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  • Below Ground and ForegroundWyoming Coal, the Mountain Pine Beetle, and the Removal of Chris Drury's Carbon Sink
  • Michaela Rife (bio)

In the quiet week following spring convocation in May 2012, a sculpture was unceremoniously removed from Prexy's Pasture, the grass-covered quad at the center of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. This deinstallation was not routine; rather, it was the university's destruction of a site-specific artwork less than one year old, British artist Chris Drury's Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. Drawing in part from Drury's long-standing interest in the whirlpool form, Carbon Sink consisted of charred logs and coal arranged in a circle thirty-six feet in diameter, swirling deeper and more abruptly into the pit's center than a photograph can demonstrate. But unlike Drury's previous whirlpool installations, Carbon Sink was perceived to be a direct comment on climate change and an indictment of Wyoming's powerful energy industry.1 The twists and turns of Carbon Sink's story, and what its removal has revealed about the draconian control of Wyoming's energy industry in the early 2010s, have been well documented by Jeffrey Lockwood, the University of Wyoming professor whose discussions with Drury helped inspire the piece.2 Following Lockwood's text, evocatively titled "Behind the Carbon Curtain," Wyoming Public Media investigated and found that lawmakers and industry sent threatening e-mails to the university before Carbon Sink's removal, in which Peabody Energy noted that the controversial work might affect their $2 million donation.3 But missing from the body of analysis on Carbon Sink is how an abstract sculpture managed to precipitate such a vitriolic response, culminating in its destruction. The elements (coal and wood) of this nonrepresentational [End Page 25] artwork had to carry the burden of meaning often shouldered by text or photographs in art with an environmental message.

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Fig 1.

Chris Drury, Carbon Sink (2011), Laramie, Wyoming. Photograph by Chris Drury, courtesy of the artist.

This paper will begin by addressing the history of mining imagery in order to better understand Drury's sculptural strategy. Through the theories of Timothy LeCain and Timothy Morton, the problem of representing massive scale will emerge as central to Carbon Sink's form and removal. To more completely understand how a wood-and-coal sculpture was controversially removed from a purportedly neutral university campus, I will turn to environmental histories of coal in the Mountain West and theorizations of the agency of the nonhuman by Timothy Mitchell alongside Jane Bennett's discussion of assemblage. These authors allow for a spotlight on a seemingly silent presence in Carbon Sink, the forest-killing mountain pine beetle. As I will outline below, state lawmakers and business interests stirred the controversy and removal, but to ignore the specific materiality and border-crossing agency of the nonhuman components of Carbon Sink is to lose what makes it powerful.

In the summer of 2011, one year before its removal, I visited Laramie [End Page 26] to interview Drury as he installed Carbon Sink, a visit that coincided with the heaviest round of press interest in the work. Newspapers from the New York Times to London's Guardian chronicled the ire a coal-themed sculpture was causing in an energy-rich state.4 The Times' Jim Robbins wrote that Carbon Sink "depicts a link between human-caused climate change and dead forests," but what I saw on Prexy's Pasture did nothing so simple as "depict."5 What Carbon Sink most resembled was an open wound, a festering sore in an otherwise-manicured stretch of green grass, the kind of grass that can look a bit artificial in the arid West. It would be easy to see Carbon Sink as already out of place in the culturally conservative state of Wyoming, but my visit with University Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer revealed Drury's work to be the latest entry in Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, an outdoor art exhibition begun in 2008 that spread art across Laramie, much of it intentionally abstract and experimental. On the ground in Laramie it was clear to me that...


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pp. 25-43
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