Excavating Carbon Sink: Meditations on Art Removal

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

‘Arguments,’ such as they are, given in support of the removal of public art in our time range from political to aesthetic to moral. In some cases, as in the April 2003 toppling of Sadam Hussein’s Baghdad statue, the removal is documented as a cause célèbres. In others, as in the recent removal of disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s statue, the endeavour is shielded from the prying eyes of the emotionally involved public and secreted away in disgrace. But what of the abstract, those works not attached to a specific person? Perhaps one of the most famous cases of public art removal occurred on the night of March 15, 1989, with the dismantling of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, previously resident of New York City’s Federal Plaza. From the moment of its 1981 installation, Tilted Arcgenerated a nationwide debate, both within arts circles and without. Complaints included the inconvenience that the 120ft long, 12ft high piece of curved steel caused the Plaza’s office workers, the fear that it would attract graffiti and its potential for terrorist use as a blasting wall.[i] So, following a public hearing, Tilted Arc was cut into three pieces and unceremoniously carted off to a scrap yard. A similar scrap yard ending recently befell artist Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, formerly installed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.[ii]

I previously wrote about Carbon Sink on this site, following the controversy it attracted, largely a product of the ire felt by Wyoming lawmakers in coal rich counties. Notably, Representative Tom Lubnau felt compelled to “educate folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.”[iii] This and other threats garnered a brief spate of international attention before the controversy ostensibly ceased, as Drury predicted it would. Fast-forward nearly a year, to a week after the University’s May 5th spring convocation when, like Tilted Arc, Carbon Sink was unceremoniously removed, as quietly as possible. However, unlike Serra’s work,Carbon Sink was denied its proverbial day in court. From the time of its removal, those of us not living in Laramie and near the site, waited until the end of July to learn of the piece’s destruction via Jeffrey Lockwood’s Wyofile article. No pre-emptive press releases were issued, no public forums were called. Reasons cited included the unlikely (the piece was always meant to come down) and the insulting (it was too costly to maintain). The wood was sent to the university dump, while the coal was (of course) sent to a power plant.

Approximately a month after Drury’s coal burned, the West exploded in flames with the worst wildfire season in recent memory, fuelled (to some degree) by the pine beetle killed forests. These human and environmental tragedies prove, more than ever, that sensitive and complex work like Drury’s is vital. In my first analysis of Carbon Sink, I hoped that it would serve as a marker for memory in the minds of the state’s future leaders headed for a career in energy policy. Clearly, this is no longer possible in the way that I had hoped. But if the powers-that-be think that an incongruous patch of freshly lain sod can cover the fact of Wyoming’s energy dependence, they are ignoring the reality that every realist painting of unspoilt landscapes and every photograph of a running river reveals more in what they leave out than in what they include. The state’s residents know that just outside of the frame is an oil derrick; hidden in the river is tainted water. In desperately clinging to sanitized ideas of Wyoming, uncomfortable political, environmental, and aesthetic realities are cast into stark relief.

Though Carbon Sink’s removal marked a sad day for the arts, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope from the artist himself, who speculated last July that if the work was “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”[iv] I would argue, that when a state scrambles to control its art, this often means the tide is turning. I doubt Wyoming has seen its last “Carbon Sink”.

[i] Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 78.

[ii] Lockwood, Jeffrey, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming”, Wyofile.com, July 2012. http://wyofile.com/2012/07/behind-the-carbon-curtain-art-and-freedo…

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

[iv] Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: An interesting and revealing article about Chris Drury’s artwork was published by Wyoming Public Media September 28, 2012: http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/documents-show-artwork-removed-e…