The Toxic Sublime: Interview with Giuseppe Licari

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

With his charming Italian accent, generous smile, and genuine curiosity for archaeology and landscape, it’s not hard to see how artist Giuseppe Licari got access to one of the biggest steel factories in the world – a site that only a few people have seen or even know exists. Located in Belval, a small town in the south of Luxembourg, the factory doesn’t just produce steel, it produces history in the form of soil: a man-made geology. Every day a layer of new soil is formed, covering the landscape in a white glass-like powder. This “new soil” is a mixture of metal oxides and silicon dioxide called “slag” – a by-product of the steel industry. Though it creates a seemingly magical snowy landscape, the absence of life is alarming. Soil analyses indicate that the grounds of this tucked-away Winter Wonderland are rich in arsenic, zinc, cadmium, chromium and lead, leaking across the borders of Luxembourg.

In 2015 Giuseppe Licari and eight other established artists were selected as part of a residency program to engage with the de-industrialization of Belval. The main features of the new plan for the site include a brand-new university surrounded by a public park, built on top of dumped slag. Branded as a “European Silicon Valley,” the reimagined site is meant to wash away any further remaining toxic heritage, transforming an industrial economy into an educational one. Giuseppe was particularly interested in the post-industrial anthropological nature of the site and he spent six months as Artist-in-Residence in Belval.

YO: What was your first impression of the site upon your arrival?

GL: There was something particularly uncanny about the site. Even though it looked like an inconspicuous construction site, there was this particular smell. The slag heaps were not visible – the only thing I could perceive was the smell. After 6 months, I even started to recognize and differentiate different smells. The slag was used to level the valley where the factory was built and it was dumped in different sites in the Lorraine area. In the last century, steel was produced out of a mixture of iron ore and coke (brown coal mixture), which released a huge amount of dioxide dust everywhere in the surrounding area. The water used to clean the chimneys of the blast furnaces was disposed in the slag heap, creating black lines in the artificial landscape. The landscape of Belval is literally a geology made out of waste. Later on, trees grew on top of the waste. The poisonous heritage became invisible in molds and a few birch trees, and that was labelled a “natural park,” – a naive attempt to transform the by-product of industrial activity into something natural.

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The Promised Land, 2016. Slag process of steelmaking, Arcelor-Mittal Harsco, Differdange Luxembourg.

YO: What about the social impact?

GL: The trauma of the landscape mirrors the trauma of the community. Since the closing of the factories in the early ‘90s, the mostly foreign workers have remained unemployed. They were “discarded” similarly to the slag. The two remaining factories in Differdange and Belval are now operated remotely and compared to the last century, many fewer people work there. Most of these workers commute from France and Germany because they get a higher salary than in their own country.

The steel industry has polluted the area along the border with France for a century. In Schifflange, a village close to Belval, regulations forbid people to plant a garden as it’s dangerous. People don’t drink tap water for fear it has been contaminated by the soil. The toxic waste can leak everywhere; groundwater contamination is a huge concern. And this doesn’t stop at the border. There has never been any studies of the health of Luxembourgish people, and I was often met with suspicion when I tried to bring this up in conversations.

YO: Were you able to maintain an artistic practice? Or did the dramatic state of the site impose a new role on you?

GL: I find my position as an artist very complicated. On Google maps, the site seemed really interesting but I didn’t quite realize the size and scale of the industry’s impact. I felt like an investigative journalist, seeing something terrible happen right under my eyes. But as an artist I often question my position. Should I be an activist? How do I communicate this dramatic reality beyond the local community? One day I saw two rabbits on the site and thought that maybe things weren’t as bad as I thought. But the next day when I got back, I found two dead rabbits. Their death was odd: there was a circle of dust around them, probably created by their spasms and compulsive movements as they died. I took a picture of this “Geography of a Death” but didn’t want to put it in my exhibition. It was a very blunt reference to the people who died working in the industry, but it would have destroyed the more abstract and poetic feeling of the site.

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Geography of a Death, 2016, from the archive of the Schalk project, Belval Luxembourg.

YO: What did you learn from the soil samples you collected?

I started collecting soil samples of the area as part of my ongoing project Terra Moderna. I started with sites I could easily access – agricultural fields and slag heaps that were open to the public. When I finally got access to the Arcelor-Mittal site, I also got permission to collect recent slag produced from recycled steel. They called it electro-slag. The scariest thing I learned from the chemical analysis of these samples was that the agricultural land was very rich in arsenic and cadmium, two very poisonous substances that are absorbed by plants and eventually reach the human body. After this discovery, I became concerned about eating local food.

YO: Why do you think no one else picks up on this?

GL: The financial independence of Luxembourg has been made possible because of this industry. A professor from Leuven University, who saw the chemical analysis, wanted to start a research project on the contamination of the soil at the site, but he was stopped at multiple levels. Local media have been censoring themselves for a long time. The money that comes in because of the industry seems to have bought the silence. Cleaning the many contaminated sites has been left to the next generation, an attitude common to most industrialized countries. People don’t really know or don’t want to know about the toxicity of their environment. They would rather focus on the jobs the industry brings. They take pride in “how they built their own country” and are financially independent, and fail to realize what lies under their feet. The contemporary archaeology is kept hidden.

The Promised Land_Giuseppe Licari_2016-2017

The Promised Land, 2016. Slag process of steelmaking, Arcelor-Mittal Harsco, Differdange Luxembourg.

YO: You use a digital camera and shoot from a very low angle, which makes the landscape look immense. The photos have been exhibited as a lightbox and in the Schlak book. What was your intention?

GL: I hope to bring awareness to people though I’m not sure how long this awareness will last. It’s so important that the next generation know about this legacy. I wanted to stimulate dialogue, but I didn’t want to limit the conversation to Luxembourg because it really is an international issue. I try not to point fingers but to elevate the landscape to the sublime. I’m amazed by the beauty of this toxic landscape; I am surprised and shocked that something man-made can look so extra-terrestrial. It’s like visiting another planet. Pictures can be beautiful and sinister at the same time. The prominent Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his book Wasted Lives: “Once there was a place where you could dump the garbage out of view, but today there’s no such place; everything has been touched by human activity, everything has been colonized and there’s no place we can hide it so we have to deal with it”. This is the reality that I want to bring to the public.

(Top image: From the photographic series The Promised Land, 2016. Slag process of steelmaking, Arcelor-Mittal Harsco, Differdange Luxembourg.)

This article was jointly commissioned by Artists & Climate Change and O, Wonder!


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues.


About Artists and Climate Change: 

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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