Age of Oil: Mineworks residency – Landscape art research in Queenstown, Tasmania

I was the 2008 international artist at the Landscape Art Research Queenstown (LARQ), an art organisation housed in a studio/gallery in the Western Tasmanian mining town of Queenstown, Australia. Founded by artist Raymond Arnold, LARQ’s primary objective is to develop a type of ‘wilderness’ art space, with artists in residence responding to the rich natural and cultural values inherent in the region.

“Sue Jane was essentially hosted by LARQ to work with local mining companies (Mt Lyell copper mine and Henty gold mine) to develop her ideas about labour, industry and their respective place within the natural world. These are keywords in an ongoing conversation about our place in the world and societies impact on climate change and future possibilities.” Raymond Arnold 2017

First impressions

As Raymond’s jeep wound its way down the hill towards Queenstown, I got my first sight of Mount Lyell: a mountain stripped bare and half eaten away; huge hillocks of red orange ochre rock strewn all over its mountain sides. Below these heaps, mill workshops were messily scattered and giant rusting power pylons zigzagged across the landscape. These industrial scars were in stark contrast to a backdrop of the forested green landscape.

Queenstown, Western Tasmania,2008, Australia
Queenstown looking towards Mt Lyell, Western Tasmania,2008, Australia © Sue Jane Taylor.

The Queen river was a shocking sight – bright orange in colour, due to the high iron content, and sick with acidic poison. On our first day, we walked to where the two rivers, Queen and King, meet. The sight of the Queen’s pollution spilling into the King was horrifying. We sat quietly for some minutes contemplating this powerful, disturbing vision.

Queen River meets King River, 2008, Western Tasmania, Australia
Queen River meets King River, 2008, Western Tasmania, Australia © Sue Jane Taylor.

Mount Lyell mine

Driving up the wide dirt track in Raymond’s jeep, I noticed a bright orange stream at the side of the road, gushing down the slope towards the Queen. This was pumped-out run-off water from the old underground mine works. Industrial scenes and their noises began to unfold as we turned each corner. A towering red brick chimney stack stood high above on the red, bare, carved-out rock. Now heritage-listed, this stack was part of the deadly smelter systems at the turn of the 20th century. For 25 years, sulphur fumes hung over the town and valleys, killing and damaging all vegetation in its path; with topsoil washed away, vast swathes of lush hillsides became bare rock.

Surface sketch 4, Mt Lyell mine,2008, pen and ink wash, 21.5 cm x 75 cm
Surface sketch 4, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 21.5 cm x 75 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

At the next corner, a massive, menacing, vibrating surge bin came into view. It crushed transported rocks from a conveyor belt high above, which started its journey from the shaft a mile away on the hillside. The crusher spat the rocks out onto another conveyor belt, which continued its journey over to the mill works on the other side of the hill. As I got out of the jeep I could smell the minerals in the air.

Mt Lyell used to be the biggest copper mine in the southern hemisphere. Had it been a new site, 99% of the practices which had taken place in the previous hundred years would have been forbidden. It is now impossible to build a new smelter anywhere in Australia.

Surface tour at Mount Lyell

Bertie, one of the mine rescue safety team, gave me a surface tour around the vast, sprawling site. I got kitted out with the standard industrial work gear: reflector boiler suit, hat, glasses, ear protectors and Blundstone steel-cap gumboots. As we got into the rescue vehicle, I looked over to the porthole located only a hundred metres away from the main office. This entrance; insignificant in appearance, led to the mine’s industrial underworld.

Surface sketch 5, Mt Lyell mine,2008, pen and ink wash,15 cm x 10 cm
Surface sketch 5, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash,15 cm x 10 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

We drove further up past the conveyor belt making its way down to the surge bin and past the old dynamite stores – tin roof shacks on stilts with timber walls, built nearly a hundred years ago and isolated from all the workings. Natural scrub growth was slowly beginning to take root on the barren, rocky ground which had for years been churned over. Sedge and restio grasses were the first plants to regenerate, along with snowberry, wattle, tea trees and some rainforest tree species.

Eerie, rhythmical noises came from the shaft wheel as the rock was brought up in giant buckets from 680 metres below, before falling onto the conveyor belt. Not far away, a giant vent expelled underground steamy vapours, assisting with the circulation of clean air underground. We could hear men inspecting levels in the lift shaft below; the lift was used for quick access for emergency purposes and for bringing up the injured.

Surge bin, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 64 cm x 15 cm
Surge bin, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 64 cm x 15 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

It was a beautiful clear day as we drove along the upper ridges. At one of the highest points, we saw the site of the 1912 West Lyell mining disaster. Forty-two men had perished from smoke inhalation in an underground fire. This tragedy rocked the whole community and has never been forgotten.

I was shown an old shaft, a threatening wide, black gash in the ground.  Many abandoned tunnels and deep shafts were scattered all over the district and one had to be careful when bush-walking. Dotted all around the bare ridges, old King Billy pine tree stumps lay almost fossilised from being cut down for timber or destroyed by sulphur fumes and bush fires. Middens of broken coloured-glass bottles and fragments of crockery from previous settlements were scattered and spread out.

We made our way down to the site of West Lyell’s open-cut massive crater. Gradually the edges of this deep open crater were sliding, crumbling and caving in as the rock from deep underground was taken out by current mine operations. It was like looking into the void of a volcano. I felt the pull, trying to suck me in and seduce me with the rocks’ beautiful, vibrant, warm colours. There was an echoing silence all around as we looked out onto panoramic views of the mountains and ocean beyond.

Grinding Mills, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 57 cm x 79 cm
Grinding Mills, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 57 cm x 79 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

In the afternoon, Bertie showed me round the mill production site, a sharp contrast to the open space and fresh mountain air. Amongst the many workshop buildings, machines further crushed and processed the rock into dust, separating out the copper from the sludge. As we walked around, I was sensitive to the loud, penetrating noises, the fine, grey layers of dust on everything and the industrial smells. Some workshop areas resembled the bowels of a mad machine with endless passages and networks of pipes.

Underground tour at Mount Lyell

For my underground tour, I was kitted out with a hat with a lamp, a belt with heavy gear strapped to it weighing five kilos, a lamp battery and a ‘self-rescuer’, a silver-cased canister which enables one to breathe for a short while in emergencies. In the work cruiser, Harvey, the underground operations manager and my guide for the tour, flicked on the LV’s flashing orange roof light. With headlights full on, we drove towards the portal’s complete darkness. Harvey switched on the radio and spoke into the receiver: “LV coming down main decline”. This was the moment that I had been preparing and waiting for all these months. To Harvey, this was his routine morning inspection.

Harvey, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, colour conte, 56 cm 76.5 cm
Harvey, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, colour conte, 56 cm 76.5 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

We drove down the steep tunnel’s uneven track, just big enough to squeeze in huge trucks. The background sounds of workers’ voices came over the radio, enabling Harvey to be constantly aware of truck movements and mining operations. My ears popped as the gradation levels dropped and we passed a sea-level sign, illuminated by our headlights. We drove further and further down, everything in grey, tonal blackness. There was no colour, only the orange headlamps creating and reflecting artificial colours. The challenge for me was how to portray this tonal complexity, devoid of sunlight and bright colour. I had drawn many times in industrial environments but never one so extreme, so devoid of light.


Truck in tunnel, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 15 cm x 10 cm
Truck in tunnel, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, pen and ink wash, 15 cm x 10 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

Harvey radioed ahead as we entered 15.15 level. We stopped at a tight, dark siding, jumped out and switched on our helmet lamps. The ground was uneven, potted with small water pools, and it was difficult for my eyes to adjust to the dark, dim light. Our headlamps and Harvey’s torch were our guides. Off the main track, we came upon a giant crusher breaking up huge lumps of rocks. We continued on to the mechanic workshops. A boomer (which drills holes in rock) and a bogger (a front-end loader) were being repaired, both massive, complex machines. Harvey encouraged me to climb up into the bogger cabin, commenting that girls my size drove trucks like these. As he shut the door I felt very cramped. Working twelve-hour shifts in this cramped space and in the dark would not be my idea of fun, but at $72,000 per year for an average wage it was a lure for many people.

Boomer, Henty mine, 2008, graphite, 56 cm x 76 cm
Boomer, Henty mine, 2008, graphite, 56 cm x 76 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

We drove further down to the level where boggers and trucks started to operate, stopping off at the crib (canteen) to hang up our tags, indicating our descent to lower levels. Back in the LV, Harvey kept his ears to the radio, no conversation. A woman trucker’s faint voice called up and he reversed suddenly into a small siding. From the darkness below, the headlights of a huge monster truck appeared, blinding my eyes. Everything shook as it passed us. We stopped frequently to let more trucks past. With Harvey’s experience, he handled this with ease, getting into sidings out of the giants’ way by reversing up steep blind corners at high speed.

Bucket bogger, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, graphite, 51 cm x 55 cm
Bucket bogger, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, graphite, 51 cm x 55 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

We watched a bogger loading rocks into a truck’s bucket. In the confined dark space, the noise and dust were magnified, and my only glimpse of the drivers was the reflectors on their helmets. It got warmer and muggier as we drove further down. Sometimes water poured and splashed onto the cab’s roof from the tunnel’s back. In some areas, there were small flowing streams at one side of the decline. Surface rain took about three days to percolate down through the oxidised sulphide-bearing rock and into the bottom of this mine. As a result, vehicles did not last long down here. At each level, pump systems removed acidic rain into pipes leading to the tailings dam. Mixed with tailings from the mill, the acid drainage was neutralised. But the acidic water from old mine works predating 1995, for which this company was not responsible, had been pumped out and poured into creeks such as ‘cola creek’ and down on into Queen, then King and out to sea.

At 14.14, the lowest level, there had recently been a flood and it had taken months to pump out the water and realign the tunnel walls. Nearby a boomer was drilling rock, its gigantic, hydraulic arms at work. The scene was reminiscent of a science fiction film. Finally, Harvey showed me an emergency pod container. These pods, where miners could survive for up to four days in an emergency, were placed on every level.

For part of the way to the surface we were behind a truck, its bucket full of rock. Our ascent seemed to take a long time. At first I could not identify the sharp, shimmering speck of light in the distance amidst the blackness. It was like an optical illusion as we drove closer, the circle growing bigger and bigger. Suddenly I recognised it as daylight streaming into our darkness. As we drove out of the tunnel it was like a burst of freedom for my eyes, to see the natural light and the sky above again.

The artist’s working day at Mt Lyell copper mine and Henty gold mine  

My day often began at 4.15 am in the mine muster room. For a couple of hours, I sat there observing miners as they came in for meetings.  Each miner’s personality was reflected in his work clothes with their personal touches.

Gold man, Mt Henty mine, 2008, colour conte, 57 cm x 79.5 cm
Gold man, Mt Henty mine, 2008, colour conte, 57 cm x 79.5 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

I am fairly comfortable in an all-male environment but the presence of women workers seemed to bring a sense of balance. As I got to meet more women I could see that they were strong characters who would not put up with too much feral behaviour from the men.

Sally, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, colour conte, 56 cm x 76.5 cm
Sally, Mt Lyell mine, 2008, colour conte, 56 cm x 76.5 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

Later in the morning was spent drawing in the underground workshops.  With my rescue-minder man by my side, I sat drawing on a crib chair close to the monster machines.  I laid out paper to protect my equipment from surfaces thick with grease. In the background, banter, chat, drill noises and the banging of huge hammers could be heard, a surreal cacophony of sound.  Being devoid of natural light, there was no gauge of time.

Remote bogger driver, 2008, graphite, 38 cm x 58 cm
Remote bogger driver, 2008, graphite, 38 cm x 58 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

Each day after my mine visits I retreated to my studio, which was the finance room of the historic mining offices on the edge of town. There, I reflected on my new experiences and continued to develop my sketches, working on the original finance desk made of solid timber three metres long. In my drawings, I built up layers of tonal graphite and developed further colour tonal ranges in my pen and ink drawings.

Truck in tunnel, Mt Lyell mine, pen and ink wash, 15 cm x 60 cm
Truck in tunnel, Mt Lyell mine, pen and ink wash, 15 cm x 60 cm © Sue Jane Taylor.

The environmental legacy

Jeff Cordery, the Environmental Manager, took me on several site trips around Mt Lyell and up to the company’s massive tailings dam, where he listed all the birds and animals using it as their habitat. He spoke of the damage produced by mineralization on this site before 1995: millions of tons of sulphidic tailings, smelter and topsoil flowed down the King and Queen. Eighty-five per cent of all mine waste discharged over a century of mining still lies in sediment banks, some 15 metres deep, along the lower reaches of the King and trapped in its delta. Even if the Queen River’s current acidic rain pollution were to cease, scientists believe that the run-off from the million tons of sulphidic overburden dumps could last for a further five hundred years or so. The Tasmanian government has acknowledged that there is a natural scientific remedial process, in the form of a sulphide-eating bug, which could start to clean up the Queen, but the process is deemed too expensive. Jeff was more positive about the slow but steady growth regeneration.

Queenstown, looking up at Mt Owen, 2008, Western Tasmania, Australia
Queenstown, looking up at Mt Owen, 2008, Western Tasmania, Australia © Sue Jane Taylor.

The Age of Oil exhibition is on display at the National Museum of Scotland from 21 July to 5 November 2017.

An Age of Oil publication featuring Sue Jane Taylor’s works and diary extracts is available to buy here.

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