“Overburden” — Gabriela Escobar Ari, Asinnajaq, Patti Bailey qʷn̓qʷin̓ x̌n̓ , Randy Lee Cutler, Jim Holyoak and Darren Fleet, Ts̠ēmā, Keith Langergraber, Sarah Nance, Tara Nicholson, Carol Wallace
by Courtney Miller
The subtitle for the group exhibition “Overburden” reads as “Geology, Extraction, and Metamorphosis in a Chaotic Age.” Yet, rather than descend into apathy and dread, the show retains a sense of hopefulness and social responsibility. Curated by Genevieve Robertson and Maggie Shirley, the exhibition was shown at the Oxygen Art Centre and the Kootenay Gallery of Art, bringing together 11 artists who question settler-colonial and capitalist perceptions of land as a source from which to profit. The title, “Overburden,” cites the word’s geological definition: the waste rock and soil that lies above an ore or mineral body. To challenge capitalist understandings of waste, many of the works featured in “Overburden” look for expansive meanings found in geologic layers.
In What We Left Behind (2019), Gabriela Escobar Ari draws attention to the Huayna Potosí region in La Paz, Bolivia, the artist’s home country. With a background in archaeology and social studies, Escobar looks to landscape archaeology to understand how landscapes develop their biography from sustained interactions with humans. In What We Left Behind, Escobar presents a series of photographs of the Milluni Lake and the Milluni Chico, located in the Cordillera Real mountain range. The work was installed in the Kootenay showing of “Overburden” in two groupings: three aerial photographs of Milluni Lake and six prints documenting the surrounding geographical area, including the Milluni grave site where striking miners were killed by the Bolivian government in 1965. Aerial photographs show the heavily contaminated lake of Milluni Chico, a body of water sectioned off by a sealed dam, where the mining industry dumped waste. The photograph Milluni Lake View (2019) depicts the severely bruised landscape; the pollution from heavy metals in the water produces colours ranging from bright orange to deep purple. Considering the definition of overburden and its association with waste, one might see this water as a “toxic wasteland.” However, such a perspective risks naturalizing the harm caused by colonial and capitalist industries. Speaking on the exhibition-related panel titled “Documenting Change,” Escobar expressed hope that through the revelation of hard evidence of environmental destruction, the mining companies in the area will be held responsible for polluting the water. Seeing this destruction presented by the Kootenay Gallery of Art also serves as a reminder of the immense presence of Canadian mining companies in Latin America (including Bolivia). After all, more than 75 percent of all of the world’s mining firms are based in Canada.
In Mineralogues (2018), Randy Lee Cutler organizes multiple definitions of mining into a chart of found mineral images accompanied by mined data. Like a new kind of periodic table, data is split into four non-hierarchical categories: “songs of science,” “supernatural oracles,” “natural philosophy,” and “the underworld.” These four interpretative categories search for deeper meanings in minerals that are often used by humans. The found images printed on the posters represent social contexts ascribed to specific minerals (such as the use of crystals in fortune telling) and mineral-related phenomena (like the piezoelectric effect of compressed quartz producing an electrical charge). Cutler’s approach to science in Mineralogues offers factual information about not only mineral properties, but also the environmental impact of human reliance on mineral usage. The work functions as collected evidence of varied human relationships to minerals, and the accelerated rate of extraction from the industrial age onward.
Drawing inspiration from the Fluxus movement, Asinnajaq’s Rock Piece (Ahuriri Edition) (2015) is a short video depicting the artist emerging from, and then retreating back into, a stack of palm-sized rocks. While the overcast Napier shoreline where filming took place makes for a moody visual setting, sound soon becomes the most compelling sensory input. The video opens with a still figure shrouded in rocks, who begins expanding in form with visible breaths. As the waves crash and spray, the rocks gradually and progressively tumble and click, crackle, knock against each other. Asinnajaq eventually unearths herself from her face-down position, crouches, and returns to the earth as the rocks envelop her body. The accompanying score for the work reads “feel the weight of the world; free yourself.” Explaining the score in “Speculative Imaginaries” (a panel that was featured in the exhibition’s programming), Asinnajaq noted that the phrase indicates cycles, repetition, and relearning.
Through cycles of releasing and withholding a human form, the rocks of Rock Piece teach Asinnajaq to learn from repeated experiences or actions. Viewing the work, I contemplate how the individual and collective weight of the rocks would feel against my own body. Circling back to the definition of overburden as rock waste, Rock Piece offers another way to consider their presence, by animating the rocks as an entity with the capability to impart knowledge through human engagement.
In Genevieve Robertson’s epilogue to the exhibition catalogue, she discusses how a human under- standing of the world on a larger, geological scale is subsumed by the short-sighted metrics of capitalism: a consideration of billions of years gives way to a focus on the dollars and profits of the next financial quarter. But these settler-colonial and capitalist metrics are shallow, and forget that the land is much older than us. “Overburden” creates room for curiosity and hope. The artists in this show combine hope with research-creation to think far beyond a colonial-capitalist time frame by studying deep geologic time to imagine better futures.