Front Page: White River, Blue Lagoon, Green Mound
Edit: Conical mounds rise sharply but neatly from the ground, next to undulating slopes that drift into wide pits. Like abstract shapes attempting to mirror one another, for what comes up must go down.
These are the landscapes of Cornwall's China Clay district, and they tell a physical story of ongoing industrial practice. China Clay, also known as Kaolin, or white gold, was a mineral mined first in the UK in for its use in making fine porcelain. Over two centuries the mineral has been relentlessly mined in the area, the scale of the industry in flux, and the products it is used for also in flux. One thing has remained the same, in order to extract it, you need to dig. Dig down, dig out, move around, pile up, ship out. Sculpting the landscape until when, eventually, undoubtedly, the quarries run out, what remains is ghosts. Ghosts in the form of unwanted minerals piled high in waste tips, ghosts of the towns buildings, engine houses, machinery that were set up within the quarries, and ghosts of geological time past in the exposed rock strata of the quarries.
To dig into the earth is to reunite the past with the present. Ancient layers of rock sediment dug from the bottom of the quarry now sit at the top of a waste tip, flipping geological time on its head.
In January 2021, Robin James Sullivan & Maddie Rose Hills began a conversation about China Clay which continued over 2 months. Typing into an online document, the collaborators ‘volleyed’ thoughts and research about the industry.
The presentation of the document meant one could cut in on pervious comments, and add thoughts to a conversation thread from a later date. A multi-timescaled conversation between past & present selves. An apt starting point for such a temporal material study.
Above the prev para- edit: Sullivan has lived in Cornwall a stones throw from the Clay districts for most of his life, Studying at college, just over a decade ago, in the heart of the Clay Country. His latest project is a 5 month public programme exploring this areas rich 6000 year history. Hills on the other hand is merely a visitor, learning from the outside. Pepperd within the conversation we hear from MG of CCHS, a former employee of the industry.
A selection of products made using China Clay
15th January 2021
One thing I’ve been thinking about since chatting is what kind of notions of time are brought up when we're talking about China Clay. How these quarries are dug so deeply into the ground, and it made me think of the Ingold lecture ‘What An Earth Is Ground?’ He highlights how time is not always linear: earth is always waiting to be brought to the surface with regards to erosion. However a human-made version exists in the form of quarries, where layers of time are made visible alongside one another.
The Ingold reference is a great example to start with… One thing I find so fascinating about the china landscape is this idea of time, and depths of time that are visible. There are the open pits, with their layers exposed, like worm holes in time. Its like in the analogy of the earths crust being this moment in time, when we dig into the ground we open up these windows: portals into other times. You can look down and see history laid out in front of you like a surrealist painting or assemblage. For those that know what to look for, you can see all the time in the world. Deep Time. You can see the remnants of first volcanos, the first life underwater, the trees that once grew, the rivers that cut through the landscape.
title and reference all pics (cchs)
This image is from the Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum Archive and is a fossil found in one of clay pits.
You can see moments trapped in time in crystalline structures.
It’s funny, I always look at those crystals as if they were frozen in time, but in reality these were formed over tens of thousands of years as they cooled and grew.
The outline of a thing imprinted in a place. We leave fossils all over the place, traces of a hand in clay or accidental footsteps in cement. It’s odd to think how many creatures have made these areas their homes, and how many of us have carved into the landscape to dig out materials, re-directed rivers or flattened fields.
Its funny I was thinking of this yesterday in regards to London Bricks, they are made up of London Clay, this wondrous stiff bluish clay that all of London is built on top of and even built into in regards to the tubes. Tunnels in clay, in time. What I find so fascinating about this clay is that it has a really high fossil content. The clay is from the marine geological formation Ypresian, or early Eocene Epoch, from 56 - 33.9 million years ago. Eocene translates in ancient greek to Eos- (Dawn) and Kainos - (New) and references the appearance of new fauna during that time. The fossils within the London Clay show what the world looked like then. It was a warm climate place, with tropical or subtropical flora, with lush forest similar to that of indonesia today. I love that there are now huge buildings made of these fossils, trapped within the clay bricks, it brings a new meaning to the saying ‘concrete jungle’.
To think of walking through a lush forest 56 million years ago, how absolutely incomprehensible it is to think that one day, where that forest lies there will be these fantastical buildings built out of the forests fossilised remains, entrapped in a re-solidified liquid rock. It’s this hidden world right in front of our eyes.
It reminds me of how there is no ‘new’ matter, all matter is constantly reabsorbed or separated and then combined in new ways, but it doesn't take up any more space.
January 15th 2021
In The Spell of The Sensuous, David Abram writes about timescales that don’t progress in the way we expect. A moment that seems so small at first, quickly becomes an ‘eternity’, when reconsidered as part of the wider world. It reminds me of what you were saying yesterday, how everything exists at once. Within the quarry, milenia of slow rock evolution are suddenly visible together.
It’s interesting to look up, like Abrams says, to see the fields, the farms, the crumbling structures, the industry that brought this deep time into the present. And then to look into the future.
I find the whole industry kind of troublesome to be honest. There was a clear economic benefit to the quarries and industry, it created over 2000 skilled jobs, boosted the economy for cornwall, built harbours, roads, railways. But! People talk about this material as ‘White Gold’ but would you ever put gold in your tooth paste, or in your car tyre, or in your pills, or in a newspaper that gets thrown away as soon as you’ve read it. I find it absurd that this material’s extraction takes huge quantities of land up, sweat equity, and water. Destroyed habitats, biodiversity, let alone the chemicals used, machinery needed etc etc ect and yet its used as a throw away item. It’s one thing I want to do as an artist working with Clay in Cornwall, to shed light on this. To ensure people see it as a finite resource and one that should have greater thought given to its uses. The way it's spoken about in Cornwall, it isn’t just livelihood, or industry, or even a way of life, it has become a part of the very fabric of being. It is in their blood.
For every 1kg of usable China Clay, 9kgs of waste material are also dug from the ground
waste minerals include: rocks, sand, mica, quartz
These turquoise waters look so inviting, but they're forbidden destinations to wild swimmers keen for a dip in the idyllic lagoon. The water must have a mind of its own to reflect back to the sky this specific shade of blue.
Mica is a mineral often found in household electronics and in sparkly eye makeup or highlighter for cheeks. It has this strange clear, but pearlescent manner. Move it around and it distracts the light, offering hidden colours. I just found out the blue of the water is down to the presence of mica which is reflecting the sky. Weirdly I saw a sheet of clear mica yesterday for the first time and it is completely stunning.
I find myself drawn to landscapes that are hidden, those dark sides of industry. Places we pretend don't exist. But the waste tips are exceptionally present. Fossilised in the site they were created, landmarks to so many people who live around them. I didn’ t realise china clay mining produces more waste than usable product, to the extent that for every 1 tonne of china clay there is 9 tonnes of waste.
I did the math a little while ago based on the amount of pure Kaolin extracted and it totals 1.4 Billion tonnes of earth that has been moved! Its mind bending.
The waste tips make me think about how humans pick and choose what is waste depending on only our needs as a species, and how these needs change so often. There is still China Clay in some of the disused quarries - but they are not mined anymore, so even the clay becomes waste, something undesired.
The waste tips aren't harmless either. I was reading about the problems that can cause, one of them being pollution to nearby water sources.
I heard just last week that they had to flatten one of the waste tips as it was creating its own climate! Affecting the clouds, mist and all life near by.. How mental is that?
Fittingly in the nature of all materials constantly used and reused, perhaps the waste tips aren’t permanent features of the landscape after all:
‘'There is talk of the profitability of re-working old tips for material left over from earlier, less efficient methods. Perhaps the industry will go round and round, consuming its own tail.’'
– Billy Wynter