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Originally published  –  June 05, 2005

At two and a half miles wide and three-quarters of a mile deep, the Bingham Copper Mine is an extraordinary hole. It is so large, in fact, that it is one of only a few manmade objects viewable from the Shuttle in orbit. Presently its bottom rests at 4,600 feet above sea level. If consumption of excavated material maintains its historical average, the Bingham site will continue to be mined down to 100 feet above sea level, or at least another hundred and fifty years, resulting in at least 10 billion tons of additional material removed.

I had two reasons for visiting: taking an obvious look at the relationship of man, nature and industry; secondly, reflecting on place against a now familiar position that place is the location of site and sentimentality.

Of the benefits of working in the arts, the disparate, and at times absurd, conversations you’re drawn into are often the most rewarding and creative part of the job. That joy of difference is far more ample and invigorating than the patina of absolutes and thin shell of certainty that you tend to encounter as the public face of the art and design world. My esteemed framer, Mr. Mark Davis, came into the gallery the other day to discuss bird watching in Africa, an artifact from his recent summer vacation. Birding is something that had eluded him before but he was attempting to draw me into a conversation between admiring nature as a similar endeavor to admiring art. Mr. Davis likes to sandbag me with opaque quandaries and I was going to have none of this particular bent, beyond admitting that both were an appreciation of the beautiful.

Beauty and the joy of nature converge in our modern romanticism of wilderness. It is a byproduct of the Enlightenment and a geographically contained world – pressed further by the voracity of industrialization. Clearly, I’ve been doing much thinking about Robert Smithson (see: Boiling Curve, and Robert Smithson, Intl.) His essay on Frederick Olmstead and New York’s Central Park is something I keep coming back to. Smithson’s view was mythically historical and so utilitarian and as to appear alien. He makes use of the following 18th century quote:

“The side of a smooth green hill, torn by floods, may at first very properly be called deformed, and on the same principle, though not with the same impression, as a gash on a living animal. When a rawness of such a gash in the ground is softened, and in part concealed and ornamented by the effects of time, and the progress of vegetation, deformity, by this usual process, is converted into picturesqueness; and this is the case with quarries, gravel pits, etc., which at first are deformities, and which in their most picturesque state are often considered as such by a leveling improver.” – Uvedale Price, Three Essays on the Picturesque,1810.

It is unclear if “leveling improver” is meant to apply as a double entendre. Price’s is one of the texts that Smithson uses as precedent for Olmstead’s bombastic greening. Accepting the world as a machine – a machine that has depth and preservation beyond the machinations of our contretemps and sentimentality – is in fact a difficult proposition in current times.

In a sense, denying “wilderness” at least by its romantic classification, Smithson goes on in his practice as incorporating art, industry and land. Indeed when the artist lost interest in the TAMS airport project in Texas it was to pursue discussions with mining companies and wasted space. How at odds and unpopular to consider this manipulation of material as human nature.

A retreat into scenic beauty rather than dialectic between man and nature takes the focus away from “real land.” In that, nature (parkland) is at its greatest as a flexible construct rather than a static ideal. John Brinkerhoff Jackson also recalls the problem of sylvan ideation in illustrating his colleagues’ sentiments from his publication “Landscape.”

“Anderson, indeed, encouraged a critical examination of environmental fanaticism and expressed strong disapproval of “the amateur Thoreau’s and the professional naturalist of our culture [who] have in the United States realized the appreciation of nature to a mass phenomenon, almost to a mass religion; yet at the same time have refused to accept man as part of nature… They are the chief ultimate sources of our unwritten axiom, that cities are something to flee from, that the harmonious interaction of man and other organisms can only be achieved out in the country.” – “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time,” John Brinkerhoff Jackson

There are no easy answers. At the Bingham site, staring at this gaping wound where once there were towns and a hill is an awesome experience – awesome in true meaning of the word that is meant to invoke horror and grandeur.

In the case of the copper mine, Kenneccott Utah Copper Corp. began its open pit 99 years ago. This is its centenary year excavating the Oquirrh Mountains due west of the Salt Lake Valley. The enormity of the thing outstrips human imagination: a hole so large that it is wider than the scope of your vision. The orchestration of the cut is such that it looks like a postcard, except if you move your head hard to the right and down, you might catch a glimpse of the over-sized dump trucks descending like ants far below.


The above image is an enlarged detail of the panoramic montage from the beginning of this essay. The object circled in red is one of the 320-ton trucks used in daily operations at the mine. These trucks are nearly two stories tall; they are heavier than a 747; and their wheel rims are over five feet in diameter. The various trucks and shovels that operate in the mine use a GPS system in order navigate the 500 miles of roadway.

“By the turn of the 21st century the Bingham Canyon mine had become the largest man-made excavation on earth and had produced more copper than any mine in history. The value of all the minerals taken from Bingham Canyon far exceeded the combined total of the riches found in the California and Klondike gold rushes, the Colorado gold and silver rushes plus the yields of Nevada’s legendary Comstock Lode.” – Scott Crump, “The Richest Hole on Earth”

I founded Placement in order to pursue a compelling storyline between marketing, trends in photography, varied forms of gardening and the monstrous reefs being sculpted in Dubai, to the history of landscape painting. Recent investigations into “place”, particularly in some published fine art manifestos continue to categorize place as sacred, sentimental and lonely.

I reject the idea that place is solely a location for sentimentality. And mind you, this is a working proposition. In continuing to define what a “place” is, I frequently come across Tacita Dean as its current celebrity, in so much as the fine art world is considered. Dean’s book (exhibition catalogue) “Place” and recent article in Art Forum (more on this next week I hope) exhibit her design on location and sentimentality. I concede that this is a frequent and prevalent descriptive, but I’m not convinced that sentimentality is a satisfactory definition.

The crux of that argument falls on whether or not there’s a difference between a location that I can’t remember (Bingham Canyon Copper Mine) and a place I’ve never been to that I’d love to go – say, Antarctica. With that in mind, the Bingham mine was a good destination on my recent trip out West. I called in some favors and managed a visit. The Bingham site was something I’d visited as a young child but had no memories of it. A few snapshots of the relatives playing in an enormous tire were all I had of the experience.

I can’t say that I’m any closer to resolving my uneasiness with the topic addressed above. The pit existed before and after my visit. None of my “awe” or ambition registered on the site. It continues to persist as it enters its centenary year of open-pit mining. It cores its way into the Earth and will outlive all of my sentimentality.

Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.

In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive

E. Tage Larsen
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