Terraform / Atacama

Document Type

Creative work

Publication details

Cooke, G 2018, 'Terraform / Atacama', photographic exhibition at the Brunswick Street Gallery, Melbourne, Vic.,


“Terraform / Atacama” is an exhibition produced with my collaborator Dea Morgain – shown at the Brunswick Street Gallery in November 2018. The exhibition is a creative exploration of colonial ruins in the driest place on earth: the abandoned nitrate mines of the Atacama Desert. Taking a critical documentary perspective, the exhibition features over 80 striking images of desert landscape and nitrate ruins set against details of domestic life and social history. The exhibition reflects on how colonial resource extraction speaks directly to contemporary issues of anthropogenic environmental change. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chilean nitrate industry was a vast colonial enterprise. After the “War of the Pacific” in the early 1880s, Chile expanded its territory into areas formerly held by Bolivia and Peru, and gained control of the saltpeter fields of the Atacama Desert. Almost 200 mining towns – “Oficinas Salitreras” – sprang up throughout the Atacama, and until the 1950s Chilean nitrate was the primary ingredient in the global production of fertilizer and explosives. Today, some of the salitreras have been preserved and restored, and have become popular tourist sites. Many others have been left to decay, and are now nothing more than crumbling adobe husks. Others have a more troubling legacy: the mining town of Chacabuco was used as a detention centre for political prisoners by the Pinochet regime in the 1970s. Mineral resources in the Atacama have a complex human history – this exhibition is an attempt to tease out the interweavings of mineral and human histories.