A new environmental art installation placed on the grounds of the University of Wyoming has piqued the ire of several state representatives and the coal industry. The work “Carbon Sink” by British-based land artist Chris Drury is a tangible visual metaphor of the destruction of the West’s forests by pine beetles due to climate change. He has hit a raw nerve with the local coal industry and state legislators as Wyoming is home to the country’s largest coal mine, which serves as a major source of income.
The piece is a 36′ diameter swirl of pine beetle-infested logs which progressively become more charred as they reach the center of the vortex. Placed on a bed of coal, the message is clear that the artist is linking the destruction of the West’s pine forests with the burning of fossil fuels. The epidemic spread of the mountain pine beetle, whose numbers were kept in check by freezing temperatures before the advent of global warming, decimated much of Wyoming’s Lodgepole Pine forests.
Drury’s installation is about how the human consumption of fossil fuels has a direct effect on the local environment — a palatable message in a state that is so dependent on coal. The coal industry immediately took offense: “They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry,” stated Marion Loomis, the director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
Two legislators also jumped into the fray — Republican Representative Tom Lubnau and Gregg Blikre from Cambell County, site of the massive Powder River Basin coal mine.“While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” stated Lubnau.
The comments not only strike at the lack of respect for freedom expression at the state’s only university, but also how close to the bone the art work has struck. If the coal industry and its surrogates were not so sensitive to their impact on global warming then they certainly would not feel the need to attack an art installation. Art asks questions that are both personal and universal, and in the end the work is successful at catalyzing a long-needed conversation within the state about how our conspicuous burning of fossil fuels has direct and substantial negative effects in our world right now. Susan Moldenhauer, director of the University of Wyoming Art Museum, states “There are no plans to uninstall it. Chris Drury makes connections within nature. He’s not a political artist in any way.” The work will be left to decay on the campus.