Chloe Dewe Mathews excavates the Tabernas Desert’s layered histories

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Dewe Mathews’ latest project delves into an arid landscape scarred by relentless economic cycles

In southern Spain, the Tabernas Desert’s arid landscape is replete with history; a history shaped by economic gain. 

The intricate structures of an abandoned mine emerge from the desert. A relic of an almost century-long gold rush, beginning in the mid-19th century, in which the infrastructure housed the largest operational mine in Western Europe: a vein to lead, silver, and gold. 

Nearby, a worn Western film set rests amid the desert’s barren planes. Several wooden shacks; bowing rooves and boarded windows. Sergio Leone, the pioneer of Spaghetti Westerns (the term coined by American critics for Westerns produced by Italians), created the set for Once Upon a Time in the West: an epic 1968 Spaghetti Western featuring Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda. Leone shot many of his films in the region; momentarily, it became a hotbed for Western productions. The title of Dewe Mathews’ project rifts off his 1965 feature For a Few Dollars More, the second film in his renowned Dollars Trilogy. 

Elsewhere, polytunnels loom over the landscape; a mesh of white plastic; known locally as the Mar de Plástico or the “sea of plastic”. Beneath the vast canopy, stretching four hundred square kilometres sits an agricultural goldmine; a large proportion of Europe’s yearly fruit and vegetables grow here, tended by often underpaid, and overworked, migrant labourers from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the financial gain, the operation scars the landscape. Just as the mine, and, to an extent, the western film set did before. Plastic pollution, soil degradation and chemical run-off are rife.

Dewe Mathews interrogates these overlapping narratives and their effects on the landscape, past and present, through the series, and an accompanying film, which she made on receipt of the MAST Photography Grant on Industry and Work; an annual award organised by the Mast Foundation, now in its sixth edition, which supports emerging photographers to create a new body of work. But, collectively, the subjects are also emblematic of something else: humanity’s enduring disregard for the environment in favour of economic gain. To some extent, the mine, the set, and, today, the Mar de Plástico are all remnants of fluctuating economic cycles; momentarily lucrative until the demand or resources fade away.

The protagonist of the project, and, more specifically, the film is a migrant worker, Maruf, who Dewe Mathews films weaving his way from the Mar de Plastico, through the mine, and, ultimately, onto the set. He is a reminder of the individuals affected by these economic systems; they, like the landscape, are often exploited until they are of no use.

Below, Dewe Mathews discusses the conception and creation of the project; its themes, and the challenges she faced in completing it.

Western Leone (cimitero) / Western Leone (graveyard). From the series For a Few Euros More / Per qualche euro in più 2019 © Chloe Dewe Mathews.

British Journal of Photography: What compelled you to explore modern agriculture? What aspects of it have you honed in on and why?

Chloe Dewe Mathews: The question of how to feed a burgeoning global population is being raised with increasing frequency these days. Although food production methods are given a certain amount of attention in public discourse, they rarely feature in contemporary art. I am interested in the reality of 21st-century food production and, as in much of my past work, how human activity marks and transforms landscapes. 

For A Few Euros More was an opportunity to look at contemporary agriculture in an area of southern Spain. Once I began researching, I realised this region had played host to several other industries, all of which aspired to generate wealth from a fundamentally barren landscape.

BJP: Why did you decide to interrogate this subject in the context of Mar de Plastico? What interested you about this location?

CDM: I first encountered the Mar de Plastico while visiting friends in southern Spain five years ago. Driving along the Andalusian coast, the sight of white plastic polytunnels, covering the rocky mountain landscape as far as the eye could see, stunned me. Half of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown in these greenhouses, and this “Sea of Plastic” is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. 

The environmental impact of such intensive agriculture is huge: soil degradation, desertification, and waste plastic. But, there is also a human cost: thousands of sub-Saharan migrants working for half the Spanish minimum wage in 50-degree temperatures. The scenes I encountered felt disconnected from my daily life until I realised that much of the produce on my kitchen table in England would have been grown here. 

Plastica (ciliege)/Plástico (cherries). From the Series For a Few Euros More / Per Qualche Euro in Più. 2019 © Chloe Dewe Mathews.
Montagna di pomodori / Tomato Mountain. Fom the series For a Few Euros More / Per Qualche Euro in Più. 2019 © Chloe Dewe Mathews.

BJP: Can you explain more about the three subjects (agricultural polytunnels, a mine in disuse, and the abandoned sets of western American movies) you explore, and which characterise the area? What drew you to them, and how have you interrogated them through your images? How are they connected? 

CDM: For a Few Euros More is set in the landscape surrounding the Tabernas Desert. In the mid-19th-century, the area became the centre of European gold mining and remained so for over a century. In the 1960s, the Italian director Sergio Leone [credited as creating the ‘Spaghetti Western’ cinematic genre] then chose to shoot his Dollars trilogy here, as a substitute for the dry landscape of mid-Western America. Throughout the following decades, following in Leone’s wake, scores of subsequent ‘Spaghetti Western’ films were filmed in the desert. The remnants of the sets for these films, built in the seventies, are now tired tourist attractions, which fascinated me.

Once I began shooting, I noticed a thread running through three overlapping industries — each representing a kind of ‘gold rush’ of its own. First, the mineral extraction, followed by the nostalgic construction of ‘gold rush’ towns of midwest America. Most recently, the Mar de Plastico is a kind of ‘agricultural gold rush’, an artificial Eden growing under miles of plastic.

Plastica (pieno) / Plástico (full). From the Series For a Few Euros More / Per Qualche Euro in Più © Chloe Dewe Mathews.
Miniera d’oro/Gold Mine. From the series For a Few Euros More / Per Qualche Euro in Più. 2019 © Chloe Dewe Mathews.

BJP: Can you tell me about the film, which is also part of the series?

CDM: For A Few Euros More follows Maruf, a Ghanaian migrant, who makes an imaginary journey from the labyrinth of polytunnels where he works, through a derelict gold mining complex, into the Tabernas Desert. He ends up at one of Sergio Leone’s disused Western sets; an encounter with a fictional past. As a paid collaborator in this film, Maruf transfers his primary resource (ie, labour) from one industry to another, temporarily leaving his role as tomato picker to become an actor, linking together various histories of the land.

BJP: What challenges did you face when producing the work? 

CDM: I was quite heavily pregnant during the shoot, so working in the desert in 35-degree heat was hard. I remember reading that Sergio Leone took such long lunch breaks during his shoots that even his cast and crew got frustrated; so in that spirit, I made sure we took leisurely lunches! Some days we even managed to swim. To fit in a swim and all the shots we needed to cover in a day felt like a triumph.

Western Leone (finestra)/Western Leone (window). 2019 © Chloe Dewe Mathews.

For A Few Euros More is on show at FONDAZIONE MAST, Bologna, until 03 January 2021. The galleries are temporarily closed until 03 December 2020 due to Covid-19. 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.