Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine

Jonas Lie (American, 1880-1940), Bingham Mine, 1917. Oil on canvas. Photo Credit: Purchased with funds from the Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment for Modern and Contemporary Art, UMFA.

Jonas Lie (American, 1880-1940), Bingham Mine, 1917. Oil on canvas.
Photo Credit: Purchased with funds from the Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment for Modern and Contemporary Art, UMFA.

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

The Bingham Canyon Mine, operating southwest of Salt Lake City in the Oquirrh Mountains for more than 100 years, is the largest man-made excavation on earth, and it will continue to scar the landscape long after its minerals have run dry or become too expensive to reasonably extract. Its sheer scale can be sensed in a wall-sized photo of the site, taken from the International Space Station in 2007 and currently on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts as part of “Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine.” This exhibit finishes its run Sept. 28th.

Last Friday, Matthew Coolidge, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), spoke at UMFA about the mine’s significance to perceptions of American landscape. Through photos and a 22-minute digital video of a flyover of the mine in 2013, Coolidge explained the mine-related concepts of “creation” and “erasure,” noting that “for every pit there’s a pile, and for every pile there’s a pit…both sides of the copper coin.” CLUI provided several photos for the exhibit. CLUI offers tours, compiles exhibits, and generates web content surrounding issues of human land use, always allowing the land to speak for itself.

Photo Credit: Digital Print. Purchased with funds from the Paul L. and Phyllis C. Wattis Endowment for Works on Paper, UMFA.

Photo Credit: Digital Print. Purchased with funds from the Paul L. and Phyllis C. Wattis Endowment for Works on Paper, UMFA.

Coolidge presented with beautiful prose, both biting and lyrical. Referring to an April 2013 landslide, which sent 65 to 70 million cubic meters of dirt and rock sliding down the mine’s terraced slopes, Coolidge noted that the visitor “overlook” had become an “underlook;”that the mine’s spirited visitor center, which he compared to a reliquary, “all went downhill;” that the 14 dump trucks buried by the slide ended up looking like the toy trucks on display in the visitor center.

CLUI’s video flyover demonstrated both the sheer size of the mine—each scalloped terrace seemed as wide as a highway—and the distance (almost 20 miles) that the extracted ore travels between the pit and the final stages of processing. The video added roundness to the mostly two-dimensional pieces that comprise the exhibit itself.

The exhibit’s presenting sponsor is Rio Tinto Kennecott, the company that owns the mine. Pieces on display include paintings, photographs, artifacts, and explanatory displays that document the early years of the mine, demonstrate its enormity, and chronicle the major 2013 landslide.

One memorable section of the exhibit features oil paintings and mixed media pieces by contemporary Salt Lake City-based artist Jean Arnold. Arnold depicts the mine, in multiple works, as a topographic series of concentric circles. In one piece, titled “Double Amplify,” a convex spiral reflects a concave one, emphasizing the vastness of both the excavation of the mine and the piles of earth that it has removed. Another painting, “Civilization,” places a representation of the mine beneath a pyramidal, terraced structure reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid. Such comparisons urge the viewer to consider the enduring nature of the impacts of human land use—and the choices we make about how we leave the land for future generations.

Arnold says in an exhibit panel that “The materials we extract from the earth—metals, pigments, construction materials, gemstones, and fossil fuels—are consumed by our culture and become the ‘earth-blood’ that runs in our veins, defining us as a species.”

Andreas Feininger (American, 1906-1999), Utah Copper: Bingham Mine. Brakeman of an ore train at the open-pit mining operations of Utah Copper Company, at Bingham Canyon, Utah. Photo Credit: Digital reproduction from vintage negative, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Andreas Feininger (American, 1906-1999), Utah Copper: Bingham Mine. Brakeman of an ore train at the open-pit mining operations of Utah Copper Company, at Bingham Canyon, Utah.
Photo Credit: Digital reproduction from vintage negative, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A room at the rear of the exhibit helps visitors put together their thoughts about the mine, asking them to write their reactions to the exhibit on small post-it notes. A sampling during a recent visit offered the following responses: “That’s a lot of rock.” “Something so destructive can be beautiful.” And, “I think the dialogue it opens up about the relationship between man and nature more than makes up for what I felt it lacked aesthetically.” This room also gives a history of the mine, from the discovery of ore at the site in 1848 to its gaining of National Historic Landmark status in 1966, to 2009, when the pit reached 4,000 feet deep—just 2,000 feet shy of the depth of the Grand Canyon.

The exhibit closes Sept. 28th. UMFA is open Tuesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed Mondays and holidays. Entrance ot UMFA is free for Utah college students and U of U faculty and staff with a valid ID.

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