Faengoch (Red Vein)
By Gweni Llwyd
There is no such thing as human and nature – human is nature. Human is wild. Technology is wild. If nature is separate it feels like we are doing something separate to ourselves; it helps us to feel ok about bad things we do to the environment. If we restore the symbolic, restore the poetic, we understand that we are doing something to everything.
Artist Jack Tan speaking at Online Conversations: Framework for Resilience, FACT, Feb 2021.
After almost a year of feeling too big in a flat, I feel small between the museum walls – I’ve missed the sensation of being physically present. All of a sudden, I’m punched in the face by Prabhakar Pachpute’s enormous drawing of a clenched fist. Ideas of solidarity, unity and resistance leap to mind. I look closer. This fist has been mined.
I look around the room. It’s filled with rich drawings by Pachpute, who uses layers and visual metaphors to explore excavation, working conditions and land politics. The work is informed in part by Pachpute finding connections of working class labour and symbols of unity between different mining traditions in India and Wales. I’m reminded of works by Anna Boghiguian and Otobong Nkanga that lived in the same building three years prior, and curate an imaginary show in my head that combines the work of all three.
Pachpute grew up in Sasti, Chandrapur, a coal mining city in India – also known as the city of black gold. His work pulls together many stories as well as experiences from his own life. Pachpute says he ‘juxtaposes memories and what is happening in real life’. Reflecting on this, I think about how we can’t help but bring our own emotions, memories and lived experiences with us wherever we go, and all the connections that we consciously and unconsciously make in our minds. Without trying, I think of home.
I grew up in a small village called Y Fron, which is part of a valley called Dyffryn Nantlle. Dyffryn Nantlle sits upon Cambrian slate deposits that are over 500 million years old, and as a result has been heavily excavated. Huge bites have been taken out of mountainsides. Technically, this has happened through extensive processes of quarrying (sometimes called open-pit or open-cast mining). Quarrying causes very visible scarring, while mining hides its wounds underground.
Pachpute’s surreal drawings combine beauty and absurdity, much like an actual mined landscape does. While in the gallery space, I’m drawn to Pachpute’s depiction of a large fish in a small pool of water pumping out steam. It reminds me of a building in Dyffryn Nantlle’s largest quarry – Chwarel Dorothea’s aging Cornish beam engine (1) – that once used steam to pump water out of the quarry pits. By today, the pits in Dyffryn Nantlle are mostly flooded – their waters glow a dramatic turquoise caused by the reflection from the surrounding slate. The way Pachpute morphs tools, technology, nature, people and land into individual characters leaves a feeling in my flesh. That night, before falling asleep, I imagine opening my mouth Predator style to make way for a huge, cold, metal anvil that replaces my head.
Pachpute depicts bodies. The language of landscape is bodily. Resources are extracted from literal veins that run across the planet – does this mean we’re causing it to bleed out? Processes of mining and quarrying are also like digestive systems – the land is chewed up, it’s processed, and we’re left with the unpleasant aftermath. I can’t help but picture the opening scene (2) of the 2019 Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems – we see miners extract a rare black opal before it sucks the camera in. We enter an expansive universe of colour, moving through vibrant greens, blues and oranges before reaching a fleshy passage. The image begins to lose its resolution and it’s revealed that we are observing the protagonist Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy.
In his work Pachpute looks at the transition of the land, very often the transition of farm land into coal-mining land. Chwarel Cilgwyn, another of the 50+ quarries in Dyffryn Nantlle on former common land, is very likely the oldest quarry in Wales. It was last worked in 1956. In 1974 someone decided it was appropriate to begin plugging up one of its pits – with tonnes and tonnes of household waste. It was repurposed as a landfill site until that shut in 2009 after 15 years of campaigning by locals. It won’t be safe, usable land for at least 20 years (although much of the buried rubbish will take centuries to fully decompose). Much like a weeping wound on a body, Chwarel Cilgwyn still oozes leachate – a harmful liquid that drains out of landfill – as it continues its long process of healing.
The characters that exist in Pachpute’s work merge their identities with the landscape in “a constant but vigilant transformation”. He talks of a similar power that they all hold within – they simply change their appearance according to place and what they are looking for. I’m reminded of the last verse of a 1893 poem written by John Griffith Evans, a 19-year-old quarryman who worked at Chwarel Y Braich in my home village of Y Fron:
“Ac os oes rai ohonoch chwi
Yn gwledda ar eich moethau,
Cofiwch gŵyn y gweithiwr tlawd
Yn nanedd erch y creigiau,
Mewn llafur blin a chaled iawn
Yng nghanol y peryglon
Yn ceisio ennill ceiniog fach
I dalu ei ofynion.”
I’ll by no means do this justice in English, but his message is this: to those who are feasting on luxuries, don’t forget about the exhausted, penniless worker who’s stuck between the sharp, perilous teeth of the rocks, looking for the means to survive.
References of prehistoric cave-drawing can be found in Pachpute’s work, connecting the interior of the mine to that of the cave. I think about our primeval urges to mark-make. When I was younger I remember being impressed by local teenagers who’d scaled very risky terrain to scrawl their names in big white letters across the exposed slate faces of nearby Chwarel Moel Tryfan. Some labelled the acts as despicable – how dare the youth disrespect the land! – almost without realising that decades of ramming explosives into the ground doesn’t exactly set the best precedent. The paint would fade, but the enormous craters in the mountains, now filled with wrecked cars, sheep carcasses and rubbish, are here for good.
I think of the days I spent hanging out with my friends as a kid on slate spoil heaps, sliding down their spiky sides, and carving names and shapes into fragments of slate. Some of this slate waste is now being gathered by private companies to sell on for garden decoration. I think of unstoppable forces of nature and the recent landslide in Nefyn (3) that ate the garden of a holiday home (yet another unsustainable industry). I think of Aberfan (4) in the south, the global human cost of pushing the earth too far and neglect by those in power. Writer and critic Lucy R. Lippard uses the term ‘subterranean economy’ to refer to industries that ‘pull their wealth out of the earth to the detriment of the people and cultures that inhabit the surface.’ The sun may have set on the quarries of Dyffryn Nantlle but the subterranean economy elsewhere doesn’t seem to be slowing down – the global top 40 mining companies, which make up the majority of the whole industry, generated over half a trillion U.S. dollars of revenue in 2019. Perhaps those profiting the most from tormenting the land and the hard labour of others will one day wake up as Pachpute-esque characters themselves, their bank-notes merging with their skin.
Gweni Llwyd is an Artes Mundi 9 Engagement Producer and visual artist who predominately works in video, drawing, installation, and 3d animation. She is co-founder of Cardiff based collective RAT TRAP and is currently part of the Jerwood UNITe residency at g39, Cardiff.