26 // 19.5.21

Rare Earth
Robert McDougall

Portrait of a place, stories of water and minerals, counter histories, geography and imagination, anthropocene dreams.

Deep in a little-known part of China, under a washed-out sky, lies a poisonous dam boiling with global capital’s hunger for gadgets, devices and eco-consumerism.

Its name means “place of the deer.” It was once an arable patch of the Yellow River’s Great Bend. It was then a steel town, developed with Soviet assistance to bolster China’s modernisation. Now Baotou, the largest economy of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, plays a crucial role in late capitalism’s thirst for new markets and new forms of resource extraction. 

Rare earths are a group of seventeen metals used in commercial and defence technologies. An iPhone contains eight such minerals, while electric vehicles – despite their eco credentials – are driving new momentum in demand for these elements.

Enabled by lax environmental regulations and abundant state-backed financing, Baotou is a rare-earth mineral field whose growth lies at the centre of the growing trade wars. The cost of this form of mining is not just ecological but human, as revealed by McDougall’s Rare Earth, shot on location in 2015 in the industrial frontier city.

The People’s Republic of China holds a monopoly over the rare-earth supply chain, adjusting its production quotas and prices to control the market abroad. For that reason, you’re more likely to read about the rare-earth industry in the finance pages devoted to Western hopes and anxieties about mining company share prices and national rivalries for resource production. As the US empire wanes and China rises, rare earths are an invisible part of the new super power’s economic levers.

Part essay film, part artist’s documentary, McDougall’s new video work looks at the imperatives of exploration and extraction in juxtaposition with pre-modern cultural values, which could lay the basis for more balanced ecological futures. For McDougall, industrial growth actually means degradation. He describes Baotou Steel and its Weikuang tailings dam, where toxic byproducts and waste is dumped, as a “vast industrial hellscape.” In this work, McDougall’s innovation is to upend the usual logic of progress and technology. Rare Earth reveals the violent lie of endless industry, as well as the false binary between modern development and tradition.

About Robert McDougall

Robert McDougall is a non-Aboriginal Australian artist, composer, filmmaker and anthropologist whose work incorporates video art, essay film, photographic print, kinetic installation and electroacoustic music. Focusing on archival, ethnographic and metaphysical research, his work explores durational and formalist aesthetics, vernacular traditions and the Avant Garde, knowledge practices and unconsidered histories, post-conflict trauma and justice, numinous spaces and the sublime.

Artist's website