Carbon Sink


The Nevada Museum of Art has an article by Michaela Rife on their Facebook site:

Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: A Marker of Western Realities

by Center for Art + Environment on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 9:58pm ·

by Michaela Rife


Chris Drury, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around”, 2011. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming. Photo author’s own.


Visit the official Wyoming state tourism website and you will be greeted with promises of “untouched” beauty. Nature is a crucial part of the state’s public image, packed within the “Forever West” campaign that greets visitors on billboards, websites and television advertisements. The message could hardly be any clearer: Wyoming’s greatest cultural resource is its land, wide open spaces and natural wonders. And lest you feel the need to hurry, don’t, the west is forever, limitless, like its sightlines. Yet drive any of the state’s roads and in addition to uninterrupted western views, you will find numerous oil derricks, energy plants and windmill farms looming large on the horizon. Of course none of these visions fit into the tidy packaging of “Wyoming: Forever West,” and despite the attempt to sell Wyoming as the land of inexhaustible natural wonders, it is virtually impossible to live in the state without acknowledging the financial debt owed to the energy industry, and members of the industry are quick to remind the public of the role their money plays at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.


In this environment the University of Wyoming Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer has undertaken a program of public sculpture, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, which stretches across Laramie. On July 23, 2011 I drove to Laramie to see the most recent addition, British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. With Drury’s commission the University received a new level of publicity, with coverage in both the New York Times and the London Guardian. The discussion was not an examination of the merits of the sculpture or its place in a larger program of public art, however, but reportage of the controversy surrounding what Jim Robbins described as a “coal-themed sculpture.”(i) Both the New York Times and the Guardian picked up on the Casper Star-Tribune’s article entitled “University of Wyoming sculpture blasts fossil fuels,” in which Jeremy Pelzer elicits comments from Wyoming Mining Association executive director Marion Loomis, who seemed to take Drury’s work as both a personal attack and an attack on the energy industry, suggesting the installation of a sculpture honoring coal. As the story gained traction Wyoming representative  Tom Lubnau used the Gillette News-Record to casually threaten the University saying that the occasion afforded him an opportunity to “educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.”  (ii) Despite the controversy, Moldenhauer and Drury held firm to the position that Carbon Sink is not a didactic piece, not a targeted attack on big coal. Still, Carbon Sink has neither been examined as an important part of Drury’s oeuvre nor as a nuanced consideration of the reality of the contemporary American West.


Early in his career, Drury accompanied British artist Hamish Fulton on a 1975 walk in the Canadian Rockies. Drury cites this mountain walk as an integral point in his artistic development, noting the impulse to make site interventions as both shelter and marker. Broadly, he describes his work in terms of microcosm/macrocosm, of working around the globe but ever conscious of patterns (such as the vortex) that appear in the smallest fragments of cells. His practice has taken him from Antarctica to Sussex and, in 2008, the CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS saw the artist install works both within the museum walls and in site specific locations outside, weaving together a consideration of regeneration and the state’s history of nuclear testing, while allowing for views of the expansive western sky through a rooftop cloud chamber. Looking back from the perspective of Carbon Sink, MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS reveals Drury to be an artist un-swayed by the romance of the West, sensitive to its often difficult realities.


When commissioned to create a piece for Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, Drury traveled to Laramie to explore concepts. During a conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, Drury became aware of the spate of dead trees in the Rocky Mountain region. The culprit is the pine beetle, an insect native to the region but typically killed by freezing winters. As Western winters have warmed, the beetles have thrived. Lockwood observes that while people notice this change, no one has connected Wyoming’s financial success, gained primarily through the energy industry, to these beetle-killed trees. This relationship, of livelihoods and energy with earth and insects coalesced perfectly with Drury’s interest in life and death cycles (as in the mushroom at Nevada) and the vortex form he had been exploring, as a naturally occurring pattern. So when Drury returned to Laramie in July, the campus was treated to a new sculpture, one that consisted of a vortex of charred, beetle-killed pine logs and Wyoming coal, swirling into a hole dug into the ground. Drury had previously worked with both wood and coal, and was fascinated by their intertwined fates. As a resident of the first industrialized country, Drury is particularly fascinated by coal and had previously used it to construct a chamber in the crypt of St. James Church, Piccadilly, London. In that case, the coal not only acted as a shelter for the human body, but was itself sheltered by the architecture of the capital city. In the case of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming coal is exposed not just to the eyes of passing pedestrians, but to the elements. And rather than offering the idea of shelter, Drury conceptualized the form to pull people down into the sink, which it demonstrably does. Perhaps it is the fact that coal is extracted from beneath the ground, hidden away for most of its life, which allows us to consume it so voraciously. In Wyoming, the visual impact of its extraction is relegated to mining sites; however, the pine trees that stretch across the Rocky Mountain region are not only highly visible, but an integral part of the natural beauty that Wyoming is so eager to promote. Carbon Sink connects the cycle of tree to coal, and joins what happens below ground to the landscape captured in family vacation photographs and postcards.


Chris Drury, “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” (detail), 2011. University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming. Photo author’s own.


As I drove to Laramie to see Carbon Sink, I became acutely aware of the seas of green and red, alive and dead trees stretching into the distance. The wide open views of Wyoming are not restricted to the picturesque; they often allow for unpleasant jolts of reality. As we discussed wind farms as renewable energy source, Drury wryly observed the problem that people don’t want to see windmills ruining the uninterrupted western vistas, a problem that has also plagued the erection of windmills in Britain. Unfortunately, a towering metal windmill turning in the wind does not fit the “Forever West” slogan. The same Western space that can make the heart sing can lead to the delusion that one is alone in the world, that gutting a state for its resources will not affect both the microcosm and macrocosm.


Despite the controversy generated by his installation, Drury retains a nuanced view of the issue. As an artist who flies around the globe, he acknowledges his own carbon footprint but refuses to ignore environmental issues. Though he chooses not to call himself an overtly political artist, Drury is adamant that land is, and will always be, political. Yet, the link between land and people is also intensely emotional, a complicated relationship that is particularly evident in Wyoming. The American West is home to many canonical works of land art, but they are predominantly sited in remote areas. Carbon Sink festers like a sore in the skin of the University, tugging people to it. As we discussed the controversy, Drury remarked that if the work were “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”(iii)  At the time it was doing anything but sitting there. I expressed my own hope that it could draw not just environmental attention to Wyoming but the eye of the art world. Prophetically, Drury predicted that in the face of big energy the controversy would die out. Yet although media attention surrounding Carbon Sink has subsided, its prominent location on Wyoming’s only four-year university campus ensures that it will linger in the state’s visual memory. As Drury hopes that his pieces create discussion, I hope that Carbon Sink will serve as a marker for memory in the minds of Wyoming’s students, those headed for careers in policy and energy, the future leaders who will someday be faced with reconciling Wyoming’s conflicting positions as land of natural beauty and the nation’s energy colony.



i) Jim Robbins, “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”, New York Times “Green Blog”, July 21, 2011. <http:></http:>

ii) Representative Lubnau quoted in: Laura Hancock, “Criticism of ‘Carbon Sink’ art at UW generates heat,” Gillette News-Record, July 17, 2011.

iii) Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.


PLEASE NOTE: Photos of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink are the author’s own.



Michaela Rife is an arts writer based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and will begin the University of British Columbia’s program in Curatorial Studies in fall 2012.

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