Reading Robert Smithson, lately, I cannot help but set down a few words. His writing is clearly important to his development as an artist. His language touches on the sublime. This is understandable in context of his life and work: his monumentalizing of derelict sites and objects through his sculpture, his early death, and his particular use of language. [You will forgive a long post.]
Spiral Jetty © Smithson
Smithson is fascinated with industrial detritus. In 1967, he published in Artforum an essay in which he describes his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey.* Smithson’s vision of his hometown is both an argument for his sculpture as artwork and an exposition of the industrial landscape as a sublime presence. In the text, Smithson conflates sculpture with the built environment, shifting between the objects on the river (the barge, the bridge, the pipes) and their presence as imagined monuments. In this way he approaches the limits of representational thinking and finds an unmasterable excess of beauty in the mundane operations and industrial infrastructure of the Passaic River.
Asphalt on Eroded Cliff © Smithson
Smithson begins the essay with his journey from Port Authority to Passaic. He buys a one-way bus ticket and a newspaper. The narrative is a montage of captions from the newspaper overlaid with views out the window of the bus. Smithson reads absentmindedly. Headlines appear as precursors to the landscape transformations that will follow: “Moving a 1,000 Pound Sculpture Can Be a Fine Work of Art, Too” (69). Quotes from the Arts section become a code through which Smithson interprets the landscape. The art reviews prime the eye to recognize the view that appears through window of the bus as art.
Smithson’s diction borrows from the language of painting, photography and sculpture. The sky is “a clear cobalt blue” (69). The natural world appears in the colors of paint pigments. When Smithson gets off the bus and walks toward the river, the confluence of experience with his representations of it becomes even more intense. The sun becomes a light bulb. The scene appears as overexposed photograph (70). Passaic is reified as a film and an art object. Smithson says it is “cinema-ized” (70). This fusion of experience and representation is heightened by the use of metaphor instead of simile. Smithson does not make comparisons but rather asserts a fully realized experience. The mise-en-scene appears as void and light, figure and ground. Objects fuse to surfaces. Shapes become protagonists in the narrative of movement on and along the river.
"A barge seemed fixed to the surface of the water as it came toward the bridge, and caused the bridge keeper to close the gates. From the banks of the Passaic I watched the bridge rotate on a central axis in order to allow an inert rectangular shape to pass with its unknown cargo." (70)
The Museum of the Void © Smithson
Then the narrative breaks. Smithson is jarred from his associative state by a federal highway sign, which he reprints in full, before descending from the riverbank into a series of used car lots. He fast-forwards from industrial-river nostalgia to the image of a decrepit future. The bottom falls out of his utopia. Now voids instead of objects appear to him as monuments. He sees Passaic as a panorama of “vacancies that define without trying, the memory traces of an abandoned set of futures” (72). The narrative speeds ahead to an imagined future while simultaneously looking back at the physical detritus of that future in the form of the highway sign and concrete plant. This move calls presence into question through a slippage of projection and observation. Smithson writes:
"Perhaps I had slipped into a lower stage of futurity – did I leave the real future behind in order to advance into a false future? Yes, I did. Reality was behind me at this point in my suburban Odyssey." (72)
Smithson has stepped out of his experience of the sublime at this at this point in the narrative, but it remains more real to him than the real. For the rest of his journey through Passaic the mundane appears as the mundane. Without a monumentalizing lens, Passaic is bland, nebulous, and listless (73).
Cement Flow © Smithson
The final and striking monument of Smithson’s piece is a sandbox, a model desert. He asks the reader to picture it filled with white and black sand. Then he places a child in the sandbox to mix irreversibly the black with the white. Finally he rewinds the sequence as if it were a film, pointing out that only in the cinema can physical dissolution be escaped (74). This self-reflexive move sheds light on Smithson’s own use of cinematic tropes (framing, fast-forwarding, reversing) in the essay.
9 Islands in Circular Pond © Smithson
Smithson’s visceral experience and cinematic vision of Passaic offer an illusive or temporary escape from the normative. Though his experience of the sublime is fleeting, his particular way of seeing and moving through the landscape persists in his sculpture and writing.
A Heap of Language © Smithson
* All quotes are from “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley, CA, 1996), and originally published as “The Monuments of Passaic” in Artforum, December 1967. Page numbers refer to the collected writings.
The studio-based curriculum at Harvard GSD runs in parallel to the school's evening lecture series. While material from the studio finds its way into the Q & A, the most thought provoking talks do not always have direct expression. I propose this blog as a forum to hone the casual post-lecture discussion in the trays into a record of the most exciting and ephemeral aspects of an architectural education. Follow @kongsgaarden. Views are my own.