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.
Your waste of time, 2006
The object: the projection.
The story starts with cinnabar, a beautiful vivid red ore, that was found by the Spanish Romans in the mines of Almedén. Attracted not only by its vivid red colour, that they used as pigment on themselves, their houses and sculptures, it became an important commodity of the empire, as it also allowed them to extract what they used to call hydrargyrum or “water silver”. The Romans understood that mercury can form amalgams with most metals, including gold, which allowed them to extract it quite easily from its ores. Nevertheless, despite the association, it was only until the middle ages that the name and symbol of their god and planet Mercury were used for the liquid metal as well. “Like the messenger god, mercury took to flight; like the shape-shifting god, it was always changing. Like the thieving god, it took away gold; like the bringer of mysteries, it entered the body and the brain.”
This divine quality of mercury was also prevalent in Chinese alchemy, as it was considered a Prime Matter, meaning not only that every metal could actually be derived from it, but that it could represent life itself. This is why, in Chinese medicine, mercury was used as a way to acquire longevity and immortality; a custom that was followed by many emperors and probably resulted in their death. The importance given to this substance transcended Chinese’s alchemy and it obtained worldwide recognition.
“In Indian alchemical tradition [for example] quicksilver (rasa) is conceived to be the seed of Shiva, the highest god. Therefore, it is also identified with the drink of immortality.” This belief extended to the seventeenth century when Bartholomäus Kretschmar, included this liquid metal in its aurum vitae medicine that was supposed to cure syphilis, dropsy, madness, epilepsy, malaria, icterus, leprosy, lupus, cancer (ulcers), skin rashes, fistulae, and cysts.
And so, like most utopias, the journey of mercury occurred mainly in everybody’s minds. In a mythological construction projected onto the object itself, giving it qualities and powers beyond its real self. Even in the process of gold and silver mining, the alchemy behind mercury’s abilities made it transcend its mere utility and enter a metaphysical reality, where the transmutation of the metal into gold served as a connection of the transmutation of the soul.
But mercury answered back. What it was believed as a transmutation of the metal into gold, it was actually evaporation of the liquid metal that allowed it to be released into the air. Although mercury does not need to be heated to release its fumes, 16th century Spanish mining freed the toxic metal from its cinnabar imprisonment, for the first time into the South American air.
The ethereal: the projection into our unconscious.
The release of mercury from its ore questioned the power of communication itself. Asking how to achieve communication when we do not know communication is happening. Oblivions of the toxicity of mercury’s fumes, the Inca’s miners started to experience something that it was unprecedented in their lives. Something very similar to the Solaris experience. The 1972 film version of Stanisław Lem’ book, depicts a colloidal and fluid planet by the name of Solaris. As the crew on board the orbiting spaceship started to send radioactive waves to the planet, Solaris answered back by projecting and materializing their worst memories and fears on board their own ship. Just like the planet’s consciousness acted upon the minds of Kris Kelvin, Drs Gibarian, Snaut and Sartorious, mercury started to invade each one of the Incas’ minds.
Much like the planet Solaris, its attack upon humanity only started after humanity attacked first. The only two ways of releasing mercury into the air are either by extraction from the cinnabar ore or as a by-product of coal-burning power plants. Untouched, its sinister nature remains hidden from each living being or reduced to a non-dangerous point. Many studies have confirmed that “the mechanism of pathogenesis of inorganic mercury (cinnabar) is unknown and appears to be unrelated to organic or elemental mercury toxicity”; and any possible reaction to skin absorption of inorganic mercury can be reversed if the exposure is discontinued. Thus, before the Spanish colonization, the Incas’ mind remained untouched by mercury. Their cosmetic use of the cinnabar dust on their skin did not produce any pathology as their later encounter with the elemental mercury did.
Coincidently, most of the mercury’s effects on the human body lie in the way it alters and affects the nervous system. Although its odourless and colourless vapours can also cause lung irritation and kidney damage, the main consequences of mercury poisoning, before death, are extreme anger, dementia and memory loss. It is an effect that due to the invisibility of the aggressor goes unnoticed and starts changing each individual consciousness without him even noticing it.
When Slavoj Žižek commented on Solaris he highlighted one of the main questions that this film poses, how to get rid of something that lies whining our own consciousness; that precisely emanates from our consciousness. How to get rid of something invisible. That is the case of the thousands of miners exposed to mercury poisoning today; and because of global warming, that is the case for the rest of us as well. The projection was inverted, instead of projecting ourselves into the sky, the sky conversely projected unto us. It materialized our guilt, fears and unfulfilled desires. As Olafur Eliasson inadvertently showed us in Your waste of time, the reality of global warming is unleashing several problems that we once thought to be buried. Virus and toxic fumes are now being uncovered. The conversation is happening even if we initially were not aware, we were having one at all. In Dr Snaut’s words in Solaris, "We want to extend the earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We are in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man."
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