The Mt Lyell Project
” In the mid 1990s, Walch visited Queenstown for the first time. Shocked and fascinated by the scale of environmental devastation caused by a century of mining in the region, and by the issues that this raised for the town, Walch felt compelled to begin making work which would explore issues concerning the area’s landscape. Since the late nineteenth century the mining of copper at Mt Lyell has generated employment for the locals and wealth for the owners, but has created serious environmental problems. Millions of tonnes of mining residues have been dumped in the King and Queen rivers during the mine’s history, with the net result being the destruction of nearly all the aquatic life in these waterways.[i] In 1998, Walch successfully negotiated to become the artist in residence at Queenstown’s Mt Lyell copper mine, and in the following years produced a large body of stereoscopic images and computer animations based on the mine and surrounding landscapes.
Seen through a stereoscopic viewer these images of open cut pits, underground shafts, tailings ponds and mining debris are both breathtakingly beautiful and disturbing. A section of underground tunnel is bathed seductively in green light from lamps mounted on the walls, revealing the surface and structure of the tunnel and glistening puddles on the ground. A short intense light trail on one side of the tunnel is left by the head torch of a miner walking through the image during the long exposure, representing the many people who depend on the mine’s existence for their survival. In other images, the stark bareness of the surrounding hills remain a testimony to the extreme toxicity that has affected the area’s soil, water and air to the point where most vegetation and animal life can no longer survive. The wilderness areas that surround Queenstown can often be seen in the far distance, a reminder of the rich biodiversity that once existed throughout the region.
Part of Walch’s interest in working in the Queenstown environment was the desire to give a contemporary update to the century old photographic history of the area. He became interested in the work of John Watt Beattie, an early Tasmanian photographer who had photographed wilderness areas in Tasmania’s south west in the late nineteenth century.[ii] Beattie had described the areas surrounding the King and Gordon Rivers as “without equal anywhere for majesty of surroundings and exquisite foliage,” and campaigned to defend the beauty of the Gordon River from logging. His actions marked the beginning in Tasmania of a continuing tradition of artists as environmental activists.[iii] Walch sees art as a powerful means to enable people to better understand their surroundings. He regularly takes groups to places such as Queenstown, encouraging them to engage thoughtfully with issues affecting the landscape and its inhabitants, and to respond creatively. ” Bryony Nainby 2003.
[i] Feasibility of Remediating Mt Lyell Acid Mine Drainage – 2001, Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, Tasmania, 2001
[ii] Ecology – Martin Walch (converge website)
[iii] Tim Bonyhady, The Artist as Activist