penelope cain artist

Think Like a Mountain (II)

Think Like a Mountain (II): mountain dreaming

Part of ongoing work considering molecularly-linked landscapes, the Anthropocene, and notions of circulation.

curated into CRISTAIS DO TEMPO/ TIME CRYSTALS, curated by Alexandre Milagres and Tadeus Mucelli, MMGerdau Museum of Mines and Metal, Brazil.     For background click HERE

The broader line of inquiry takes as a starting point the first official Australian colonial currency: Lachlan Macquarie’s holey dollar of 1812, to biomap at a molecular level the silver in these coins, through a linked series of landscapes, from Spanish colonial silver mines, a remote glacier in Peru and a scientific research centre in Copenhagen.

The silver in the coins was mined from Spanish colonial mines in Peru and Mexico. The majority probably came from the largest silver mine in the world,  Potosí  (Bolivia). As the silver was extracted (it was found as silver- lead- zinc crystal, called galena) lead dust was released.

Below still from Saturns Breath. Quelccaya icecap. Link to video HERE

Lead from mining silver at Potosi contaminated the landscape, and has been detected, wind-born, in ice core samples from the Quelccaya ice cap, the largest tropical ice-mass in the world. Lead dust, falling with snow, was compressed across the years and centuries.

 Ice cores extracted from the glacial ice, compressed frozen water and atmospheric impurities,  are a vertical time capsule and map of human activities, able to trace through mineral contamination in layers of ice, the activities of the Spanish colonial empire.

Think Like a Mountain II (The sound of wind through the crystaline forest) video/ interactive 2020

First iteration of a 3D, propositional imagining:  the Cerro Rico mountain (Bolivia), site of Potosí silver mine,  as it may have appeared just before silver was discovered in the 1500s.

Amongst a grove of now-rare queñua trees (polylepis tarapacana) is a grouping of flags depicting a galena crystal, the silver/zinc/lead form of mineral load mined at Potosí. The mountain dreaming of its future.

Click for link to video: HERE

Above: video still. The 3D landscape of this work was made with by Dr Andrew Yip

Queñua trees (polylepis tarapacana) are hardy, long-lived trees, adapted for the high altitude, dry and harsh climate of the Altiplano. Once believed to be widespread in the early Holocene, as landscapes became warmer, drier and humans more abundant, the polylepsis groves became smaller and hyperfragmented. It is imagined that as silver was discovered and mined, the remaining polylepsis trees were burned for charcoal to fire silver smelting. The Cerro Rico mountain has no tree cover now.

The term, ‘thinking like a mountain’ was coined by mid-century American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, to describe the interconnectivity of the environment and its ecosystems.  Aldo Leopold,  A Sand County Almanac.[1] 1949

RIGHT: video still, Saturn’s Breath

Flags bearing an image of an oversized galena crystal were raised over the Quelccaya ice cap by men from the region, in an act of recognition of the molecular level territorialisation. These flags also act as standards to identify the emergent anthropogenic landscape- lead over ice, extraction over precipitation.

Above: The Last Ice , video, 2020.  Link to video HERE

Left: Breath Like a Mountain, interactive 2020

Link to work: HERE

Words for new landscapes

This new line of research is a speculative longitudinal documentation of the recovery of the forest after the Christmas bushfires in the Blue Mountains, Australia. During this project I will revisit the same range of sites every 4 weeks, documenting the landscape and post fire recovery.

The Gospers Mountain fire was started by lightning and rapidly developed to an out-of-control fire, which swept, impossible to control, through the forest that had experienced the hottest and driest spring and summer on record, ultimately burning 80% of the Blue Mountains national park, over 512,000 hectares of trees, killing thousands of animals and taking 3 months to fully contain. The scale of the fire is almost impossible to fathom, and could never have been contained by landscape management controlled burns. This is the outcome of anthropogenic climate change. This project is looking for new words for these new climate changed landscapes.

January 2020

 Feb 2020

Documenting landscape changes 4 weeks later, and also undertaking a gesture within the landscape: responding to the word ‘Adaption”: recalling that time when the PM of your country spruiked a lump of coal in Parliament.

Above: Documentation from February 2020. The sound was collected on site 1.5 hours before sunset.

I inserted a photographic print on fabric into the burned landscape in a section of the Blue Mountains NSW Australia. These flag-like forms depict a press image of the PM holding a lump of laquered coal in the House of Representatives. These flags were made for Interregnum, a site responsive installation within a former coal-fired powerstation. In this current location they condense community concerns over climate inaction by the current government.

production stills from upcoming video: Words for New Landscapes: Adaption (Feb 2020)

Site visit images: 



Mazu’s Children

Mazu’s Children

Work in progress 2020

video, photography, sound, objects

A landscape-based consideration of a geopolitical rimlands, containing insfrastructures of power embedded within its history and land.

Kinmen is a small island in the Pacific Ocean, 5 km from mainland China and part of Taiwan, 160 km away.  On the global periphery, this site was a battle zone for 30 years after WWII.

Post WWII, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist KMT army was pushed from mainland China by  Mao Zedong’s PRC army dominance, to eventually set up a military dictatorship over Taiwan, Kinmen became the proxy border and battle site between these armies, nations and ideologies. It was under KMT martial law and shelled by PRC for 30 years, until the 1990s.

Kinmen’s landscape contains a stratigraphy of political  infrastructures- memories and ghosts of war and power are embedded in the landscape.

An island of the Anthropocene, Kinmen was totally deforested by its inhabitants by the 16th century, such that a number sites dedicated to local Wind Lion deities evolved, to pacify the extreme winds blowing across the mostly flat island. USA and Taiwanese soldiers replanted the island in the 1950s, to assist with troop coverage and movement, so now all the trees on the island are around the same age.

Mazu’s Children Part I

Considering this site through working with three groups, utilising a collection of flags depicting the ocean beneath the feet of the goddess Mazu, the goddess of the Sea and restorer of social order.

I was privileged to be able to work at this site with teens- a traditional drumming group and a hiphop dance group utilising flags depicting the sea under Mazu’s feet. These children of Mazu hope for a future containing the freedom of democratic governance the wealth of China, and the breadth of choice and truth only imagined by teens.

The goddess Mazu is a favorite of this region and of wider Taiwan; a  Fujianese woman and shamaness, she was born 10,000 years ago on nearby Matzu island.

Rimlands: new research in progress

Ive been considering, through walking, two areas of coastland in Northern Scotland. The first is adjacent to a line of off-shore oil-rigs, as they over-winter in the Cromerty Firth, and the other, further around the Aberdeenshire coastland, an off-shore windfarm.


Rimlands 1 :walk to run: work in progress

Rimlands 2 : Building a line: work in progress


There is a landscape line-of-sight between these two systems of power infrastructures, harvesting on the ocean but tethered to the coast. These mythologically scaled megastructures. The walking action started as a methodology to consider the structures, their relationship between the ocean on which they sit, the rimlands that they face and the heartlands that they service.

While researching I came across the landscape-based term Rimlands,  from pre-war geopolitical theory and first proposed by UK politician Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947) in pre WWII strategising. In this context, Rimlands surround the Heartlands. They are, therefore, tradable, invadable, expendable to the Heartlands.

These terms collapse power, land and history to a simple hierarchy of position.

While undertaking this walking action Ive been thinking about these terms as anthropogenic descriptors. Rimlands are not simply low lying territories, they are wastable lands. Ive been looking for the future ghosts that will reside here. The landscapes Ive walked dry out and flood twice a day, under the influence of tide and moon, each flow of water an echo of the last, and a precursor to the next. An echo of the planet’s past and a precursor of its future.

All work here is in development, emerging for research in progress.

Convergence, 2019

Assembling the propositional landscape-based line of sight between the regressive and emergent power infrastructures.



Walking the Ice Library

Ive just returned from the privilege of spending some time with the scientists at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen.

Walking the Ice Library is a brief video document made at the NBI’s library of ice cores: 60 years of samples, collecting ice as far back as the last ice-age and drilling hundreds of metres into the Greenland icesheet.

This ice library is a global resource, and the NBI regularly hosts visiting scientists, who come to compare data, discuss results and progress an understanding of global climates across time.

I had a series of conversations with Dr Paul Vallelonga about his research around mapping atmospheric impurities in icecore samples, and how to chase molecules through frozen water to hypothesise on historic atmospheres, and flows of wind long gone.

Molecule Hunters is a brief summary of the time spent in the gas measurements lab, where glacier samples are melted, then thin glass tubes analyse the meltwater for carbon dioxide, oxygen isotopes as a measure of passing years and temperature variations, hydrogen peroxide as a measure of springs past.


Ice is the paper on which the passing of time is recorded.

With thanks to Dr Paul Vallelonga, Dr Thomas Blunier and the team at the NBI.

Supported by the Fauvette Loureiro Memorial Artists Travel Scholarship, University of Sydney, SCA, without which this research would not have been possible.


Quelccaya: Think like a mountain

Penelope Cain (AUS), with 2019 research microresidency enabled by Lima-based Independent Arts Organisation, HAWAPI (PERU)

This project is in-progress, across June 2019-  Dec 2020: a multistranded interdisciplinary line of inquiry centering on the Quelccaya ice cap.

The Quelccaya Icecap in the Peruvian Andes is the largest tropical ice mass. It is a centre of climatology research and provides a highly sensitive window into the effects of climate change independent from the poles. Quelccaya breaths in slow time- expanding and contracting in response to air temperature since the 13th century. Since the 1980s it has been rapidly melting and is predicted to disappear within 50 years.


This project is about circulation, through a series of meanings.

Taking as a starting point a single Spanish silver dollar in a museum collection, the investigation biomaps the movement of lead from Spanish colonial silver mining activities in the Bolivian silver mine, Potosí, considering ideas around colonialism and anthropogenic landscapes through mapping at a molecular level.

Potosí was the largest silver mine in the Spanish empire, and Spanish silver dollars from Potosí silver were used as Australia’s first local currency (the holey dollar). For more about the history of the Holey Dollar click: HERE


The silver load at Potosí was in the form of silver- lead- zinc, a crystalised form known as Galena. As the ore load was extracted and crushed, lead dust with the unique isotopic fingerprint of lead from the silver/galena load at Potosí was carried in wind and snow to embed over centuries in the icecap of Quelccaya. As the years and centuries passed the snow compressed to ice and the bubbles of air and dust were contained within.

The ice from Quelccaya icecap can therefore be used to map the extractive economic activities of the Potosí mine across the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, through layers of chemical lead signals in a vertical icecores.

(Uglietti, Vallelonga et al, 2015)

Flags bearing an image of an oversized galena crystal (lead/silver/zinc) representing the galena mined at Potosí, were raised over the Quelccaya ice cap by men from the region, in an act of recognition of the molecular level territorialisation.

These flags also act as standards to identify the emergent anthropogenic landscape- lead over ice, extraction over precipitation.

Above: left

The sound of wind through the crystaline forest, installation view. Dye sublimation on polyester, wood, bandages. 2019.[/caption]

In 2021 these galena flags, along with water collected from the Quelccaya glacier, will be taken to Potosí to complete the line of enquiry.


This project started in response to a residency at Broken Hill (AUS) in 2018, where I biomapped lead dust from colonial British silver mining activities, as far away as  ice core samples from the Antarctic.

For more information about the circulations – of silver molecules, currency trade and anthropogenic change:   click here

Above right: ice stalactites forming under the melting leading edge of the ice cap

Think Like a Mountain (Breathing)

This line of inquiry maps the regression of the Quelccaya ice cap betwen 1798 and 1998. Scientific advice, data and assistance has been provided by Dr Christian Yarleque, National Institude for Research on Glaciers, Peru and Dr Douglas Hardy, University of Massachusetts.

1798 is a proxy for the beginning of the environmental effects of the Industrial Revolution, and 1998 is the year the Kyoto protocol was signed, a global, formal recognition of the effects of climate change. This 200 year window maps the effects of carbon-based  energy utilisation and economic thinking about land and resources, inscripted through the ice and rocks on the peak of this remote part of the world.

The red geo points trace the margins of the ice cap in 1798, using data from morane dating.

The blue points trace the icecap margins in 1998 using Landsat satelite imaging, averaging the margin, and calculated average snowline.

With thanks to the following scientists for their scientific advice, feedback and collaborative conversations:

Dr Christian Yarleque, Subdirector Information and Analysis, National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountains Ecosystems, (INAIGEM)  Peru.

With thanks to Dr Yarleque and the INAIGEM for modelling the 1998 icecap

Dr Paul Vallelonga, Institute for Ice and Climate Science, Copenhagen University

Dr Douglas Hardy, Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Morrill Science Center, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

Dr Andrew Malone, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr Mathias Vuille, Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University at Albany, Albany, New York, USA

Gustavo Valdivia

Saturn is the Roman god of lead. Almost all terrestrial lead is a decay product from uranium and thorium, formed in supernova explosions. In Roman times, people with lead poisoning were called ‘saturnine’.

The term, ‘thinking like a mountain’ was coined by mid-century American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, to describe the interconnectivity of the environment and its ecosystems.

“Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn … In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers … So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the change. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea”

Aldo Leopold,  A Sand County Almanac.[1] 1949


Interregnum is a solo exhibition of new work at Casula PowerHouse Arts Centre.

30 Mar 2019 – 12 May 2019

1 Powerhouse Road, Casula NSW 2170


penelope cain

If History Was Written by the Victors, 2019 dye sublimation on polyester, wooden poles. 26 m x 1.2 m. Detail.


An interregnum is the period between rulers – a break in continuity as the rule of one sovereign ends and the next ascends— a gap between hierarchies, between sets of rules and systems of governance. A cycle of extinction and subsequent emergence of new systems of power.

Interregnum pivots in response to the history of Casula Arts Centre as a coal-fired power-station and present as a cultural centre. Post interregnum. It considers a linked series of extinctions, structures of power and scales of time – from thermochemical burn time to deep geological time.

installation view, Casula Powerhouse, 2019

A Stratigraphy of Extinctions

In the period immediately after WWII, the Electricity Commission of Sydney was tasked with addressing power blackouts as the city’s electricity needs dramatically expanded. In 1950 NSW Minister JJ Cahill approved the purchase of four ready-made power-stations from the USA for 2.5 million pounds, to provide uninterrupted power supply. The identical plants were rapidly assembled in Casula, Penrith, Port Kembla and Maitland. Each with identical, massive 6-inch thick, multi-gabeled concrete roofs, ten-ton girders and 85 foot chimney stacks.

If there was an end to an extinction event (stardust) Photocopy and fabric pasteup, 3 x 13 m. 2019 installation view.

After a few decades operation, in 1976 Casula was decommissioned and locked up, as the economics of urban power generation shifted, generators were consolidated closer to the coal-mines, and ultimately privatised.

It is most likely that the majority of coal used at the Casula power-station originated from the Illarwara Coal Measures, part of the Permian coal deposits extending along the Sydney basin.
In the late Permian period, the Sydney basin area- part of the ancient megacontinent of Gondwanaland- was a cool temperate swamp, covered as far as the eye could see with forests of deciduous trees, primarily Glossopteris species. Fossilised leaves from Glossopteris, with their characteristic long, round-tipped, tongue-like shape, are found in the rock strata under Sydney sandstone, as well as Antarctica, India and Africa.

From the series, If There Was the Sounds of a Forest 2019 L: Gondwana Circulation (Australia) R: Gondwana Respiration (Antarctica) Digital print on rag, 90 cm x 94 cm each. This series propositionally reunites glossopteris fossils from the continents forming Gondwana

Across the Permian era the build-up of leaves and plant materials gradually compressed down into the swampy soils. And so it would have continued, but for the Permian-Triasic mass extinction event- otherwise called the ‘Great Dying’- a climatic event that wiped out 80% of living plants, insects and animals on the planet; the largest mass extinction event in earth’s history- to date. The initial cause of this event, 252 million years ago, is open to debate, but it is clear that the outcome was cataclysmic, runaway climate change, resulting in reduced oxygen and temperatures, and increased CO2 and ocean acidification.

Gondwana Listening (India) Detail, digital print on rag, 2019

In the aftermath of the extinction event, in the interregnum period between one ecosystem and another, the denuded Sydney basin was awash with alluvial sands, repeatedly flooding across the de-forested lands. Eventually, across the subsequent 10 million years, new forms of life evolved to occupy the acidic, depleted conditions of the wetlands.


Arguably, this significant build up of heavy sandstone deposits on top of the swampy Permian vegetation helped compress the Permian peat material into the quality black coking coal that is mined today. It takes average of 8 metres of plant matter and at least 150 million years, with or without a mass extinction event, to form one meter of coal- a thermochemical reaction lithifying leaves and branches into solid rock and coal. The Sydney basin coal seam contains some of the youngest Permian coal left in Australia. This process cannot be rushed.

In 1912, when Robert Scott and his fellow British explorers raced against the Danish team to claim the last un-territorialised continent of the Antarctic, they had additional scientific goals to attend to. Arriving at the South Pole twelve days after Roald Amunsen planted the claimant Danish flag in the ice, they determined to at least fulfil a request for fossils on their return journey. Scott’s team collected around 16 kilos of fossil samples, which were subsequently found with their bodies and sleigh; Scott refused to jettison them as the team struggled unsuccesfully against the conditions to return.

These fossils included Glossopteris specimens, which helped prove that there had once been a land-bridge between Antarctic, Australia and India, ultimately named Gondwana (from the Sanscrit, gondavana) and supported the emerging modern theory of plate tectonics and continental drift.

L: Robert Scott and party at the Danish claim, Antarctica. R: A glossopteris specimen collected by Scott, 1912.


In 2017 Australia mined 481 million tonnes of coal from the Gondwanaland legacy. Coal is the compressed energy outcome of plant photosynthesis; the conversion of light energy to chemical energy through the evolutionary magic of chlorophyl molecules, creating plant-based carbon from atmospheric CO2. In steam-powered generators, coal is crushed and burned, relinquishing that stored chemical energy, and releasing CO2 back into the air.

penelope cain artist

If There Were The Sounds of a Forest Installation view, Casual Powerhouse Arts Centre, 2019

The released thermal energy heats water to steam, rotating generator blades which in turn rotates a copper coil inside a magnet, and following thermodynamic principles, via the physics of electromagnetism, converts the energy of motion into electrical energy. These alchemically complex systems of energy transfer enable the conversion of 150 million year-old sunlight to light from a bulb. From power to power.

Power #2 2019. Ceramic object, dyed rooster feathers, wooden sticks, fabric. Re- positioning a ceramic insulator from the original Powerstation as a Sharmanic-like object of power.

The majority of NSW electricity is produced by coal, releasing 36% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all state-owned generators were sold to private hands from 2010 onwards by successive NSW governments, just over 100 years since the first coal-fired power-station was switched on in Pyrmont in 1908. At 5 pm on that day, the Mayor’s wife turned a golden key that switched on the electrical circuit, and lights went on for the first time through the CBD grid, to the wonderment and applause of the party gathered by the coal loader.

The interests of coal have been embedded in the stratigraphy of Gondwanaland-governance ever since, and in 2017, to the applause of the gathered Government of the day, the then federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, brought a lump of Permian era coal into Parliament House. It was rumoured to have been lacquered, to ensure that hands weren’t dirtied.

Archival items integral to the research of this body of work include the following, and the artist wishes to aknowledge the assistance of these institutions and their hard working staff:
The paleobotany collection, the Australian Museum, Robert Scott Terra Nova collection at the British Natural History Museum, Ray Healey photography collection, Liverpool Library, Trove, National Library of Australia, and the Casula Power House Arts Centre.

The image depicted in If History Was Written By the Victor is a worked digital collage of a series of 5 photos from the House of Representatives, including  an image by Fairfax photographer, Andrew Meares. All photos were harvested as small files from the Internet, and even after extensive inquiries, no large files could be sourced from any media outlet.

Power used in this exhibition has been offset by the artist to carbon reduction programs via

Treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal during question time at Parliament House, 9 February 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares

If There Was an End to an Extinction Event (Startdust): detail. dye sublimation on fabric and photocopy on bond paper. 2019

Winner, The 2018 Fauvette Loureiro Artists Travel Scholarship Exhibition

I am grateful to awarded the Fauvette Loureiro Artists Travel Scholarship, with the finalists exhibition, 4 Oct – 3 Nov SCA Galleries, Balmain Road Rozelle NSW 2039

The installation of my work within the wider exhibition centres around the nineteenth century German word Kulturlandschaft: a landscape marked by human culture; bearing the manifest residues and remains of our cultural, physical and economic presence on the land. This is the territorialised, extracted and transformed landscape of the Anthropocene.

Installation view: Background: Erect 2018. UV cured digital print, acrylic, linen, fibreglass mesh. 1.7 x 1.8 m. Foreground:  Hungerstone 2018. Dye sublimation on polyester. 1.6 x 1.4m

It is interesting that the German language specifically differentiated between cultured landscape and natural landscape. By comparison, for First Nation Australians there could be no distinction; all land was inhabited, occupied by spirits and people, and required attending.

The installation is a series of landscape markers mapping the territory around recent research, which pivoted from Lachlan Macquarie’s ‘Holey Dollars’. In 1812 Macquarie ordered £10,000 worth of Spanish silver dollars, the most globally traded currency at the time, and had holes punched in the centre of coins, creating two pieces- the outer Holley Dollar and the inner Dump, in order to address a hard currency shortage in the colony. This singularly innovative act of official currency mutilation and economic magical thinking was subsequently recognised by the Macquarie Bank, who adopted the holey dollar as its logo.

Scholarship, Event, Opening night

The majority of the silver in the coins was mined from the largest Spanish mine of the time, at Potosi in Bolivia, which was heavily worked across two centuries under punishing human and environmental conditions. Lead-dust released from rock crushing and ore extraction at Potosi in the 17th and 18th century has been detected in ice core samples from the ice mass of the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru; tracing through mineral contamination the activities of the Spanish colonial empire.
As a result of research undertaken on a residency at Broken Hill, Australia’s largest historic silver mine, biomapping at a molecular level the silver in the Holey Dollars, I uncovered an anthropogenic link between the silver mined from Potosí, Bolivia, contained in the Holey Dollar and Broken Hill silver mining. The lead dust contamination from both Potosí and Broken Hill silver mines was found in Antarctic icecore samples. Lead dust with the unique isotopic fingerprint of the Broken Hill galena-based load arrived 20 years before Amundsen and Scott raced to the South Pole to claim the last un-colonised continent.


The installation contains two lines of sight around money and land: The quasi-totemic Money Tree and the video, Magical Thinking (Supply Side Economics) consider the belief systems and economical magical thinking that underpins fiat currency economics broadly and Macquarie’s official currency mutilation specifically; transforming one coin into two. Macquarie Bank subsequently appropriated the Holey Dollar as its logo, celebrating this singular innovation and profit.

Left: Magical Thinking (Supply Side), 2018, looped video on wall-mounted screen.  Right: Erect, 2018.

The wall works, Yield and Erect, evoke the white-cube history of landscape display and commodification while reflecting contemporary narratives of power, economics and landownership, through the lens of Australian colonialism.

Wind over Crystaline Forest is a collection of vertical flags manifest a floating, oversized argentiferous galena (silver-lead) crystal, prior to alchemically smelting for silver. The crystal right-angle forms and facets are an apparition of its future human structural utility.

Hungerstein (Hunger stone) a draped fabric transubstantiation of a medieval river-stone, one of a series used as drought markers in Europe across centuries, carved with warnings to future generations of crop failure if river levels drop to reveal the stone. Contemporary yet ancient and embedded, material and message, the Hungerstein completes the storytelling.

Erect, installation view SCA Gallery, Opening night

Dump: new work @ Kudos, July/Aug 2018


Penelope Cain

24 July- 11 Aug 2018
Kudos Gallery
6 Napier St, Paddington, NSW 2021
Wed-Sat 11-6

Dump is an object-initiated enquiry taking as a starting point the first official Australian colonial currency: Lachlan Macquarie’s holey dollar and dump of 1812.  Dump traces at a molecular level the silver of the holey dollar, through a linked series of anthropogenic landscapes, from Spanish colonial silver mines to Broken Hill and on to the Antarctic.

This new line of enquiry continues ongoing ideas around kulturlandshaft; landscapes of the anthropocene.


Link to catalogue essay by Anneke Jaspers, Curator, Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Penelope Cain Silver Tree Dump

Silver Tree, installation view, 2018

Dump is a pejorative term for a place used to dispose of waste. It is also the low-value central disk of the ‘holey dollar’, the first local official currency of colonial Australia, devised by Lachlan Macquarie. The title of this exhibition takes into consideration both of these meanings in this object-initiated enquiry.

In the face of insufficient British currency in the colony, in 1812 Lachlan Macquarie ordered a consignment of £10,000 worth of Spanish silver dollars, the most widely traded currency at the time. The silver in the coins was mined from Spanish colonial mines in Peru and Mexico, which were heavily worked across two centuries under punishing human and environmental conditions.

Penelope Cain Silver Tree Dump

Silver Tree: detail Digital print on fabric, 3 m x 1.2 m 2018


Some of this silver came from the largest Spanish colonial mine of the time, the Potosi mine in Peru (now Bolivia). Lead released from mining silver at Potosi in the 17th and 18th century has been detected in ice core samples from the Quelccaya ice cap, the largest tropical ice-mass in the world; tracing through mineral contamination the activities of the Spanish colonial empire.


When the Spanish dollars arrived in Sydney, Macquarie had a convict- a former forger- to punch holes in the centre of the coins, creating two pieces- the outer holey dollar and the inner dump- thus doubling the number of available coins. Each coin was allocated a currency value distinct from the value of the silver in the coin. This singularly innovative act of official currency mutilation and economic magical thinking was subsequently recognised by the Macquarie Bank, who adopted the holey dollar as its logo.

penelope cain money tree

Money Tree digital print on linen , acrylic, dyed rooster and pheasant feathers, fabric, trimming, wood, 2.1 x 2.3 m, 2018

Significant silver deposits exist in Australia and one of the earliest mines was at Broken Hill. The silver in the hill was first identified and subsequently mined by a horseback boundary rider, Charles Rasp, in 1883. The rocky hill contained one of the largest lead-silver-zinc mineral lodes in the world. It has been continuously mined since this time, and gave birth to the now international mining giant, BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Company), of which Charles Rasp was one of the original syndicate members.

With part of his newfound wealth, Charles Rasp purchased a large decorative silver epergne, which adorned his dining table. This ornate, finely worked colonial table decoration, standing close to 1 m tall, depicts a tall silver tree on rocky outcrop, ornamented with figures of indigenous Australians, native animals and a drover on horseback, encircling the rocky hill- almost as if it was made just for this man. It was made from over 8.5 kg of silver, and the mineral origin of this silver is thought to have been Mexico and Peru.

Penelope Cain

Dust for the Past (II), (detail) digital print on rag on aluminium, with fabric. 90 x 120 2018

Mining activities at Broken Hill released lead dust that spread wind-born across the dry, denuded landscape, contaminating the ground around the town at the base of the hill and mine, and bioacumulating in animals, saltbush, children and even bees. Lead is a slow neurotoxin, difficult to eliminated from the body. Bees in Broken Hill have elevated lead levels in their bodies and primary school aged children in the most heavily contaminated areas of the town have statistically higher blood lead levels and lower NAPLAN scores than their peers.

Lead containing the unique Broken Hill isotopic fingerprint from the earliest mining activities has been found as far away as ice core samples in the Antarctic. Snow containing Broken Hill lead dust fell on the south pole 20 years before Amundsen and Scott battled across that previously untrodden landscape.



Dump considers these molecularly linked, anthropogenic, colonised landscapes, while propositionally speaking to the mystical aura of belief and power around money and land.


Dust for the fenceline (detail) digital print on rag on aluminium, with fabric. 90 x 110 2018




With thanks to the Albert Kersten Mining and Minerals Museum, Broken Hill, for providing access to photograph the Silver Tree.

Acknowledgement is made to the Kaurna people and lands in which the Silver Tree was made and the Wiljakali people and lands in which the Silver Tree is now located.

With thanks to MAAS for providing access to the holey dollars and dumps held in its vast collection.

With thanks to the National Library, for access to the image from ‘The Successful Explorers at the South Pole, 14th December 1911 [picture]/ Olav Bjaaland’.

With many thanks to Dave and Carol Apiarists for their knowledge and access to film.

Many thanks to the dedicated team at the Broken Hill Artist Exchange

One of the holey dollars in the MAAS collection


Widespread pollution of the South American atmosphere predates the industrial revolution by 240 y. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA (2015),  Chiara Ugliettia,1, Paolo Gabriellia,b,2, Colin A. Cookec,3, Paul Vallelongad, and Lonnie G. Thompsona,b

Antarctic-wide array of high-resolution ice core records reveals pervasive lead pollution began in 1889 and persists today. Scientific Reports (2014) J. R. McConnell1, O. J. Maselli1, M. Sigl1, P. Vallelonga2, T. Neumann3, H. Anschu ̈tz4, R. C. Bales5, M. A. J. Curran6, S. B. Das7, R. Edwards8, S. Kipfstuhl9, L. Layman1 & E. R. Thomas10

Identifying Sources of Environmental Contamination in European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) Using Trace Elements and Lead Isotopic Compositions
Xiaoteng Zhou† , Mark Patrick Taylor*†‡ , Peter J. Davies†‡, and Shiva Prasad§

Fingerprinting sources of environmental contamination using European honeybees

The Association between Environmental Lead Exposure and High School Educational Outcomes in Four Communities in New South Wales, Australia, 2017
Jennifer McCrindle 1,*, Donna Green 2 and Marianne Sullivan 3

Christina Low1, Damian Gore1, Mark Patrick Taylor1& Honway Louie

Antarctic-wide array of high-resolution ice core records reveals pervasive lead pollution began in 1889 and persists today. Joseph R Mcconnell et al. Scientific Reports · July 2014

Mercury pollution from the past mining of gold and silver in the Americas.
Jerome O. Nriagu

The death of honey bees and environmental pollution by pesticides: The honey bees as biological indicators.
Laura Bortolotti et al. Bulletin of Insectology · January 2003

Kulturlandschaft: Thoughts and readings on landscape

Kulturlandschaft: Thoughts and readings on landscape

Coined at the beginning of the 20th century by German geographer, Otto Schlüter, a term to described landscape created by human culture, I feel as if this term is even more relevant now, in the post-colonial, late-capitalist Anthropocene, where almost everywhere on earth bears the marks of human habitation, through climate change and environmental residues of human activities.

From an art- historical perspective, Simon Scharma puts his stake in the ground-

Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock…once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery [p. 61].

Simon Scharma, Landscape and Memory


It follows from this that if Landscape and Memory is a book about places, it is also about people and their socially constructed ideas of places, and turning ‘Nature’ (such a contested term when talking about land) into Landscape, conccuring with Leverbre’s created spatial theory.


And yet, somewhat less poetically, and more anthropogenically from Rebecca Solnit;

…We forget that battlefields are one kind of landscape and that most landscapes are also territories…on the small scale they involve real estate and sense of place, on the large scale they involve nationalisms, war, and the grounds for ethnic identity…(the landscape is) not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel, and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and s— and garbage go to, it is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s gold mine.

Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, 2001

And finally;

In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing takes as a pivot point the Matsutake mushroom, the most valuable mushroom in the world, yet also a weed that grows in human-disturbed forests across the northern hemisphere, a process she calls auto-rewilding (in reference to the movement of re-wilding- reintroducing top predators into reserves and parks to re-balance the ecosystem). Through its ability to nurture trees, matsutake helps forests to grow in daunting places. It is also an edible delicacy in Japan, where it sometimes commands astronomical prices. Tsing follows these contradictions to ask what manages to live in the ruins we have made- the Anthropogenic Kulturlandschaft.

penelope cain

Dust for the future

penelope cain

Dust for the past

Above: In progress video, documenting bio-mapping of lead residue in the landscape around Broken Hill. This video was an outcome of a residency at the Broken Hill Artist Exchange, 2018.