Here’s a little catalogue essay I wrote a few years ago for Henry’s Industrial Scars show.
J Henry Fair flies high above our fallen world, over aeration ponds of paper mills, which sprout like mushrooms near Baton Rouge, and luminous bauxite waste streams near Houston. Bulldozers spread their offerings of petroleum coke before him in Texas City, and roseate spoonbills glide low over radioactive phosphate slurry in Florida. These are the primal scenes of our consumer society; here is where we give birth to the American way of life. It will never again be so beautiful.
Coal, petroleum, fertilizer, paper pulp, and sugar are among the foundational inputs of our high-input civilization; without them most of what passes for life among us can scarcely be conceived. The direct financial costs of extracting these substances are considerable. No less so are the indirect ecological, social, and individual physical costs.
Acid rain, smog, bronchitis, asthma, cancer, and global warming are among the slightly more familiar tolls we must pay for turning on light bulbs and opening laptops and listening to Wilco on our iPods. Others are perhaps less familiar. But J. Henry Fair can tell you that coal production is a significant source of radioactive pollution and that arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium all show up in coal waste, which inevitably finds its way into drinking water. He can cite statistics on emissions. But most of all he simply bears witness to the tragic beauty of waste.
Coal gives us more than electricity. Tupperware, detergent bottles, milk cartons, fuel tanks, sandwich bags, and polymers found in ropes, banknotes, and polypropylene long underwear all originate in a relatively soft seam of combustible sedimentary carbon rock formed by the remains of ancient swamps.
Like coal, the phosphate fertilizers that we use to grow tomatoes and corn and sugar cane also come to us via large open pit mines. Phosphate rock yields itself to enormous dragline excavators. Add water and make a slurry; process thoroughly and remove the uranium and other impurities. Send the wetrock on to the plant and dump the waste into a phosphogypsum stack and let it settle. Try not to breath the florine gas.
The waste pits and effluents that enable our daily wants are usually hidden from view. They lie just off the access road behind the railyard or sixteen miles down county road 67. J Henry Fair seeks out these visions of excess and captures them in all their Satanic beauty. He brings them home and offers them up for our contemplation. They belong to us. We made them.
J Henry Fair, Tensie Whelan, Roger Hodge, and Jack Hitt will be talking about a world gone to shit, tonight at powerHouse Arena, in Dumbo, Brooklyn, 37 Main Street, 7pm.
We’ll also see images from Henry’s new book, to which we all contributed: The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, published by powerHouse books.