Is possible for something to be so immense that we cease to notice it? The Bingham Canyon Mine, like an evil eye, has stared across the valley at Salt Lake City for the last century and it's not likely to disappear soon.

Utahns used to brag that our big hole and the Great Wall of China were the only man-made objects on earth visible from space. (No longer true, of course, with Google Earth catching glimpses of roof-top sunbathers.)

Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah, photographed by an Expedition 15 crew member on the International Space Station, 2007. Image courtesy NASA.

But if you think 6-year-old boys in love with big trucks and bulldozers are the only group fascinated by our the crater in the Oquirrhs, you need to visit the Utah Museum of Fine Art for Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine. Artists from around the world have been obsessed with the mine nearly since the first copper ore scraped out.

The more than 100 artworks explore the awe artists felt when gazing at the vast terraced open-pit mine. Like the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam, the Bingham Mine was a monument to 19th and early 20th Century American power and ingenuity that saw no limits. Where an 8,000-foot Oquirrh peak once stood is now a three-quarter-mile-deep abyss. It was called progress.

One of the most striking—and most recent—works in the show is a photograph taken last year after nature reclaimed a large part of the mine with a massive landslide. The scale of the mine hits home when you realize the barely visible Tonka toys at the bottom are Kennecott's famed 29-foot wide trucks.

Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Recent landslide at Bingham Canyon Mine, 2013. Digital Print. Purchased with funds from the Paul L. and Phyllis C. Wattis Endowment for Works on Paper, UMFA. 

Robert Smithson, who created the land art icon Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, pitched an idea to Kennecott for an even more massive land art work in the bottom of the mine. Unfortunately, Smithson died in a plane crash shortly after he submitted the preliminary sketch that is in the exhibit. 

Some of the most striking works in the show are by Salt Lake native Jean Arnold. Civilization points out that the mine would make a humungous beehive-shaped Jell-O mold.


Jean Arnold (American, b. 1961), Civilization, 2012. Oil on canvas. ©Jean Arnold. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibit also inlcudes dozens of early photographs of the mine and the town that served it, Bingham. The ever-expanding mine soon devoured Bingham, leaving the photographs as the only evidence of its rich culture.

Andreas Feininger (American, 1906–1999), Utah Copper: Bingham Mine. Brakeman of an ore train at the open-pit mining operations of Utah Copper Company, at Bingham Canyon, Utah. Digital reproduction from vintage negative, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The exhibit, which includes an educational interactive room to learn more about the science and history of the copper mining, misses an opportunity to explore the less thrilling aspects of the mine: It’s impact on environment that the residents of the valley share with it. Mineral extraction comes at a cost and the mine and its tailings piles have poisoned the water table beneath it contribute to the Wasatch Front’s intractable air pollution problem.

UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich, however, says the art itself makes the necessary statements and will create a dialog about these complicated issues. “ We’re not here to make big statements; we’re here to show great art," Dietrich says in defense of the exhibit, which is chiefly sponsored by Rio Tinto Kennecott, owner of the mine.  "I think [the negative impact of the mine] is present in the show and present in the art.” 

If nothing else, you may leave the exhibit thinking, once again, what have we wrought?

Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine, May 30 through Sept. 28, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Dr., Salt Lake City, 801-581-7332