Mále Uribe unveils salt wall made from lithium extraction waste

Architect Mále Uribe has unveiled the Salt Imaginaries exhibition of works made from discarded salt from lithium mining in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Located in Santiago, the exhibition aims to draw attention to the salt waste produced during lithium mining in the Atacama Desert and to rethink the value of this material.

The Salt Imaginaries exhibition opened in Chile at the end of August

“I came to Chile to look at all the discarded salts produced during lithium extraction in evaporation ponds in the Atacama Desert,” Uribe told Dezeen.

“Salt Imaginaries is part of a larger proposal to rethink the value of minerals in the Atacama Desert and understand them as carriers of natural and cultural value,” she continued.

The work depicted includes a wall of rock monsters from the Atacama Desert and a sylvinite mural

At the center of the exhibit is a 3.5-meter-long mural made entirely of discarded salt, a waste product created when the underground lithium brine is placed in evaporation basins to extract the mineral.

Produced in collaboration with the Advanced Technology Laboratory for Mining, the mural consists of more than 800 triangular tiles.

Salt Imaginaries Exhibition in Chile by Mále Uribe
The mural is made of 800 angular tiles arranged in a 3.5 meter panel

The mural is made with individual tiles with a triangular base in two inverted shapes, so they can be arranged in multiple ways to create different geometric compositions,” said Uribe.

The intent is to create a sense of order, of geometric alignments that contrast with the unexpected shapes in which salt crystallizes in the territory, and also contrast with the chaotic perceptions usually associated with mine tailings and waste.

Salt from the Atacama Desert was used to make the tiles

At the center of the exhibit is a totem formed from nine cone-shaped modules that Uribe left submerged in Chilean lithium ponds for a month to crystallize.

A geological panel on a wall shows 24 rock samples from the lithium ponds of Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat. Uribe selected the rocks while working with the communities and on expedition trips.

Totem pole made entirely from discarded salts with nine stacked modules
Nine stacked modules crystallized in the Lithium pools form the central totem

The architect hopes her work will demonstrate the versatility of salt as a design material and emphasize the value of discarded materials.

“I think we need to change the way we think about extracting natural resources, taking what we need while ignoring all the matter and ecosystems involved in the process,” Uribe said.

“From a multidisciplinary approach that collaborates with art, science and design, the project aims to reuse discarded lithium salts in ways that – in addition to creating new functional and economic value – can capture new symbolic and aesthetic dimensions,” she continued.

In short, waste and value are culturally constructed concepts, and art and design have the power to invert them, or at least reimagine them. These materials and works of art are meant to connect us back to the incredible energy of minerals that have shaped our planet long before humans appeared.”

Rock samples from Chile's Atacama Desert on yellow wall
Rock samples from a Chilean salt flat were mounted on a yellow wall

Uribe previously made a salt-focused installation at the Design Museum in London. Other projects exploring the potential of salt as a material include a glass-like cladding material made from salt crystals and salt-covered vegan furniture.

The photography is by Francisco Ibáñez.

Salt Imaginaries can be seen at Galería Gallo in Chile until October 14. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events happening around the world.