Burrowing into the Earth

Central School Project, Bisbee, Arizona, 2007

Materials: Douglas fir timbers, cottonwood leaves gilded in copper leaf, copper plates etched with cottonwood leaves using a soft-ground, mule skulls, 1250 brass tags engraved with numbers, leather harness, candles, pine pitch, slag rock from old copper mine

The kings of the world are old and feeble.
They bring forth no heirs.
Their sons are dying before they are men,
and their pale daughters
abandon themselves to the brokers of violence.
Their crowns are exchanged for money
and melted down into machines,
and there is no health in it.
Does the ore feel trapped
in coins and gears? In the petty life
imposed upon it
does it feel homesick for earth?
If metal could escape
from coffers and factories,
and the torn-open mountains
close around it again,
we would be whole. - Rainer Maria Rilke

A week after coming up with the title for this installation, I thought I might rename it Brassing into the Earth. Because brassing isn't a word, I decided to stick with my original title. But "brassing in" was a common phrase in the mining industry. Before heading down the shafts and into the stopes, the miners, poor laborers from European countries and Mexico, were given numbered brass tags. When their shift ended, they would return their tags to the "brassing in" board, signifying that they had made it out of earth that day.

An anonymous author wrote in the January 1910 issue of Mines and Methods that “of professional men, probably there is no class more blind to the call of . . . humanity than most mining engineers.” According to historian Lynn Bailey, “the American mining industry was [also] marked by an appalling indifference to human life.” There was “a general callousness toward the value of human life” and “that value was often weighted according to nationality.” It comes as no surprise that accidents occurred almost daily within the Copper Queen and the Calumet & Arizona Mines.

In preparation for this exhibit, I took a tour of the Copper Queen Mine. The tour guide—an experienced Hispanic miner—explained how mules were also part of the underground culture within the mines. They worked in darkness until they went blind. The callous treatment toward these animals became, for me, an analogy of the callous treatment toward the immigrant laborers, both historically and today.

*Photos courtesy of Gregory Byard.