Book Review: Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West By Lucy R. Lippard

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

At the end of her book Undermining, author Lucy Lippard acknowledges that readers may feel she has “traveled far afield from the pits and piles of gravel” where she begins her story, at the ancient Tano Pueblo remains near her home in Galisteo. Lippard is known for her peregrinations through the multiple disciplines that have shaped her life: the feminist art world of the 1970s; conceptualist art criticism; photography; Native art and pueblos; New Mexico’s Galisteo Basin; and the politics of land use. Now, in Undermining, as she explores the relationship between humans and nature, culture and land, she uses gravel as her metaphorical—and literal—aggregation.

Her story begins with an anecdote that resonated with me. After she wrote an editorial in her Galisteo newsletter, El Puente de Galisteo, complaining about the incursion of gravel mines near her rural village, a local “earth mover” chastised her for a NIMBY attitude (everyone needs gravel but not they don’t want it to come from their backyards) and in effect supporting industrial gravel mining by not supporting her local earth mover. In so many of the land use issues La Jicarita has covered over the years—community versus corporate logging, recreating versus making a living off the land, common lands versus wilderness—we’ve been forced to take into account the complex understory of effects we engender when we take an absolutist position. Lippard takes to account what her earth mover says and decides to use the gravel pit to provide, in writing and images, a context for the changes and consequences we in the Southwest, and specifically in New Mexico, are seeing and experiencing in our cultural landscape.

One thing leads to another in Lippard’s book. She travels out from the gravel pit in a horizontal line of western expansion on the “fingers of imperialism,” as our mutual friend Chellis Glendinning called it. Roads lead through the rural West where not only gravel is mined but everything else you can think of: turquoise, lead, silver, gold, copper, and, of course, uranium. Gravel becomes concrete, which becomes buildings and dams, while adobe, with its own pits supplying adobe mud, becomes MacMansions as the rural West becomes gentrified. Gentrification leads to a discussion of Indian tribes trying to “recapture and protect what’s left of their ancestral lands and sacred sites.” Here, Lippard goes into detail about the struggles involved in trying to classify Mount Taylor a Traditional Cultural Property, in part to protect it from a resurgence of uranium mining that in the 1960s to the 80s poisoned its people and water (see La Jicarita, November 30, 2012).

A recurring theme throughout the book is expressed when Lippard talks about the artistic movement that arose in the 1960s called land art, many of whose creators she knows—or knew (many have died)—personally. “The land is not separate from the often harsh realities of lives lived upon and around it. A land art in the New West could acknowledge the rough edges as well as the romance. It could be integrated into a cultural landscape, which is an ever changing production featuring vegetation, wildlife, water, and human agency. A vernacular land art might include commemoration that looks to the smaller scale, land-based notions of nature, remembering small farms and common lands, the disappearing histories of places and ecosystems.” Further along in the book she extends this thinking to the dichotomy of local and global: global is the “sum of many locals,” that which we can “actually see, and do something about.” Her local is the Galisteo Basin, and by extension, New Mexico and the Southwest, in its constant flux, as culture and land intersect in complicated and unsettling ways. Undermining is a useful guide for those who want to travel through either the “sum,” a macroscopic overview of how all these people and places and events fit together, or a microscopic dive into where we live, who and what we live with, and how we’re going to be a conscious part of where we’re going.

The book is uniquely designed to showcase the impressive photographs she has amassed from her extensive network of artist and activist friends. They are displayed across the top of every page, reflecting the new ways artists are engaging with culture and place, while her text below places them in the story. Photographers and artists include: Patrick Nagatani, Joan Ockman, Ed Ranney, Larry McNeil, Eve Andrée Laramée, Robert Adams, and many others.

While many of us involved in land use issues across New Mexico are familiar with much of the material Lippard covers, it’s always interesting to follow her quirky mind making patterns we might not have imagined.

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