One little-known legacy of the Cold War is the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) across Indigenous lands in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico that at one time provided ore for nuclear bombs. Although the mines are closed now, they are by no means inert. Disposal sites contain tailings and contaminated building materials such as concrete blocks and rebar that release radioactive dust into the air when the wind blows across the desert, and radioactive silt into nearby water bodies when it rains.
Will Wilson remembers hanging out at the Rare Metals Disposal Cell near the western edge of the Navajo reservation where he grew up. For his ongoing photo series Connecting the Dots, Wilson uses a drone-mounted camera to document the remains of these mining operations. The images of mounds, hollows, and scars are sweeping and evocative, calling to mind the notion of the hyperobject, something almost too big to contemplate — in their physicality, their numbers, and how they represent our hubristic tendency to simultaneously stumble toward both progress and self-destruction. They also resemble large-scale land arts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
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“I recently photographed the disposal site with Rodin Crater in the distance,” said Wilson, referring to James Turrell’s iconic work. “I want to do four of these pairings … the Mexican Hat Disposal Cell reminds me of ‘Spiral Jetty.’”
Many AUMs are on or near places sacred to the Diné: Mexican Hat is a stone’s throw from the buttes of Monument Valley, Rare Metals rests in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, and the Shiprock disposal site is not only near Shiprock but also the San Juan River, which is used for drinking, irrigating crops, and watering livestock. During heavy rains, water collects in the giant depressions left by mining activity where sheep drink and become contaminated. Sheep are part of the Navajo food supply.
“They’re trying to figure out what the vectors of exposure are. Food is definitely one of them,” said Wilson, referring to a 2010 study in which researchers at the University of New Mexico’s Community Environmental Health Program found high rates of uranium in Navajo mothers’ and infants’ blood.
Wilson, who currently heads Santa Fe Community College’s photography program, has devoted years to surveying environmental conditions in the Navajo Nation. His photo and video series Auto-Immune Response (AIR) is a haunting tale of native resilience through years of racism, genocide, theft of homelands, and air and water poisoned by uranium mining and coal-burning power plants.
In AIR, Wilson renders himself as a survivor of some future apocalypse, wandering the canyons and playas of the high desert in a gas mask. A companion piece, “AirLab,” takes the form of a steel-frame hogan (a Navajo dwelling with spiritual significance) transformed into a kind of ark. Edible and medicinal plants grow in pots arranged inside the structure, symbolizing the determined survivalism of a people who have struggled against obliteration for centuries. After making the dome, Wilson discovered that its geometry was similar to the explosive lenses of the first atomic bomb.
“They had explosives that would focus energy toward the plutonium core at the center. Instead of putting plutonium at the core, I used corn pollen, so it was kind of like a beauty bomb,” he told Diné College photography students during a recent talk.
Wilson also conducts ongoing explorations in portraiture, working with wet plate collodion process which he came to, in part, as a reaction to the ubiquity of digital photography. Wilson constructed the Critical Indigenous Photos Exchange (CIPX) as a relational work, inviting the public to have their own pictures taken. In this way, the subjects of the art can witness for themselves the transformative power of the photograph, interrogate the role of photography in creating identity, and question the camera’s potential to “capture” a human being.
CIPX serves as a commentary on the 19th-century images of Edward Curtis, who famously portrayed his subjects as members of a “vanishing race.” The tintypes are distinctive not only for the way they alter the skin tone of their subjects but in the way they present friends and neighbors in the semblance of the late 19th century, suggesting historical and social continuity between the endangered figures of Curtis’s photos and Wilson’s living subjects.
“Talking Tintypes” plays on this aliveness: By means of augmented reality technology, it blends still images with video and sound to produce unexpected, sometimes whimsical mini-performances. Viewers must download an app on their phone in order to engage with these works; for example, to hear Swil Kanim performing a melancholy version of “Ten Little Indians” on the violin, or Storme Webber reciting her poem “Grace,” or to see Melissa Pochoema as an “Insurgent Hopi Maiden” in a white dress, her hair in whorls.
Wilson’s work has been recognized throughout the United States. Earlier this month, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, opened a mid-career retrospective of Wilson’s major works (AIR, Connect the Dots, and CIPX). Wilson is also collaborating with Senior Curator of Photographs John Rohrbach to create an exhibition for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth this fall. Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography will lead visitors through a progression of still photos, videos, installations, and new media. Beginning with a display of historic delegation photographs, depicting Indigenous leaders gathering in Washington, DC, for (ill-fated) treaty negotiations, moving into a section that develops White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor’s concept of “survivance,” a neologism combining survival and resistance.
“It’s an ongoing process of suing for recognition,” said Wilson of the exhibition, “of insisting that Indigenous people continue to be here. We’re suing for awareness.”