Mercury, a misheard communication
In 2015 a team of scientists, after studying the glacier Quelccaya, discovered one of the earliest large-scale air pollutions in South America. They revealed the environmental damages produced by the Spanish colonial mining, preserved for centuries in the Andes glacier.
Before the Spanish arrival, the mines within the Inca empire were venerated and protected for their natural resources. Antonio Calancha recounted in 1638 that “the Indians who go to the silver, gold and mercury [cinnabar] mines used to worship the hills or mines…for this they kept a vigil throughout the night drinking and dancing.” This adoration reflected not only their respect for the mines due to the difficulty of the extraction process of gold, silver and cinnabar (the only know ore of mercury) but the deification that those materials had, placed upon their qualities and colour. All of them were used in different rituals and practices that allowed the Inca population to be connected with their gods, the stars.
“The ideas of reciprocity, fluidity and symmetry of life also structured central Andean
ideas at the time of the Inca (Allen 1984:152; Ossio 1996). In Inca cosmology, life energy flowed cyclically from the skies through the earth to the sky again (Valcircel 1981:91). The gods of the sun, moon, earth, etc., controlled this flow and were responsible for providing what was necessary for human life (Cobo 1990 :6; Gose 2000:90). The gods were reached through their huacas, and these huacas were most often prominent features of the natural landscape.”
The Huacas, were places or objects that were considered sacred and revered, thus the name of Huancavelica; the mining district where they extracted all their cinnabar. The connection to this sacred place, allowed those materials to transcend their mere quality as an object and instead, represent a concept, a channel that projected them into a life force that emanated from the cosmos and was manifested in their landscape.
However, from the 16th century onwards that story changed, and their relationship with stars was transformed into a relationship with the sky; more precisely with air. The Spanish conquistadors were attracted to cinnabar only as a source of elemental mercury, a material unknown to the Incas, that allowed them to extract both gold and silver from their ores. Cinnabar’s toxicity to human beings is significantly less compared with elemental mercury, whose fumes affect the nervous system and can cause serious intoxication, even death. Moreover, as silver ores were filled with lead as well, in order to extract it, the miners needed to grind the ore releasing lead dust into the air; creating an invisible cloud of toxic waste. In the words of Paolo Gabrielli, a scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio, “The metallurgic activities of the Inca had most likely only a local impact on the environment surrounding their mining operations. In contrast, the mining and metallurgic activities performed by the Spanish had an impact on the atmosphere of the entire South American continent.”
What was once a source of life, now became a source of death. The sky was changed by our own projections. Transforming from utopia to dystopia in a few seconds. How is it possible, then, to apprehend this invisible danger? More importantly, how does that affect our current relationship with the sky, that no longer limits itself to a landscape of stars, but now includes an invisible toxic atmosphere?
For centuries, that toxic pollution was dissipated and concealed in ice in the highest mountains of the Andes. But as Susan Schuppli argued, “the virtual is always real (…) it is in the very act of uncovering or covering something that the invention is constituted and thus by extension also the accident.” Global warming is now melting those glaciers, revealing what was once concealed. Uncovering a terrible crime that went unrecognized for centuries. What Olafur Eliasson didn’t realize in Your waste of Time, is that by taking a glimpse of frozen time, you also take the hidden stories that lie within. The misheard communication of mercury.