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[Exclusive] Artist Hides a $2,000 Gold Nugget Inside a Mansion Filled with Dirt

As a metaphor for the destruction of the Amazon caused by mining, artist Iván Sikic's 'LOOT' had people digging up to their elbows.

An abandoned mansion, slated for demolition, sets the stage for artist Iván Sikic's latest installation, LOOT, a hands-on takedown of the illegal gold mining industry that has ravaged Peru for over a decade. Rife with child labor, prostitution, and destruction of the "lung of the Earth"—the Amazon Rainforest—the issue called out to the Peruvian Sikic, who had been living in Australia and Brooklyn for most of that decade. "I felt like I had the responsibility to comment on an issue that needs to be opened up," he tells The Creators Project.

The product of his concern became LOOT, for which Sikic filled the mansion with dirt, hiding a gold nugget valued at about $2,000 among the brown mounds. In much the same way that miners are scouring the rainforests he grew up in, visitors were invited to scour the landscape—with a few simple rules: no tools, no sifting, and no refunds. (The event was free, but the paper bags used for digging weren't.)

After weeks of punishment from wannabe prospectors, the entire floor of the building was in shambles, a microcosm for the destruction caused by the rush for far more than $2,000 of the shiny stuff. "I honestly believe that everyone that wants to should be able to experience a place as unique and full of life as the Amazon rainforest, and this, in the end, was the ultimate driver behind me making and presenting LOOT," he says.

The Creators Project spoke to Sikic about his feelings on illegal gold mining, how LOOT affected its participants, and the dangers of protesting Peru's "New Cocaine":

The Creators Project: What compelled you to comment on illegal gold mining with your own mining operation?

Iván Sikic: What is taking place in the Peruvian amazon as a consequence of ilegal gold mining is well-documented. After reading, and especially seeing the aesthetic impact on the rainforest (which made me realize the human and ecological impact on the world)—that will probably take innumerable generations to be reverted—I felt like I had the responsibility to comment on an issue that needs to be opened up beyond the realms in which it is usually commented on.

What kinds of people came to the exhibition?

There was a very broad range of people visiting the work across all the demographics present in Lima, where the place took work. The question of why I was doing this piece came up very often. On entry, each visitor was given a text written by Jorge López-Canales (a writer I collaborate with on a regular basis) with an explanation of the work. This text helped contextualize the piece. It was very interesting to notice the number of people that engaged in a broader dialogue about the consequences that informal gold mining is having in the jungle of Peru, as well as the number of people that disregarded this and entered the work purely with the hope to find the gold nugget in order to have a financial gain.

Did more people come to enjoy the concept, or to try and find the gold? 

There was a mix of both types of audience members. These were very marked in the space. Some people came in to enjoy being in a very unique environment (a beautifully decaying mansion filled with dirt) even without digging, while others came in with the sole intention of finding the gold nugget. Those who did come for the nugget, were given a series of guidelines to follow. These weren’t policed in any way, and for me, the work ended up becoming a piece about how we, as Peruvians, abide or not to laws and regulations, which in the end allows (or doesn’t) an action like the one LOOT comments on.

Were there rules for the exhibit?

There was a list of guidelines which were both posted at the door, and also explained verbally at the door to each person interested in digging. The guidelines were the following:

1. Entry to the work was free.
2. The right to dig is s/.1 Nuevo Sol per paper bag (Peruvian currency; equivalent to approximately USD$0.30)
3. There was no limit to the number of bags that could be purchased.
4. It was only allowed to dig with the hands.
5. VERY IMPORTANT: Diggers were not allowed to sift through the dirt; Each handful of dirt that was picked up, had to go straight into the paper bag. Once the bag was full, no more digging was allowed (unless you had another, empty, bag).
6. Bags were not replaced if they tore by the weight of their content.
7. Only bags handed out at the installation were allowed (no outside bags).
8. Excavation implements were not allowed (no metal detectors, shovels, wheel barrows, etc.). Only bare hands.
9. There were no exchanges or refunds allowed.
10. Every bag, once filled, had to be removed from inside the house.

How did you get access to the mansion?

While scouting for a location for the work, we noticed that the house across the road from the gallery I work with in Peru (Gonzalez y Gonzalez), was abandoned and looked interesting from the outside. After knocking the door, we learned that the house had been bought by a developer who would be knocking it down to build apartments. Barranco, the neighborhood where the house is, is well known for being the cultural district of Lima; Mario Vargas Llosa, the only Peruvian Nobel laureate, lives in the district. We were allowed in, and after seeing the interior of the house, and learning of its fate, we knew we had found the right place for the work. It is important to mention that the work would not have been possible without the support and trust of the developers who currently own the house, who allowed me in to create the work before the house is demolished.

Why is the issue of illegal gold mining important to you?

Having been to the Peruvian rainforest numerous times, I felt really close to the consequences illegal and informal gold mining have not only in Peru, but also in the rest of the world (I grew up being told that the Amazon rainforest is the lung of the world). In first instance, this work felt like a natural reflex. Especially since after moving to Brooklyn from Melbourne I was more exposed to news from my home country, as well as the building consequences of these actions. After trying to find a language in which I felt comfortable commenting on these issues, I came up with the concept of LOOT, which felt like the right way to say something that not only I would be a part of, but that needed the support of the viewer in order to help me reinforce the statement I wanted to make.*

*Please see the text by Jorge López-Canales, which is a companion to the piece, which helps contextualize the work.

Are you afraid of any repercussions from the gold miners?

While the work was in its conceptual stages and in development, I wasn’t sure of what to expect of the responses to LOOT. In the days leading up to the opening of the exhibition, I was increasingly anxious and nervous not only about the audience’s response to the piece, but mainly about how those in the relevant industries (which are very powerful in Peru) would react to the work, especially since I was shunning a light on something that a lot of people perceive as ‘untouchable’. After the work opened, I realized that there was still more work to be done in Peru in regards to how much the art world (and an art work) can influence the broader context of politics, economics and social change. In the end, I learnt that I am more afraid about the lack of action towards such an important issue, rather than being afraid about how the gold miners could react to the piece.

Do you see any potential solutions to the problem of illegal gold mining?

After making LOOT, I learnt that the issue was is not necessarily the fact that there is illegal or informal gold mining, but rather that there is a lack of respect and understanding towards rules and regulations in Peru across a number of industries. I think it would be almost impossible to phrase a solution to such a complex issue from just one point of view, but from my humble point of view, the only way to solve a problem as far reaching as that of ilegal gold mining, is by working on changing the way laws are abided by and/or respected.

Are you working on any other projects? 

I am currently working on pieces that will address the themes of wealth division, the banking system, as well as the final piece in my series about Lima (the city I grew up in). At this stage, these works will be presented in Valencia, Spain, Lima, Peru and possibly Brooklyn, New York.

See more of Iván Sikic's work on his website.

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