In response to the 2008 global financial crisis, photographic artist Lisa Barnard undertook a quest in pursuit of one of the most sought-after materials in human history. Her resulting book, The Canary and The Hammer, presents a heady combination of images and thoroughly researched essays that carve out a core sample from mankind’s ages-old obsession with gold. While, by Barnard’s own admission, tales of humanity’s fascination with gold are too multitudinous for a single comprehensive volume, the artist deftly weaves together a riveting cross section of associations, extractions, global movements, and applications for the element that range from mythic, to cosmic, to political, to historical.
Barnard’s contemporary photographic work, compiled over the course of four years, chases gold across four continents — moving, like the material itself, through a complex series of international processes and relationships. One comes away from her narrative, diffuse and generally impartial though it may be, feeling as though gold has crucially affected the course of migration throughout many centuries of human existence — and will continue to do so, through our present and into our future.
Barnard’s work is measured and thorough; each of the book’s seven essays present curated pieces of the historical and international gold supply chain. In “The Sweat of the Sun,” Barnard draws a line from the mythical pursuit of the Golden Fleece by Jason and the Argonauts — a story which is thought to be partly inspired by an ancient gold-panning technique wherein sheep fleece was employed in rivers as a crude filter to catch gold flakes flowing from upstream — to modern-day Peru, currently the sixth-biggest gold supplier in the world, and a country whose gold production has increased 400% over the last decade.
In “Disease of the Heart,” Barnard explicates the role of gold at NASA’s Goddard Space Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland — home of the Hubble Telescope and communication hub for the International Space Station — where gold is used, “in hundreds of ways in every vehicle NASA launch.” Merely reading Barnard’s essays sets the mind adrift in time, as one considers the jumping-off point of the Golden Fleece in relation to, say, Carl Sagan’s 1977 open communication of life on Earth to a wider intelligence waiting in the cosmos, via a gold-plated record.
Via its visual storytelling and poetic, fact-driven essaying, The Canary and the Hammer delivers a tremendous amount of information through unexpected means. Readers will learn of various historical movements, the gold-fueled colonization of the Americas, the role of Chinese immigrants during the California gold rush of the mid-1800s, and the role of Chinese workers in the modern-day salvaging of gold and other precious materials from tons and tons of the world’s e-waste. Techniques for gold purification, such as mining with mercury and carbon-in-leach (CIL), are also touched upon, along with chemical processes such as the dissolution of the substance using aqua regia — an acid combination dubbed “royal water” for its ability to liquify the “royal metals” of gold and platinum. As Barnard recounts, the technique was once used in an act of canny resistance, to conceal the gold Nobel Prize medals being held at the Bohn Institute of Theoretical Physics as the Nazis closed in on Copenhagen, rather than have them appropriated as the spoils of war.
As the book’s final essay asserts in its title, “Everyone Has A Story About Gold.” On the one hand, Barnard’s work in The Canary and The Hammer demystifies some of gold’s flashy allure, but on the other hand, it is precisely the ubiquity of this element that attests to its significance. Though it’s difficult to argue that the worth of gold justifies the human and environmental degradation suffered in its acquisition, it is equally difficult to dismiss the crucial symbolic and logistical role of it in our past, present, and future. For some people in Barnard’s stories, gold seems to represent a kind of transcendent pursuit, that might be equated with religious ecstasy or clinical obsession — though Barnard asserts that no matter one’s interest: “Ultimately, however, gold is an act of faith.”
The Canary and The Hammer (2019, MACK Books) is available for purchase online and at select retailers. There will be a talk and book signing with artist Lisa Barnard at Printed Matter, Inc. (231 11th Avenue, New York) on Thursday, September 12.