© XAVIER RIBAS - Monturaqui (2024) 92 Pigment prints on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta, 36.5 x 46 cm each, sound 10'41" looped, vinyl text 36.5 x 46 cm, words map 90 x 120 cm. Ed 3+1ap


Monturaqui (2024), 92 Pigment prints 36.5 x 46 cm each.


Monturaqui is a photographic installation that documents the abandoned industrial structures of water extraction on the Monturaqui Aquifer, located in the ancestral territory of the Likanantai community of Peine, in San Pedro Atacama, Chile. The 26 water extraction wells of the so called ‘Monturaqui Project’ were laid out in this remote landscape to supply fresh water to Escondida, a copper mine owned by BHP Group Ltd, situated about fifty miles away. The twenty-year concession from the Chilean government to extract 1,400 liters of water per second started in 1999, and it was terminated on December 31 2019 when it was proven that water extraction exceeded more than three times the agreed limit, causing irreparable damage to the phreatic zone, for which Escondida received a fine of 8,2 million USD. The photographs were taken in February and November 2022. They show different stages of decommissioning of the abandoned infraestructure, either due to vandalism or looting, or by Minera Escondida as part of their closure plan, the return of the post-extractive landscape to the Likanantai indigenous community and the beginning of the reclamation of their ancestral territory.

Within the ninety black and white photographs of Monturaqui, there are two colour photographs. One shows the Minera Escondida gallery in the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, in Santiago. The construction of this new gallery was financed by Minera Escondida/BHP Group Ltd. and it displays a permanent exhibition titled 'Chile before Chile', of a selection of artifacts related to the material culture of the Original Peoples on the Chilean territory are displayed. The second colour photograph shows the large canvas La fundación de Santiago, painted by Pedro Lira in 1888, hanging in the main staircase of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Santiago. It commemorates a moment of encounter between two peoples, in 1541, and the beginning of the Spanish influence in this land which will later become Chile. These two color photographs call into question the generalised – white, western, colonial – differential perception of the cultural heritage of the ancestral peoples, preserved in national and private museums, and of their natural heritage which, since the arrival of the Spanish to the American continent in 1492, has been subjected to resource extraction. The work also includes a map of the Monturaqui wells and other water extraction infrastructure, overlayed with the vernacular names of objects displayed in the MCAP exhibition, and a sound recording of the aquifer's deep water.


Sand and stones descend by gravity along a steel tube from the surface of the desert to the invisible surface of the fossil water, in the indeterminate depth of the Monturaqui Aquifer, located in the ancestral territory of the Likanantai community of Peine, in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The turbulence of the air produced by the descent and the touching of the sand and stones to the side walls of one of the monitoring shafts in the water extraction operation owned by Minera Escondida emit an alien, timeless sound, barely decipherable. On the other hand, the writing on the labels and information panels in the exhibition 'Chile before Chile' address the temporality of the objects displayed in the Minera Escondida gallery at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, to name, describe, understand, and catalogue the material culture of the Original Peoples of Chile. The journey of the sand and stones from the rocky soil to the water underground intersects, here, with the bodies that cross the museum's gallery to reach the displayed objects. How can we stop thinking about the cultural heritage of Original Peoples differently from the way we think about their natural heritage? "The Earth existed without our unimaginable ancestors, wrote Michel Serres in The Natural Contract (1990), could well exist today without us, will exist tomorrow or later still without any of our possible descendants, whereas we cannot exist without it. Thus we must indeed place things in the center and us in the periphery, or better still, things all around and us within them like parasites."

© Xavier Ribas

This work is part of the Traces of Nitrate project developed in collaboration with Chilean visual artist Ignacio Acosta and British historian Louise Purbrick. Traces of Nitrate is based at the University of Brighton and the Royal College of Art in London, and is financed by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC].


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Selection of 40 images | prev | next

Monturaqui, a selection of forty of the ninety-two images.


Monturaqui, Words map, 90 x 120 cm.


Monturaqui, Text element, 36.5 x 46 cm.






Ignacio Acosta and Xavier Ribas recording the sound of water in Monturaqui, October 2022.