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Caves house some of the earliest forms of art on record, yet today such subterranean spaces are, more often than not, shaped by and for resource extraction. This contradiction is at the heart of the US artist and film-maker Cauleen Smith’s new exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum, Mines to Caves(until 7 April), which highlights the social, economic and environmental legacies of mining in Colorado and beyond.

“Colorado’s relationship to silver mining, amongst other forms of geologic extraction, has historically connected the small town of Aspen to the wider global economy,” says Anisa Jackson, the museum’s curator at large. Like many areas of the state that were developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Aspen was established as a mining town, and many town names surrounding Aspen reference rocks and minerals, such as Basalt and Galena. With mining came economic and political power as global industries developed and the need for metal, coal and minerals increased. “While mining is no longer the main economic driver of Aspen, it’s an important part of the development of this place,” says Simone Krug, the museum’s curator.

“There are many forms of extraction—including using water—that are necessary for survival, but it’s important to do these with intention,” Smith says. “The impulse to make value out of extraction is the first thing we need to address to restore balance.”

Curated by Jackson and Krug, Mines to Caves expands on research from Smith’s spring 2022 residency at the museum and nearby Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Focusing on Aspen’s Smuggler Mine, the region’s oldest silver mine in operation, the residency culminated in a site-specific installation, Gimme Shelter Cineglyphs (2022), which consisted of 11 short videos with imagery of animals and animated hieroglyphs inspired by cave drawings, as well as footage shot on site. Displayed inside the mine for one night in September 2022, the experimental project imagined a future in which the mine is returned to the mountain to restore balance with the environment.

Places of shelter

“There was a time when we knew how to navigate the terrain, much like the animals you see elegantly and efficiently navigating the land today,” Smith says. “I want viewers to imagine a world where we don’t view caves as places of extraction, but rather as places of shelter.”

Bringing this project from Smuggler Mine into the museum, the exhibition draws inspiration from the dark interior of the mine and includes a new version of the 11 videos edited into a single film, as well as a banner featuring the word “mines” on one side and an image of a gemstone on the other, wallpaper and a candle that slowly melts—evoking a topographical map and doubling as a metaphor for humans’ relatively brief presence on Earth.

While Mines to Caves is grounded in the context of Colorado, Smith also references the Black diaspora and global issues of consumption and climate change. The show’s colourful wallpaper, for example, features a specific type of palm tree called Pandanus candelabrum, which grows in soil above kimberlite, a rock containing diamonds. A target for diamond extraction, particularly in Africa, the tree has become endangered.

“My goal isn’t to make a didactic proclamation about climate change,” Smith says. “Everyone has the facts and no one wants to change, so instead of talking about it, I’m creating a space for viewers to reorient their understanding of our relationship with the Earth. There’s so much rhetoric about saving the planet, but we are insignificant in relation to this thing that keeps us alive. The planet doesn’t need our saving, it needs us to stop doing damage.”

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