This extensive collection of photographic and moving image works made across 2009-14 charts the history of nitrate extraction in the Chilean Atacama Desert: a system of colonial exploitation led by British companies which reached its peak between 1870 and 1920.
‘Saltpetre’ or Chilean nitrate is a sodium nitrate that, once processed, can be used as fertiliser or as ingredient for the manufacture of explosives. Its power as a substance and its value as a commodity lie in its ability to transform and to be transformative. In this compound form, the element nitrogen – which comprises 80% of the earth’s atmosphere – can speed or shatter life.
Through Ribas’s forensic examination of sites, artifacts and images, the project traces nitrate's route from natural mineral state to transported commodity, stock market value and, ultimately, its part in the material and symbolic heritage of London mansions and estates in the capital's surrounding countryside. The artist undertakes new audio and visual documentation of geographically disparate but historically connected landscapes, of remote nitrate fields and metropolitan financial districts, accompanied by an analysis of their material culture and interpretation of both images and texts archived in national, regional and local institutions.
Exhibition organised by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and co-produced with the Museo Universidad de Navarra (MUN), Pamplona, in collaboration with the Bluecoat, with the support of The Arts & Humanities Research Council and Acción Cultural Española, AC/E (Spain’s State Agency for Cultural Action).