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- June 2020: a multistranded interdisciplinary line of inquiry centering on the Quelccaya ice cap.

SATURN’S BREATH: documentation of performance at Quelccaya  (See video below)

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.

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

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)

SATURN’S BREATH: documentation of performance, 2019, Quelccaya

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.

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

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


Think Like a Mountain (Breathing)

This line of inquiry maps the regression of the Quelccaya ice cap betwen 1998 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.

The THINK LIKE A MOUNTAIN project aims to (virtually) map the western margins of the Quelccaya ice cap, where they would have been in 1797 and in 1997; from the approximate beginning of the industrial revolution and 200 years later when the Kyoto protocol was signed. The artists plan to undertake a series of staged walks along these two lines, to consider the effect of climate change on this landscape, across this 200-year period of attitudes, colonisations, and economic thinking in relation to the environment.

Quelccaya is predicted to be gone by 2070 under current climate modelling. Future work will model the the western margins of Quelccaya, from 2000 to 2070.


Collecting ice to take as meltwater to Potosi in 2020.