Desert Trails by Xavier Ribas

Desert Trails (2012) is a series of photographs of the Atacama Desert taken mostly from the vantage points of slag heaps from abandoned nitrate works. The photographs show the disrupted surfaces of the desert around abandoned industrial sites, towns and ore fields. Technically and aesthetically, these images emulate late 19th- and early 20th-century landscape photographs of nitrate works, produced as records of investment by the nitrate producers themselves, or for propaganda purposes. Those historical photographs and photographic albums are now held in national libraries, archives and museums. They have become the official visual record of the nitrate industry.

The ruins, the slag heaps and the mounds of rejected stone piled up in the desert are the most distinctive elements in the landscape today. “The industrial structures of mining – writes Louise Purbrick – will always be abandoned. Dereliction cannot be avoided. When the mined material runs low, is too costly to extract or is no longer considered of value, the architecture of mining begins to empty of activity and soon stands as a monument of disuse. The ruins of the future are ever present.” The slag heaps of mining are topographic accidents that offer a blunt image of departed labor and of capitalist accumulation. They were made by the movement and the energy of the workers’ bodies, with the help of simple tools, like a pick and a shovel, shifting stone and refuse from one place to another. The mounds themselves, as Michael Taussig writes in My Cocaine Museum, “are bodies made by hand […] a miraculous glimpse into the shaping of nature by the human hand, a monument to man’s domination over nature through his domination over others, an archive of national history.” The mounds of stone and refuse visible in this landscape today may provide a restitution of the absent bodies of the workers, barely visible in the old photographs.

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