PHOENIX — Plans for huge new copper mines on public land in Arizona have created tensions between mining companies, conservationists, Native American tribes and even rock climbers.
Meanwhile, the global thirst for electronics is expected to make demand for copper increase, but the earth’s supply of the element is finite.
In that complexity, two artists have found inspiration. Their exhibition on Arizona’s deep relationship with copper opens Feb. 8 at Arizona State University's Art Museum.
The exhibition is called Cu 29: Mining For You. The name is a reference to copper’s place on the periodic table. Artists Matthew Moore and Clare Patey say part of their fascination with this metal is that it was formed more than a billion years ago, and now plays a central -- yet invisible -- role in our lives.
“Behind all these walls is copper wiring, in all of our homes there is something like a thousand foot of copper wiring,” Patey said. “It is everywhere, it is in every mobile phone, its in every laptop, dishwasher, car, everywhere. And yet it is not very visible.”
Artist Matthew Moore said copper is regulated in the human body.
“Its integral to us living, basically,” Moore said. “It is just one of these really interesting elements that is everywhere in our everyday life.”
The artists came up with the idea for the project after a group of scientists identified elements on the periodic table that are in danger of being exhausted. One part of the exhibition features a three-dimensional periodic table made of movable stools, color-coded by how endangered the element is.
“So we are using up the Earth's resources faster than the Earth is creating those resources, so actually, eventually we could run out of helium, run out of copper,” Patey said.
Patey is from London, and Moore is from Phoenix. This is their first collaboration, but both artists focus on sustainability in their work. In two vast rooms, they explore how we rely on, and commodify, the natural element copper.
The exhibition focuses particularly on Arizona’s relationship to the metal, since the state is the country’s top source of copper.
The exhibition features a wall of collected copper objects loaned by community members. So far the collection includes items such as a pot from a local chef. There is a belt buckle that belonged to a miner who worked in Morenci mine, an open pit mine in Southeastern Arizona that is one of the world’s biggest.
Another part of the exhibition features pieces of copper artwork, which are juxtaposed against a pile of scrap copper.
“And we are talking about that value, and what that means,” Moore said.
Value is a key part of the conversation. The price of copper has shot up almost five-fold in the last decade, and that’s spurred new mining activity as well as a spike in thefts.
“The electrician I spoke to said they cannot leave any wiring anywhere,” Patey said. “Even if it is under lock and key. If they have ordered a whole load of wiring for a new job, it will just go. Public art works, huge public art works—bronzes, just go.”
Accompanying the exhibition is an audio collage that weaves together the voices of Arizonans who work with copper, including an electrician, a tuba player, a mining engineer and a sculptor.
“I was interested in the people who use copper as part of their everyday life and make the connection between the copper that they are using as an electrician, for instance, and the fact that they live in a state that is defined by its relationship with copper,” Patey said.
One of the voices in the collage belongs to Ruth Comstock Spencer, who lived in the tiny mining town of Bagdad, Ariz.
Her voice tells visitors about the intimate realities of the mining lifestyle:
As you are in that copper, what you are doing is you are ingesting it by inhaling it, or through the pores. And then of course later you are sweating and your going to get rid of that copper, so your underwear is green, and your sheets can turn green. And then when you are sitting at the bridge table and you’re talking to the girls, ‘I can’t get the sheets clean in the laundry,' and someone is saying 'I think we ought to buy green sheets.' And then we go to Sears, and we do. And we did.
Patey says she hopes the exhibition will help visitors connect the dots that objects we use originally came out of the Earth.
“Just to say look, maybe look in a different way,” Patey said. “Not only is that copper wiring that is in all your electrics in your home millions and million years old, but someone has gone down into an open pit mine and got it out -- and it is filthy and dirty and whatever -- and brought it up and then it is manufactured into this thing.”
The artists say they want to provoke a conversation about copper because complicated environmental and economic debates over new mines will be part of Arizona’s future for a long time.
In fact, just last month, a Canadian mining company received an air quality permit from the state to build a new mine a mile wide on public land in Southern Arizona.
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