The Other Side of Identity. Mining Practices in Argentina Through The Work of Artist Guigui Kohon

Published: 02.10.2018
Florencia Kobelt Florencia Kobelt
Florencia Kobelt
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Photograph of the portrait background is from Rubén Digilio, courtesy of Clarín Group. .
Photograph of the portrait background is from Rubén Digilio, courtesy of Clarín Group. 

© By the author. Read Copyright.

The following text is part of a research project and thesis on contemporary jewelery that goes through issues of environmental complaint. They analyzed different works from different aesthetic ways, questioning not only the value of materials, but also the use that is given to jewelry, and how much is aware of where those materials come from. From a semiotic perspective, the project had as a central axis to disarm those ways of denouncing that have certain contemporary jewels to understand if that complaint responds to artistic, design or craft strategies, and how they work in each area.
When talking about local design in geographies such as the South American one, these objects are usually associated with a revaluation of certain typical crafts practices of each area and are therefore considered expressions of national identity. But what happens when those pieces account for events that take place in that territory that try to be hidden? How do you configure those objects that account for that other identity that you do not want to see? This article analyzes the work of the artist Guigui Kohon 100/100 jewelery waste  that shows, or better said, forces to see the mining practices in Argentina, practices that try to be hidden but whose consequences are more than visible.

The other side of identity
Identity is a matter that always flies fields of design, especially south of the world, Lujan Cambariere reflected in 2004 about the Argentinian Desing Forum. That thought can open up different questions about the idea of identity, from what it is, if there is design with national identity, if it has to do with a question of regional style or with ways of relating to the environment, to the point that interests us, how the identity in the Argentinian jewelry is revealed.

If we continue navigating the terrain of Argentine design and we stay exploring these areas it is easy to detect that identity is revalued in this type of productions. Artisan methods (such as basketry), the landscape, or typical materials of each area are usually exalted. This revaluation does not do more than highlight the positive of the national identity, but if we consider the jeweler within the scope of the design the thing changes. While it is possible to find revalorization of craft, local materials, among others, there are cases like Guigui Kohon’s work that challenge this idea of the national as a show of something positive and in turn puts into dialogue the Argentine jewelry with works located in other parts of the world that work on the same subject: a national identity that we do not want to see.
100/100 Jewelry Waste by Guigui Kohon 
Image by Rosana Schoijett

Kohon's work in question is called 100/100 Jewelry Waste, and deals with open-cast mining: an activity in constant expansion in this country[1]. The piece, very linked to certain artistic practices, consists of an acrylic brooch which like a military medal shows off its achievements, although in the individual they go unnoticed: at the bottom of the brooch a photo of the Veladero mine, on the front an acrylic container that inside it carries the remains of waste from the jewelry process (silver dust), and on the back the nomenclatures of the waste materials released in the extraction process (mercury, zinc, sodium cyanide, lead, among others).

But the work is not just a medal, it's a photo or rather two photos: one by Rubén Digilio, from the Veladero mining company, which was used as a background for the 100 brooches (each one is a cut out of that giant print) and another one that Kohon stars in front of the camera, with his back to the mine, covering his face but opening a hand and peeping through the slot. These photographs can be found in a book/catalog, where the medal is placed on its cover, and where inside Kohon says: Everything started from several questions about my work: What do I do as a jeweler? What is my relationship with my environment? And that's how I started to investigate the open-cast mines, locating them in inaccessible parallax scenarios, hidden from the eyes and knowledge of the people. They are a present and an uncertain future. Why do I see it so terrible and hidden? Why do I hear those thunder of dust, that announced death? Here I am then, hoping that this little murmur will resound, like an echo, and do not get lost in solitude.

The work puts in question two problems, on the one hand, the non-visibility of mining practices in Argentina, which are increasingly common, and on the other the close relationship between jewelry and mining. In Veladero, gold and silver are extracted, the same metal that appears as waste in front of the Kohon brooches. This mine, in particular, suffered a massive collapse between 2007 and 2008 of detrital debris[2], in September 2015  there was a cyanide spill, a year later the same thing happened, and in March 2017 it happened again. 100/100 Jewelry Waste'' exposes the problems that are these types of practices for civil populations and the complex relationship between jewelry and the ways of extracting their raw materials. The work make visible what the citizens do not want to see, and what the jewelry community, at first, either. Why at first? The truth is that there is an increasingly large global movement called ethical goldsmithing in which jewelers are involved in the use of gold extracted in responsible mining conditions, transparency in the chain of work, and the reduction of environmental impact. One of the most important organizations is Fairmined "an assurance seal that certifies gold from artisanal and small-scale mining organizations (MAPE) responsible [3], which has no base in Argentina but it does in other South American countries such as Peru and Ecuador.

Kohon's work then proposes an articulation about identity in negative terms (in comparison with other pieces of local design) that consists of two aspects, first the awareness directed to the user of the jewel, or to the viewer: that person who approaches to the book to look at the medal, or even if he buys it and decides to take it in his body, he gets, ideally, a new knowledge. Instead of spying as Kohon does in his work, instead of being in that limbo between seeing and not seeing, the spectator's hands run from his face to see the mine in all its splendor. But also the same gesture is repeated for the members of the jewelery community, who unfortunately are usually the majority of the public, although here the signaling does not happen only to see from the place of citizens what happens in the mines, but points to question the jewelry practice itself. Carrying the denunciation is not something new, the pins with political slogans, ribbons, bracelets or awareness bracelets that are used in various charities, etc., are some examples of the relationship between jewelry and social denunciation. 100/100 Jewelry Waste is then put into dialogue with a long series of jewels that make visible different social causes, although with conceptual resources linked to art and not simply to a group that demands or protests on various issues.

 Open pit mine, Veladero, Argentina, 2010 by Guigui Kohon
Image by Rosana Schoijett.


In this sense it is possible to locate it next to works like ''Culturing the body: a social experience'' by Roseanne Bartley. In this series, Bartley made a set of 100 broaches in which certain words were inscribed such as 'aussie','battler’,'digger’,'ordinary Australian ', 'mateship','pioneer’,'queue jumper','sorry', 'unAustralian'. Bartley herself comments: " I chose these words because of their cultural specificity. Their meanings had evolved either as definitions of the archetypal Australian character, for example, fighter or digger or in association with more recent Australian debates on national identity. '' While this project aims to change the user's relationship with the environment from the use of these jewels, Kohon shared the act of visualizing and putting into the body that which makes the national identity, but which however is not usually considered as an identity feature.
Another similar case is the exhibition called La Frontera, which thematized issues such as drug cartels, illegal immigration, and the growing violence in Mexico. In this exhibition, the same gesture is repeated, it points out that which is not talked about or tried to be silenced, one of the painful but necessary lessons of contemporary Mexico is that to heal the effects of violence it can not be maintained hidden, it must be made visible so that we can face it as a society. After all that has been said, some of the pieces of the exhibition La Frontera have managed to find a place in my personal notion of that arid landscape rich in history that is our northern border; a territory that plays such a defining role in giving Mexico its particular, and sometimes terrible, place in the world today, says Jose Wolffer in a review for AJF.
Show the daily violence, the insults we hear every day, the pollution we deny, all this with a jewel. It is impossible to really measure the effects of carrying the denunciation, but at least the one who spies among the ends of his hand, knowing that there is something he is not wanting to see, discover his face before these naturalized practices. Maybe carry the waste, not the product of jewelry but of the miners, in the body enable a puzzled question about what is hanging on and seems to have no meaning, and whose response is to show what explodes, pollutes and that is deny, either seems to make sense, that way that gesture turns the jewelry into something more than a simple adornment, it turns it in a political statement.

Enunciation, contemporary jewelry, environmental complaint, art, crafts, design, open pit mining.

To see Kohon’s pieces you can click in this link


[1] In October of 2017, the reopening of the Veladero and Pascua Lama mines was announced. In September El Cronista reported how Latin Resources CEO Chris Gale said that "there is an opportunity to develop an open pit mine" in San Luis. In turn, China Latin American Industrial Cooperation Fund (Claifund), planned in the same month, according to the newspaper Hoy on September 23, a strategic union together with ICBC, China Development Bank and Eximbank to join companies that already they were exploiting mining deposits in the country, and the list can continue.
[2] Loose material or sediment rocks
[3] For more info


About the author

I am a recent graduate in art criticism and above all the things a curious of the contemporary jewelry, art and design. My interest goes through see those phenomena from a place between the analytical and sentimental because there is no criticism without those two factors. I have published reviews on other artistic activities (like visual arts, or theater)  in some digital magazines, other times I worked as a curator and now I am currently working on my own website and podcast about contemporary Argentine jewelry.