’s absorbing audio-visual installation Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi: Wolf Lake on the Mountains (2017). The work deals with the deepest borehole in the world, the 12km deep Kola Super-Deep Borehole in Russia which used to serve as a scientific station during the Cold War, recording meteorological conditions, but also registering enemy nuclear tests. Today it lies abandoned, surrounded by the ruinous remnants of the Cold-War era. The work is divided into a three-screen circular installation, which displays images of the location today, juxtaposed to two vitrines containing archival material from the past in addition to fictitious photographs created by the artist. Thus, both the projects of Charrière and Bennet engage with temporality on multiple levels, encompassing time scales linked to brief human lifetimes and the immensity of geological time.

Justin Bennett, Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi and Wolf Lake on the Mountains, Installation view, STUK, Leuven, photo Kristof Vrancken

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive, Installation view, courtesy STUK, photo Kristof Vrancken

Further on, the viewer is invited to sense earthly movements: The Intimate Earthquake Archive (2017), by Sissel Marie Tom, offers an ingenious experience. By wearing a specific vest that simulates the movements of the earth during a quake, the visitor can stroll around STUK’s backyard while sensing the human generated earthquakes caused by oil drilling in the region of Groningen. During this walk, one can also hear sounds composed from scientific data from the region, collected by the Dutch Meteorological Institute. By making the body shake in the same way the earth does, the artist crafts an experience close to what Robert Smithson had in mind when he developed ideas around "abstract geology" in his article "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects" (1968). Smithson was aiming to consolidate earthly, bodily, and mind processes, something Sissel Marie Tom’s work invites us to do, by attuning the human, to use Timothy Morton’s expression, towards (man-made) tectonic forces. Cecilia Johnson stresses even further the entanglements between the human and the earth’s minerals, through her imaginative experiments on the mineral dimension of our bodies: in Haem (2016) she creates an iron needle, derived from 69 human placentas (the organ through which woman transfer iron to the foetus), lavishly shown in a pale pink bowl.

Albeit the increased sensibility to the earth proposed by artists such as Cecilia Johnson and Sissel Marie Tom, towards the end of the exhibition a dimly lit, gloomy room awaits the visitor. Composed of different films, Milo Rau’s fictional tribunal The Tribunal of Congo (2015-2017) stages different actors related to the exploitation of Eastern Congo’s rich soil by the mining industry. The "resource cursed country" (Rob Nixon, 2013) that the DR Congo is, has resulted in conflicts that have led to civil wars and the subsequent killing of six million people since 1994. Even though we know that the trial will probably have no real effect for the region, it confronts necessary testimonies that, put in dialogue, proffer a much needed, and in this instance real, account of one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Copper Country, The Power of None and Trinity Test, Installation view, courtesy STUK, Leuven, photo Kristof Vrancken

Ilana Halperin, Geologic Intimacy and The Rock Cycle, Installation view, courtesy STUK, photo Kristof Vrancken

In relation to the more powerful works that are exhibited, other works fall flat, which makes some of the curatorial choices seem uneven. Apart from the positions discussed above, one cannot help but feel sceptical towards some other moot projects. For instance, the accompanying performance Mining Stories offers an uncomplicated view on the collapse of a dam containing toxic waste from mining in Southeastern Brazil: in an overall moralising tone, it clumsily victimises the inhabitants of the region and leaves both spectator and performer out of the equation. Or to consider the more illustrative takes: what to think of Ilana Halperin’s highly aestheticised geological drawings?

For the most part, the works of This Rare Earth — Stories from Below achieve at delving into inorganic activity and its manifold political entanglements in intriguing ways. What is perhaps lacking in the show is the intention to historicise, to put this so-called geological turn (a fashionable term the curators refer to, that could certainly be used with more moderation in current artistic jargon) in perspective, to not have Robert Smithson roll over in his grave. The question is: does art automatically acquire political relevance when words such as "mining" or "geological" enter the game?

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2018