Project Space: The Third Site of Land Art: Unintentional Sites

by Jennie Lamensdorf

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      There are sites of land art that are canonical. Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels and The Lightning Field literally and figuratively defined a movement. There is land art, such as Cabinetlandia, that doesn’t need the land to be effective. And then there is land art that was never intended to be art. These unintentional sites can be just as revealing about the landscape as any intentional work.

      This is true of the New Mexico Mining Museum in the town of Grants, home of the “only underground simulated uranium mine in the world.” Located in the heart of the Grants Mineral Belt, a uranium-rich province that at its peak supported approximately 2,000 mines, this little museum and its star attraction are both fascinating and terrifying. They reveal the fraught history and reality of the desert through myth, monument and collective amnesia.

      The Mining Museum propagates the pervasive myth that the nuclear industry brought nothing but jobs and economic stability to the area. If you ask one of the women working at the front desk what the most radioactive object in the museum is, she will cheerfully point out an innocent-looking stone in a glass vitrine in the entry hall. In a room down the hallway, a series of dated videos documenting the region are shown. The video about the Jackpile Mine on Laguna Pueblo Reservation (the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, in operation from 1953 to 1982), was probably shot in the late 1970s. In the video, no one in the mine wears Hazmat suits, let alone masks over their faces. An excited overseer explains the extraction process to the camera, while sticking an ungloved hand into a train car of uranium ore.

      The monument to the golden age of nuclear mining is also the museum’s highlight: an interactive, self-guided, underground tour of “Sector 26” at the Jackpile Mine. At several points throughout the “mine” you can press a button to hear audio of former miners describing the scene before you. It’s the little things here that get under your skin. In the lunchroom, for instance, you realize that everyone just relaxed in the radioactive mine and had a sandwich at noon. Or, you may notice that dynamite was pushed into the walls using ordinary wooden sticks. The faux-mine is decked out to the nines and you cannot help but wonder where all the drills, train cars and equipment came from. Was it just transferred over from the original mine? Is it still radioactive?

      By co-opting the Mining Museum and framing it as unintentional land art, my intention is to walk the line between the traditions of appropriation and institutional critique, revealing what Joseph Masco describes in Desert Modernism, as the “tactical amnesia” needed to coexist with the western landscape. “This ability to reinscribe desert ‘purity’ requires constant effort, as the pursuit of utopian potential is predicated on a continual emptying-out of dystopian realities—in this case, those of nuclear weapons, waste and war.” The undesirability of much of the western landscape makes it highly desirable to industries that want to be invisible, and the image of the desert as a wasteland allows for it to be used as a national sacrifice zone.

      In the spirit of mythologizing the west, the Mining Museum makes no mention of the health or environmental consequences of uranium mining or the nuclear industry. The history painted by the institution is one in which the nuclear industry brought thousands of jobs and great wealth to the area, and then it was suddenly taken away for no good reason. The institution’s policy of only offering official history rather than opinions about the repercussions of the mining industry belies a secondary set of intentions. What is this museum’s agenda? In a community with more empty storefronts than businesses, who can support a museum? The answer may lie in the one exhibit that I noticed for its slickness and high-tech gloss in opposition to the museum’s overall low-budget DIY feel: it’s sponsored by and extols the virtues of clean coal.

      In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable.” The New Mexico Mining Museum maps an incomplete history of the Grants Mineral Belt landscape. As landscape intervention, however, it provides an in-depth, if unintentional, lens onto the traditional narrative of western land use. Like the blank spots on a map revealing the edges of knowledge, the Mining Museum reveals the edges of official history.

      Jennie Lamensdorf is a graduate student in Art History at the University of Texas and a 2010 participant in the Land Arts of the American West Program.

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