Why this artist made an 'open-pit gold mine' fragrance

Dana Prieto is using scent to help us realize our consumerism is wrapped up in environmental destruction.

Dana Prieto is using scent to help us realize our consumerism is wrapped up in environmental destruction

Dana Prieto's Spoil. (Dana Prieto)

In your hand: an obsidian black perfume bottle, adorned with velvet ribbon. The word "Spoil" delicately written in gold. Indulgent. Alluring. Sensuous.

On your skin: the scent of colonial extraction. The smell of volcanic earth from around the Bajo de la Alumbrera mine in Catamarca, Argentina. Sharp notes of bitter almonds and garlic blossoms, redolent of cyanide and arsenic. Herbal aroma of incayuyo (Lippia integrifolia), found in the semi-arid landscapes surrounding the mine. Geosmin, "the smell after it rains." Gunpowder.

Toronto-based Argentinian artist Dana Prieto wants the odour of open pit mines in her home country to haunt you. She wants her olfactory installation Spoil to linger on your skin and on your clothes once you've left the gallery. She wants you to be unable to wash it off quite so easily.

Spoil is a meditation on what lingers in the environment once large-scale Canadian mining operations leave Latin America. In mining jargon, "spoil" refers to the soil, rocks and ecosystems that lie above an area that is to be exploited for minerals. Spoil is a departure from Prieto's ceramic sculptures (which she'll be exhibiting at this year's Toronto Biennale), but thematically consistent with some of her previous artwork that deals with socio-environmental issues. 

Prieto collaborated with Montreal-based perfumer and scent artist Dana El Masri to create a scent that conjured the smell of earth from around Bajo de la Alumbrera, the largest and oldest open-pit gold and copper mine in Argentina, blended with scents that resemble the most harmful contaminants left behind by mining operations.

The piece harnesses the power of smell to transport people to a different time or place. If the climate catastrophe has been driven by colonialism, and by how far removed most people are from the violence of colonial resource extraction, scent may be able to connect gallery visitors to a site that, for Prieto, was unforgettable.

Dana Prieto's Spoil. (Dana Prieto)

Prieto had been researching and making work inspired by Bajo de la Alumbrera years before creating Spoil, and visited the mine in person in 2018. While investigating its environmental and health impacts she learned that the extraction of minerals at low ratios is achieved through the use of extremely harsh chemicals, like arsenic, sulphuric acid, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These have contaminated water and air quality for farming communities near Bajo de la Alumbrera and will continue to leach into the ground for hundreds of thousands of years. The mine also consumes 60 to 100 million litres of water and extracts 314,000 tonnes of rock daily, which has left behind craters and led to desertification. 

This information was difficult to fathom until, while reading about the use of arsenic by mining corporations, Prieto came across the fact that arsenic smells like garlic. Even though she was reading about it on a computer screen in Canada, this specific detail elicited a visceral response that made the information instantly more tangible.

"I was thinking about how I was so far from these places and materials but the mention of scent brought something very real to the body. So I wanted to be able to work with scent to do that for an audience who would come to the gallery," says Prieto. "It felt like an opportunity to allow people to connect to these issues, that are maybe not a concern right now for some, through scent."

She created an artwork that resembled a luxury product — "something that was desirable, indulgent," she says. She wanted to seduce gallery visitors into touching the bottle, smelling the fragrance, and having it close their body, and then surprising them with a sharp, eerie scent. 

For Spoil's top notes, she decided on the garlic-like scent of arsenic and cyanide, which gives bitter almonds their pungent smell and taste. The finished products were composed of garlic blossoms, bitter almonds, unripe peaches, apricot and apple pits.

To complement these sharp notes, Prieto and El Masri experimented with the verdant aromas of native herbs from around the mine, including incayuyo, a common medicinal plant in Argentina's Andean region. "It has a beautiful, bitter, green, dry scent," says Prieto. And since mining in Bajo de la Alumbrera involves extracting rocks by means of controlled explosions, they also incorporated the smell of gunpowder, "which is a prevalent scent when they are exploding rock." The elusive scent of soil formed the base of the fragrance.

Dana Prieto's 1:1000. (Dana Prieto)

Spoil is the most recent piece in Prieto's series of artworks that reflect on the Bajo de la Alumbrera mine. Another key work in the series is 1:10000, a collection of small, sculptural replicas of the mine. The glazed black stoneware is made from contaminated clay that Prieto's friend and collaborator, ceramic artist Yanire Sylva Delgado, gave to her. Delgado extracted the clay from her community, Belén, which is one of the closest towns to Bajo de la Alumbrera.

The soil was brought to Canada and used to create the ceramic mine replicas. Some of them were placed in boxes engraved with a quote from the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: "Death may not, after all, be the end of life; after death comes the strange life of ghosts."

Prieto mailed them to executives at Toronto's Yamana Gold and Vancouver's Goldcorp, the Canadian mining companies that invest in and oversee the Alumbrera mine. There was no response.

"Ghosts and haunting" are key concepts in Prieto's work, based on Eve Tuck and C. Ree's decolonial theory of haunting, which posits that Western society is permanently haunted by the horrors it committed during colonization, and by the ongoing structural horrors of settler colonialism. The haunting of a society is defined as "the relentless remembering and reminding that will not be opposed by settler society's assurances of innocence and reconciliation." Haunting doesn't seek reconciliation or to change hearts and minds — it simply refuses to stop. Prieto sees the gesture of sending the ceramic mine replicas to these companies as a type of haunting.

"The haunting exists in the gesture of materially leaking the (harmless) presence of poison/damage into a corporate tower, right to the CEO's office," she says. "The haunting is also related to the act of gifting, which obviously exists in most corporations, but becomes stranger in the 1:10000 equation because I am ostensibly an 'outsider' with no business with them, sending them a beautiful and loaded gift."

Dana Prieto's Patterns of Indulgence. (Dana Prieto)

The project's next phase will be exhibited at Artcite Inc. in May. It will mimic a luxury retail experience as a commentary on the consumption of high-end, luxury products, and the extractive industries that drive it. The exhibition will feature Spoil, 1:10000 and Patterns of Indulgence, a wallpaper piece inspired by Victorian Era wallpaper and Scheele's Green, a vibrant pigment that contained arsenic. The wallpaper pattern is composed of the logos of 25 Canadian mining corporations currently operating in Latin America. Prieto says high-end consumption is also "haunted" by mining.

"Canadian banks have massive investments in mining, and anywhere we go and anything we buy using a credit card, we are laterally investing in mining as well," she explains. "This is an important reminder, since it brings this obscure and distant issue back to us — bluntly implicating us in the unequal distribution of wealth and power in extractive economies."

Visitors to the faux "luxury retail experience" may be confronted with their apathy and see their role in helping to sustain the economic systems that have led to climate breakdown more clearly. Colonial resource extraction is here, right under our noses.


Mickal Aranha is a Toronto-based writer and producer. Most of her work relates to the environment, social justice, and arts and culture.

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