Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West

Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West

by Lucy R. Lippard

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“A marvelous slim book [that] weaves . . . ideas, facts, images, and histories into a whole about . . . the ecology of the manmade world.” —Rebecca Solnit
In Undermining, the award-winning author, art historian and social critic Lucy R. Lippard delivers “another trademark work” that combines text and full-color images to explore “the intersection of art, the environment, geography and politics” (Kirkus Reviews).
Working from her own experience of life in a New Mexico village, and inspired by the gravel pits in the surrounding landscape, Lippard addresses a number of fascinating themes—including fracking, mining, land art, adobe buildings, ruins, Indian land rights, the Old West, tourism, photography, and water. In her meditations, she illuminates the relationship between culture, industry, and the land. From threatened Native American sacred sites to the history of uranium mining, she offers a skeptical examination of the “subterranean economy.”
Featuring more than two hundred gorgeous color images, Undermining offers a provocative new perspective on the relationship between art and place in a rapidly shifting society.
“[Lippard’s] strength lies in the depth of [her] commitment—her dual loyalty to tradition and modernity and her effort to restore the broken connection between the two.” —Suzi Gablik, The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595589330
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 09/13/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 931,159
File size: 35 MB
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About the Author

Lucy R. Lippard is an internationally known writer, activist, and curator. She has authored twenty-two books, has curated more than fifty major exhibitions, and holds nine honorary degrees. Lippard is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants. She lives in New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt



I LIVE IN ONE OF THE LOWER LEVELS OF A PIT, AN ARID ANCIENT seabed in northern New Mexico called the Galisteo Basin, where clouds of moisture circle the mountains and then ignore us, going on to other high places. The Tano (Southern Tewa) people lived "down country" for some five centuries (circa 1250–1782) in the eight huge pueblos scattered throughout the basin. Once two or three stories high, these impressive buildings are now pits and mounds of melted adobe covered by grass and cactus. In their ceremonies, the Tanos evoked clouds, rain, mountains, and springs — the underworld from which their people emerged and the heights where ancestors and deities awaited their prayers. They used gravel as mulch in their gardens to capture warmth and water for the crops.

Gravel — an aggregate formed by water — became the unlikely inspiration for this book, a collage of concerns about the ways humans intersect with nature in the arid Southwest. The humble gravel pit offers an entrance to the strata of place, suggesting some fissures in the capitalist narrative into which art can flow. The title, Undermining, has been attached to the project since its haziest inception: undermining literally — as in pits and shafts that reflect culture, alter irreplaceable ecosystems, and generate new structures; undermining's physical consequences, its scars on the human body politic; undermining as what we are doing to our continent and to the planet when greed and inequity triumph; undermining as a political act — subversion is one way artists can resist. The elements play their part: earth (mining, land art, adobe, archaeology), air (breath, pollution, death), fire (global warming) and water (from above, stored below). Water and natural resources, and their unnatural exploiters — developers, along with the coal, uranium, gas, oil, gravel, and other industries — offer both vertical and horizontal images, wells and rain, underground aquifers, drilling equipment, mountain runoff, irrigation and ditches ... and the kitchen sink.

Gravel pits provide a dialectical take on the relationship between my own three-and-a-half decades in the Lower Manhattan activist/avant-garde art community and two decades in Galisteo — a tiny New Mexico village (population 250). An influential few years were spent part time in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where my maternal grandparents were raised, and where I began to explore indigenous pasts. And for three decades contemporary Native (American) artists have challenged many of my Yankee predispositions. Sometimes the tools I bring from a lifetime in and on the edge of the arts are pretty useless when confronting land use and abuse. During roughly twenty-five years in the western United States, I've learned a new vocabulary, or perhaps forgotten the old one. It's a stretch to squeeze modernism, modernity, post-modernity, and the shifting mainstreams of the art world into the framework of my current lived experience, which is what I always work from. John Fraser Hart defined geography as "curiosity about places." Once in the West, I began to write about "place" and landscape, encompassing history and archaeology. Eventually, thanks to growing involvement in local politics, I realized that "land use" could be a more realistic replacement for the too easily romanticized notion of "land" and "earth" as in landscape, land art, and earthworks. So this book is more concerned with land use than with landscape, more focused on what we learn from living in place than what we see when we look out the windows.

Beginning with gravel pits and archaeology, I'm trying to see what art will finally fit in my baggage as I cross disciplines and wander further afield. Because of course I have baggage, and a lot of packing and unpacking to do as I travel the roads between local and global, rural and metropolitan, stopping at historical markers and the roadside attractions of photography and land art. Symbiotic pits and erections — riffs on the vertical reversed, negative and positive, ups and downs, past and present — kept emerging to form the grid (or conceit) on which this parallel visual/verbal narrative is constructed. The book is less about the many subjects covered as it is about the connections between them. The challenge is keeping the warps and wefts on the loom. My methodology is simple and experiential: one thing leads to another, as in life. Arthur Rimbaud put it more viscerally: "thought latching on to thought and pulling."

Cultural history and cultural geography are the operative factors here — the base for digressions into more technical information. I agonized about the role of statistics in this story, cutting them out, putting them back in. We are susceptible to the sea of numbers engulfing us, and they are, like maps, easily manipulated. Yet even in their volatility, they do convey the enormity of some of the problems our lands and people are confronting. So I have retained some — not as thorough or indisputable data so much as suggestions of what we are up against.

MY ACCIDENTAL PREOCCUPATION WITH GRAVEL PITS BEGAN in 2000 when I wrote an editorial in my community newsletter bemoaning the incursion of gravel mines west of our rural village. I was taken aback when the local earth mover — a progressive guy who's also a painter and a skeptical environmentalist — reproved me. He said (in so many words): Hell, you used gravel for your road. Everybody wants gravel, but they don't want gravel mines. Robert Baker [a friend's pseudonym for an unpopular local gravel tsar] is a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. If you're going after gravel miners, take on Lafarge, a multinational gravel mining company. They're taking over the American West, putting the locals out of business.

That was a surprise. I'd naively considered gravel pits, when I considered them at all, as the epitome of local enterprise. Mom and Pop have some otherwise unproductive land and a pickup, they need money, and they go for it. I'm told this is the way it used to be. Global takeovers are harder to imagine. Scale is a big issue, visually and economically, even in the once open-ended West. Most landscapes are actually designed by culture at the hands of anonymous amateurs who work by trial and error and privilege function over form. Then hired professionals try to make sense of what's there and capitalize on it with their own individual talents. The very term cultural landscape is a way of thinking about art and landscape issues that was partially invented by John Brinckerhoff (J.B.) Jackson — a seminal cultural geographer who lived in New Mexico, just west of where I settled. He defined landscape as "a concrete, three-dimensional, shared reality" — a collaboration between people and nature rather than an idealized picture or view of what lies beyond our own centers.

Soon after my conversation with the earth mover, I was looking for a novel way to approach land use through an art frame for a symposium on cities. I began to think about gravel pits as a metaphor for the underground level of a twenty-first-century cultural landscape, or the "subterranean economy," to take a Jackson phrase out of context. That seemed a fitting subtext for cultural practice. An increasing number of artists/activists are taking up the land use challenges — not just shooting photographs of undermining, but digging deeper, so to speak, into the underlying issues.

Chiseled on the façade of an old grammar school in Fort Benton, Montana, is this admonition: "INDUSTRY IS USELESS WITHOUT CULTURE," a message that still resonates in the post-industrial age. Culture is a far broader term than art and can embrace social energies not yet recognized as art. If much contemporary art appears divorced from the popular expectations of "fine arts," it remains a way of seeing, sometimes more connected to or embedded in life than previously expected. While entangling visual art with the cold realities of our current environment, some artists are realizing that they can envision alternative futures, produce redemptive and restorative vehicles with which to open cracks into other worlds, and rehabilitate the role of the communal imagination. Artists are good at slipping between the institutional walls to expose the layers of emotional and esthetic resonance in our relationships to place. They can ask questions without worrying about answers. I continue to count on the reconstructive potential of an art that raises consciousness on the land, about land use, history, and local culture and place, considered at length in my 1997 book, The Lure of the Local. Writing about conceptual, feminist, and political art as "escape attempts," I've concluded that the ultimate escape attempt would be to free ourselves from the limitations of preconceived notions of art, and in doing so, help to save the planet.

In the 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson complained: "The world is going to pieces and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!" In a plea for the importance of the esthetic at a time, like today, when art can seem insignificant compared with the perils offered by life, Adams replied that a rock was more socially significant than a line of unemployed. I wouldn't go that far. I'm usually on CartierBresson's side, but maybe I'm following Adams here by forcing the gravel pit on you because it offers a way to create in writing and images a context for the microcosmic aspects of global change our western landscapes and rural villages are undergoing — cultural and social changes similar to those that took place in the Southwest after World War II.

Out on the margins, where local scars cover for global perpetrators, we live in a distorted mirror image of the center, which perceives our "nature" as primarily resource. Here negative space can be more important than what's constructed from its deported materials elsewhere. The gravel pit, like other mining holes, is the reverse image of the cityscape it creates — extraction in aid of erection. If the modern city is vertical (a climb, leading to a privileged penthouse overview), landscape is predominantly horizontal (a walk, through all walks of life). Like archaeology, which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces. Where the vertical rules — from nineteenth-century surveyors planting flags and proclaiming dominion from the loftiest mountain peaks to the hundredth stories of skyscrapers where corporate CEOs (the real occupiers of Wall Street) peer down at protestors — the power of upward is added to outward mobility.

Like graves, these pits — whether they are dwellings or burial grounds or archaeological digs or the remnants of industries that claim to keep us alive — are eventually abandoned, their meanings forgotten, leaving stubborn scars on the land. Such "dead zones" are illuminated by Timothy J. LeCain in Mass Destruction, his fascinating book on the giant western copper mines. Sometimes the graves are more recent. In February 2004, an Albuquerque man died in a gravel pit, New Mexico's "first mine fatality" of the year. And after the European conquest, the graves of innumerable Native people were cheerfully excavated and and "collected" by cultural institutions, while others have been turned under in the process of mining.

Since 1990 it is required by law (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA) that human remains found on public lands be returned to the tribes for proper burial. It is rare that non-Native people have the same problem, though consider the clamor for proper burial of unidentified scattered body parts after September 11, 2001. Or the 2012 newspaper report about the Lowellville Cemetery in eastern Ohio, beneath which, "Deep underground, locked in ancient shale formations, are lucrative quantities of natural gas." With two other local cemeteries, Lowellville received offers from a Texas firm for their mineral rights, plus percentages of oil and gas royalties from companies claiming that no graves would be disturbed. The offer was rejected. Area activists are fighting for a citywide drilling ban. Sometimes there is justice. In 2004, gas drillers plowed through the cemetery of a historic Black coal camp community in West Virginia. The resulting lawsuit took six years, but the company was ordered to pay $200,000 in punitive damages, plus $700,000 in compensatory damages.

REAL GRAVEL — NATURALLY CREATED PEBBLES — IS GEOLOGICAL debris, constructive disintegration, alluvial, water-born, dug from old streams and lake beds. Fake gravel is just crushed rock, produced by the ecologically destructive processes of dynamite and hard rock mining. Scarce water is used to separate it from its mother lode, encouraging erosion and sometimes polluting precious drinking water in the process. In the arid Southwest, gravel pits can be less than eyesores. If the site is not squirming with machines, it isn't clear whether the pit is industrial or natural, recently broken into for profit, or eroded by wind and water over millions of years, or art — massive outdoor productions first called earthworks in the 1960s. As traditional rural western industries like ranching and mining subside, bowing to the contradictory needs and concerns of changing economies, gravel pits remain, sometimes as quarries full of discarded appliances gradually giving nature indigestion. As ruins, gravel pits are decidedly unspectacular. Their emptiness, their nakedness, and their rawness suggest an alienation of land and culture, a loss of nothing we care about.

Gravel pits transform the incomprehensibly distant geological past into dubious futures. For many, gravel pits represent pure financial potential as the bedrock of skyscrapers and the backbones of highways. They are crucial to the production of modern spaces in landscapes like New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the union, where opinions on land use divide not only along political lines, but along historical lines between Native peoples, longtime Nuevo Mexicanos, and Anglos (relative newcomers from Texas, California,or "back East") and, to add to the complexity, the new (often undocumented) New Mexicans from Old Mexico.

GRAVEL AND TRAVEL ARE SYMBIOTIC. THE HORIZONTAL ISiconic in the western landscape, representing the onward and outward of western expansion, or Manifest Destiny. First came footpaths, then exploratory trails, most following those made by the First Nations — a history unfolding "as a geometry of interruption and yearning," writes artist/historian Andrew Menard in his book Sight Unseen: How Fremont's First Expedition Changed the American Landscape. Then came wagon roads, railways, highways — extended construction leading to sprawl. We are drawn through the American landscape on "the fingers of imperialism," as Chellis Glendinning once put it. The road becomes a place in itself — described as a "site of mobility" by Jackson. Carl Andre, whose horizontal focus helped redefine the sculptural axis in the 1960s, saw his work as a road. From 2000–02, Albuquerque's "Big I" — a looping vertical and horizontal crossroad of the two major interstate highways (I-25 north/south and I-40 east/west) — was remodeled in an extraordinary two-year public construction project — the best show in town. Local land artists suffered from Big I envy, recalling sculptor Tony Smith's epiphany in the 1950s when he saw the New Jersey Turnpike under construction.

Western expansion eventually laid an awkward Jeffersonian grid of townships and sections across an apparently untamable land. "The grid," writes Menard, "was basically an attempt to overcome history by design ... the republic would be reborn each time the grid advanced." Today living "off the grid," as I do on solar, is a political statement as well as a metaphor. Every rejection of the national, corporate, electric grid is a declaration of independence from capitalism. Alteration of the Minimalist grid in art (especially feminist art) paralleled the ways in which "back roads" twist and turn, tantalizing and seducing in their intimacy, inviting invasion of previously wild or private places, and urging us, paradoxically, to follow others in search of solitude. These "blue highways" inspired William Least Heat-Moon's homage to the increasingly outdated paper road map, now almost replaced by automotive GPS systems. Along the back ways are "borrow pits," where civilization "borrows" from nature to build roads — a term that could be used much more widely in the western landscape.

Lines across the map, across the land, inform a way of seeing that flattens and blurs the places they run through, like photography — one reason it is the art form preferred by so many contemporary western artists; it has grabbed me too in my decades in the West. In his last book — West and West, the late Joe Deal talked about his intention to reimagine what lies beneath the surveyor's grid in the open and relatively featureless spaces of the Missouri Plateau in North Dakota. If the square employed in surveys of public lands, he said, "could function like a telescope, framing smaller and smaller sections of the plains down to a transect, it can also be used as a window, equilaterally divided by the horizon, that begins with a finite section of the earth and sky and restores them in the imagination to the vastness that now exists only as an idea: the landscape that is contained within the perfect symmetry of the square implies infinity." Like many contemporary photographers, Deal can make what initially looks like nothing look like something we should have noticed — as opposed to the kind of photography described by William Fox as merely "an advertisement for nature."


Excerpted from "Undermining"
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Copyright © 2014 Lucy R. Lippard.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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