On Dean On Ballard On Millar On Smithson

Who knew? Tacita Dean writes in the Guardian about her late friend JG Ballard’s shared interest in Robert Smithson:

My relationship to Ballard had begun a little earlier, with our mutual interest in the work of the US artist Robert Smithson. In 1997, I tried to find Smithson’s famous 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty, in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. I had directions faxed to me from the Utah Arts Council, which I supposed had been written by Smithson himself. I only knew what I was looking for from what I could remember of art school lectures: the iconic aerial photograph of the basalt spiral formation unfurling into a lake. In the end, I never found it; it was either submerged at the time, or I wasn’t looking in the right place. But the journey had a marked impact on me, and I made a sound work about my attempt to find it. Ballard must have read about it, because he sent me a short text he had written on Smithson, for an exhibition catalogue.
It was the writer, curator and artist Jeremy Millar who became convinced Smithson knew of Ballard’s short story, The Voices of Time, before building his jetty. All Smithson’s books had been listed after his death in a plane crash in 1973 – and The Voices of Time was among them. The story ends with the scientist Powers building a cement mandala or “gigantic cipher” in the dried-up bed of a salt lake in a place that feels, by description, to be on the very borders of civilisation: a cosmic clock counting down our human time. It is no surprise that it is a copy of The Voices of Time that lies beneath the hand of the sleeping man on the picnic rug in the opening scenes of Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames’ classic 1977 film about the relative size of things in the universe.

As it happens, I’m reading Millar’s book about Fischli & Weiss right now. And Massimiliano Gioni and the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi are opening a nice retrospective of Dean’s work in Milan in a couple of weeks. As soon as my copy of Ballard’s just-published interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist arrives, the loop will be complete.
The cosmic clock with Ballard at its core [guardian, thanks stuart]

Visiting Artist [sic], Parts 7 & 7: Robert Smithson

These are the last two segments from the lecture I gave at the University of Utah School of Art in 2007, titled Visiting Artist [sic]. They’re both about Robert Smithson. The first [above] is about Smithson’s own 1972 slideshow lecture at the UofU, “Hotel Palenque,” which he also published as an Artforum article, and which his estate eventually sold to the Guggenheim as a multimedia installation piece of art.
I love “Hotel Palenque,” and took its irreverent challenge to the orthodoxy of art and art criticism as part of the inspiration for some of my own talk. In preparation for my own lecture, I tracked down some people who were present at Smithson’s original lecture, to see what the artist may have said or indicated at the time.
Unlike the Guggenheim, I am deeply unconvinced that the lecture is a work of art per se. But I find it useful asking how and why treat this thing [sic] an artist made/did/said differently depending on whether it is or isn’t Art.

The second clip is the hometown favorite, the Spiral Jetty. In 2007, the big questions surrounding the Jetty concerned its recognition as a tourist attraction. The state government decided to do a big cleanup of the industrial detritus and abandoned machinery on Rozel Point [they arbitrarily classified wood and stone structures as “historic,” while removing all metal.] And then Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt made offhand comments about how it’d be fine with Bob to rebuild the Jetty, because that wasn’t the kind of entropy he meant, anyway. So I riffed on what kind of entropy might be best for a once-obscure, once-abandoned, now-popular Earthwork.
All Visiting Artist [sic] posts:
Parts 2 & 3: On Dan Flavin
Parts 4 & 5: On Throwing Art Away
video of Part 6: On Joep van Lieshout, which I apparently didn’t post here
Parts 7 & 7 [sic] on Robert Smithson

Finding Double Negative has never been easier

Not since we programmed it into the navigation system of my in-laws’ car, anyway.
The car also has an offroad navigation feature that logs virtual GPS breadcrumbs at preset intervals along the way, but it proved unnecessary. The nearly featureless mesa where Heizer’s land artwork is sited turns out to be a road with a name: Carp Elgin Rd.
In fact, there it is on Google Maps, one of the tightest satellite shots I’ve ever seen of Double Negative. Crazy.
Update: OK, not to get all George Bush and the Grocery Scanner about it, but I just typed “Spiral Jetty” into Google Maps, and it came right up. With an upgraded photograph–and a label.
In fact, here are complete driving directions to the Jetty from 213 Park Avenue South, the former location of Max’s Kansas City. [note: there is a weird little, unnecessary jog at the very end that I couldn’t fix, but I’m not worried. Given the rate at which technology is iterating and altering the way once-isolated land artworks are experienced and perceived, I expect a realtime Google Streetview of the Jetty is already being planned on a whiteboard somewhere in Mountain View.]
Clearly, Google has been augmenting its map search with information found on the rest of the web. An otherwise seemingly Googleproof project like Michael Heizer’s City, which he sited as remotely as he could, is pinpointed by latitude and longitude coordinates published on a Land Art site. City also has newer photos.
Roden Crater’s there, under “Roden Crater, AZ,” but it still has the quaint, old-timey satellite photo from 2005 or whatever. I hope they’ll get around to upgrading it by the time Turrell finishes.

Backroads Backstory: Walter De Maria On Michael Heizer

I started poking around a bit on the making of story of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. I’d known that it was commissioned by Virginia Dwan, the incredible gallerist who was also behind Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Here’s a bit of her story from Michael Kimmelman’s 2003 visit with her:

She contracted him to do a work. He disappeared. Months later it was done. ”Double Negative” is a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide gash cut into facing slopes of an obscure mesa in Nevada, a project that required blasting 240,000 tons of rock. ”It cost under $30,000,” Ms. Dwan says, ”pocket change for art today. I saw it only after it was finished. That’s how I operated. If I believed in the artist I trusted him.”

Then I came across an interesting 1972 Smithsonian interview Paul Cummings with Heizer’s earthwork colleague, Walter De Maria, two artists who romanced the desert together. I love the unselfconscious references to Kerouacking and creating an art movement. No way you could pull that off today:

WDM: Well, I drove across the country with Mike Heiser who I had been spending a lot of time with in ’67. So we had this chance to have the great American Kerouac experience of driving, you know, drive, drive and it never stops and four or five days later you can make it if you drive night and day. When I had first driven the country in the summer of ’63 from New York back to California, it was the most terrific experience of my life, experiencing the great plains and the Rockies, but especially the desert, you know. No, I would say the drive through Nevada in ’63 was the first time I was in the desert. And that memory was to come back in the crisis. Where is the best place in the world? It’s what I saw in Nevada. So it was a chance to go back to the desert for a second time and this time to start going out there often. We met flyers and we learned what it was like to fly small planes and drive trucks on these dry lakes and stuff.

We had a lot in common; we knew the whole situation so that gave us something to talk about and from that point it became interesting that he would change from shaped canvas painting to sculpture, and I was at the point of changing from steel sculpture into the land sculpture. So it was a move that we both wanted to make at the same time. We have both been developing the land sculpture simultaneously since that time, five years ago, just about until today. We’re really starting the sixth year. I mean, you know, we did it. It’s something that two people could do that one couldn’t, really, create a movement, because if one person does it, it is almost an eccentricity, but if two people are doing it and then they influence two others or three. It takes no more than three or four or five people to make a movement and then those people of course can have a hundred or two hundred or five hundred or a thousand following them. But the key idea is to develop two or three people. But it’s not necessary, sometimes three or four or five people could be working simultaneously. Like this guy Richard Long was working in England, walking around in the fields in ’68 also. That was completely independent simultaneous development…

The mention of flyers and deserts reminds me of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, which I’ve been watching lately. James Turrell is another flyer–and land art biggie, what with the Roden Crater and all. Don’t think I’ve heard much mention of that. Of course, there was Smithson and The Plane, but that wouldn’t be till ’73. Anyway, here’s more De Maria on one paradox of land art:

We’ve fought a lot of the same people; we’ve shared some of the same patrons, the same gallery like Dwan, Frederich for a while in Germany. Now he has another gallery. And all of our same problems remain, like to make earth art exist in the face of a lot of the same structural problems that still exist. Galleries are not set up to back major sculptures.
PC: Right.
WDM: There’s nothing set up to sell major sculptures. Museums do not commission major sculptures, even though they go off and spend five million dollars on an old painting. And not only that, a lot of people don’t believe that it really exists. There is still a lot of misconception that it exists only for the photograph and not for itself. It’s so far away that maybe everyone in the art world knows about our sculpture but not even one thousandth of one percent of a person has ever seen one of the pieces with is a very interesting conceptual and visible aspect of something that is massive. So, with all of these confusions and contradictions still inherent in the work, one could see another five years of good problems and hopefully some good solutions coming up. [emphasis added]

And it turns out that De Maria created his own trench-in-the-desert land art in 1969, Las Vegas Piece, which is just up the road from Double Negative. Or should I say “road.” CLUI says it’s located on Carp/Elgin Road, which, according to my father-in-law’s GPS navigation, is the same dirt road that passes alongside Double Negative.
De Maria talked about Las Vegas Piece in the Smithsonian interview. But when he reports Dwan’s account of visiting it, it is Kimmelman who waxes a little romantic:

It consisted of dirt paths he cut into the Nevada desert, going nowhere. In my mind — maybe Walter would say this is untrue — the desert setting, the heat and sun and emptiness were so important to the work because you were made to feel absolutely alone. First, it was a safari to find it, and when you did, you were separated from everyone else if you wandered down the paths, because the land was uneven, although it looked flat from far away, so you would find yourself on the far side of a rise, alone in the desert.
”I love the sense of isolation and solitude. But at the same time Walter’s art almost pushes a spectator away, as if he’s saying, ‘Stay back.’ ”

And so it goes that the foreboding environment of the desert itself moves to the foreground of the land art experience. It’s part of the mythology and story of the piece, told and retold without firsthand confirmation by the 99.999% of art world citizens who don’t actually go. Like this NY Times travel article starring Dave Hickey and his wife as daring land art tour guides:

Mr. Hickey’s wife, the curator Libby Lumpkin, had suggested that Chris and I drive into the desert to see Michael Heizer’s earth art piece from 1969-70, “Double Negative” (doublenegative.tarasen.net). A work I was curious to see, it was famously hard to find. She had us meet her at the Las Vegas Art Museum, where she is the consulting executive director, to get directions.

She warned us to take plenty of water. People had died, she claimed, after losing their way on Mormon Mesa, where “Double Negative” is carved. The Internet directions she’d handed us turned out to be more precise on paper than in the featureless landscape. After driving an hour and a half northeast to Overton, we followed a dirt road up the side of the mesa.
Rocks on top threatened to puncture the oil pan on the Neon, so I parked. We stumbled around, visoring our hands against the sun. Nothing in sight looked like art.
We flagged down two cars but no one had ever heard of the work. Discouraged and clueless, we were heading back to the city when we saw an S.U.V. The driver, an elderly man from Overton, had been to “Double Negative.” He pronounced it a “tax dodge,” but agreed to lead us there anyway.

Now I want to go back and see what’s up with De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece, but not only is CLUI’s coordinate map hopelessly vague [“The site is 37 miles down the road, off another small trail.”], not even they can be bothered to confirm its continued existence. All they say about it is, “Apparently, no longer visible.”

So How’s That Spiral Jetty Doin’?

Is he done? I think so. Tyler Green has turned Modern Art Notes into State of Spiral Jetty Notes this week, and it seems clear to me that the biggest entropic threat Smithson’s masterpiece faces is not natural, but institutional.
Green looks at the mining and commercial interests with development plans for the Great Salt Lake; Utah state government officials who court industry and economic development and who are only beginning to grasp the Jetty’s global significance; local conservation and environmental groups whose shoestring grassroots efforts were the only thing that stopped the oil drilling near the Jetty this past spring; and last and unfortunately least, Dia, the art institution which is steward–and in many cases, commissioner–of many Jetty-vintage earthworks.
I wonder if it means anything that Smithson’s widow and estate representative, Nancy Holt, isn’t really discussed or quoted in the otherwise exhaustive series? Or that there’s no mention of Dia’s total ball-dropping in regard to the state’s apparently unilateral decision in 2006 to “clean up” the shore line near the Jetty, a process which involved removing several dozen truckloads of “junk,” including some industrial ruins that Smithson referenced in his siting of the piece.
Dia’s lack of involvement and strategic vision for the Jetty is complicated at the moment by the institution’s own turmoil and leadership transition, but I can’t help but feel worried even calling Dia an “institution.” Even under Michael Govan’s high profile leadership, Dia has always felt like a virtual organization, an instantiation of the whims of whatever deep-pocketed funder was around at the moment. [Wow, was MIchael Kimmelman’s look at Dia’s manic history really from 2003? It feels much longer ago than that.] The kinds of political and coalition-related imperatives that Tyler discusses–and on which the Jetty’s very survival apparently now hangs–seem completely alien to a bauble like Dia.
MAN Series on Preserving Spiral Jetty [modern art notes]
Oil drilling was part of the picture when Smithson sited the Jetty
Cleanup crew: 1, Entropy: 0
Related rumination: What if sprawl is the real entropy?

Well, I Remember The First Time I Visited The Spiral Jetty

Former NGA curator and Dia director Jeffrey Weiss writes about the state of Land Art in the latest issue of Artforum. His focus: T.S.O.Y.W., a 3-hour Earthworks road trip movie/installation by Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler shown in this year’s Whitney Biennial, and the Sculpture Center’s recent exhibition of feminism and Land Art in the 1970’s [which featured the Agnes Denes work, Wheatfield – A Confrontation in Battery Park City that I mentioned a couple of months ago.]

As Earthworks come of age, their fate has begun to look contingent and fragile. Those who are charged with caring for the sites are rightly doing what they can to forestall change; but a true poetics of Land art–given the very nature of the medium–must at least contend with the conflict between an ethic of preservation and the entropic pull of nature and culture that belongs to the content of the work. In this setting, Granat and Heitzler are melancholic visionaries. Their wheels, like reels, turn in order to draw a straight line and follow it: Their line is the road, a figure for unbounded space and inexhaustible time. But as their bike moves forward, their eyes gaze, historically, back; T.S.O.Y.W. shows us that memory has become a chief element of the temporal condition of the Earthwork. The film’s end is a running-down and out, a sudden shift from images of the infinite desert to scarred film leader, then, abruptly, to nothing at all. Forever turns out to be the ultimate conceit. [emphasis added]

Hmm, let’s ignore the conceit of a film ending abruptly while it’s actually screening on an endless loop in a gallery.
I’m intrigued by the idea that memory is a “chief element” of Land Art and its “temporal condition,” if it somehow equates to the divergence between the contemporary condition and experience of visiting the work/site and its various representations, whether in film, photograph, or documenting ephemera.
For most art audience members over the intervening decades–curators, critics, collectors and artists included– Land Art exists as books, photos, gallery presentations, and texts. At the Whitney’s Robert Smithson retrospective in 2005, one symposium panelist went so far as to argue that Spiral Jetty was primarily a film and photo work, as if the jetty itself were just a location, a bit of IMDb trivia. It sounded to me then like just the kind of critical reading that a New York art worlder would make who’d come of age when the Jetty was submerged, and who’d never bothered going to Utah in the 10+ years since it re-appeared.
With images and expectations formed in our head, actually visiting an Earthwork can be as disorienting as meeting your favorite NPR host. Or if, as Weiss points out, the work has deteriorated over time, it’s like meeting an author who hasn’t updated his bookjacket photo for a while. And the disconnect can be jarring; When Titus O’Brien made his pilgrimage to Smithson’s last work, Amarillo Ramp, he found the powerful sculptural form of the iconic 1973 photograph had become “a worn down, weed covered, neglected berm of dirt you’d just mistake for an old watering trough dam. A phantom.”
But memory is more than the gap between reality and what we think reality is; it’s the reconciliation and construction of the two. Weiss’s concerns about the complications Land Art curators face is right, but maybe not in the way he says. From Marfa to the Lightning Field to the Jetty to even Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and Turrell’s Roden Crater, the Earthworks Road Trip has matured in the last decade as both a real experience and a concept. As more people make the pilgrimages and have personal encounters with these works, not only do their memories of the works change, but other people begin to perceive the works not just as images in a book or on a wall, but as visitable sites.
I wonder how the perceptions and understanding of Walter deMaria’s Lightning Field change when they’re based, not just on John Cliett’s dramatic, official photos [via], but on firsthand accounts of the 24-hour visiting experience, very few of which appear to involve actual lightning? And how would that change if Dia and deMaria allowed visitor photographs? When it comes to Land Art in the present and future, there are still a few more conceits left to be addressed.

Is The Spiral Jetty Visible? Check USGS Elevation Data

So the geocachers I’ve relied on to provide the link to the USGS real time data about the elevation of the Great Salt Lake have rejiggered their site.
So here’s the link I’m using to see if the Spiral Jetty is visible, submerged, or high and dry.
The Jetty’s elevation is 4,197 feet above sea level, so with the lake level at 4,194, I suspect it’ll be high and dry tomorrow.
update: it was, and it’s spectacular, black-on-white, with the shimmering water just off the outer edge of the spiral. Also, we got a flat, which I had to change at the Jetty, which sucked. The flat, of course, not the Jetty.
USGS Water Surface Elevation, Great Salt Lake near Saline, UT [waterdata.usgs.gov]
Previously: lots of Jetty goodness on the greg.org

Lemme Tell You A Story ‘Bout A Man Named Smithson

Score one for the bloggers. In the face of an instant, last-minute, blog-fueled burst of attention, the Utah Department of Oil, Gas & Mines has extended the public comment period until Feb. 13 for Application to Permit Drilling #08-8853, which seeks to conduct test drilling for oil in the West Rozel Field, an underwater oil deposit in Great Salt Lake.
The proposed drill sites are a couple of miles away from Rozel Point, the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. After a heads up from the Friends of The Great Salt Lake, Smithson’s widow and the executor of his estate, Nancy Holt, fired off email alerts to the art and media worlds, urging them to act “to save the beautiful, natural Utah environment around the Spiral Jetty from oil drilling.”
I dutifully fired off my letter, expressing my grave concern for the fate of “the single most important work of art in the state.” Apparently, at least a thousand other people around the world did, too, and in one day.
But something seems odd to me. What’s the actual threat, where does it come from, what’s the logical–and realistic–solution, and what do we know about what the artist himself would think about oil production nearby his masterpiece? Holt’s calling for protection of the Jetty’s “beautiful, natural” surroundings doesn’t exactly reflect the reality of the work. Likewise, Lynne deFreitag, the FOGSL chairwoman who raises the specter of “offshore equipment [that] could cause noise and visual impairment in a relatively pristine area.”
Now the National Trust of Historical Preservation has weighed in, calling the Spiral Jetty “a significant cultural site from the recent past, merging art, the environment, and the landscape.”
Rozel Point may be beautiful, but it is not pristine, and it’s not natural. And oil drilling is no stranger to the area, either. By ignoring the specific industrial history of the Spiral Jetty and its site, these defenses, however well-meaning or much-needed, are incomplete and inaccurate at best, and misleading at worst.
According to Smithson’s own accounts of the project, oil and oil production are inextricably linked to the Spiral Jettyand the reasons Smithson chose to build it at Rozel Point. A choice based on, among other resources, his consultation of his copy of the 1963 Utah Geological & Mineral Survey map titled, “Oil Seeps of Rozel Point.” [image: via Ron Graziani’s 2004 book, Robert Smithson and the American Landscape]
As he explained in a 1972 interview with Paul Cummings:

You might say my early preoccupation with the early civilizations of the West was a kind of a fascination with the coming and going of things…. And I became interested in kind of low profile landscapes, the quarry or the mining area which we call an entropic landscape, a kind of backwater or fringe area…

He continued, rather romantically, explaining the landscape of debris from decades of failed oil expeditions:

An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediment were countless bits of wreckage. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern pre-history…
Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south or Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness ruted in the corrosive salt air. A hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of “the missing link.” A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.
About one mile north of the oil seeps I selected my site.

[In 2005, the state decided to clear out all these ruins and debris using money from the Division of Oil, Gas & Mining’s “orphan well” fund. “Within 16 days,” brags the Utah Geological Survey website, “a total of eighteen 40- cubic-yard dumpsters full of junk were hauled away! Only some old wood pilings and historic stone building foundations were left behind…So, if you have ventured to the area before, either to see Rozel Point or Spiral Jetty, you may not recognize it when you return!” [emphasis added]
Interesting that to the state, wood pilings and stone foundations are “historic,” but the metal/industrial elements were “junk.” It’s a diametrically opposite view from the artist’s own.
Even though the “Diluvian” ruins of failed oil drilling were central to the choice of Rozel Point, and even though he built his own Jetty right next to an abandoned oil drilling jetty, the industrial nature of the site was largely omitted from critical discussion of the Spiral Jetty for decades while it lay submerged and unvisited.
During the 2004 retrospective at the Whitney, Todd Gibson noticed how Smithson largely excluded the surroundings from the Spiral Jetty film:

This is interesting because Smithson could just as easily have chosen to place Spiral Jetty within the context of the industrial landscape in which he built it. At two points during the film, viewers get a passing, background glimpse of the oil-drilling jetty situated less than half a mile to the east. You have to be watching for it to see it, the shots are so quick. (See the satellite photo at right for an indication of how close these two jetties are–and by how much the industrial jetty dwarfs Smithson’s work.)
I was surprised by these two shots in the film because they both show not just the oil drilling jetty that remains at the site today, but they also clearly show a giant drilling derrick at the end of the jetty that is no longer there. The site was even more clearly a working industrial landscape at the time Smithson built his piece than it is today, but Smithson chose not to highlight that fact in the film–even though his Non-site works had explored the concept of the industrial, entropic landscape a few years before.
It’s only been in the last few years, since Spiral Jetty reemerged from the water and people started visiting the site again, that discussion of this aspect of the work has arisen.

It’s too late, and this is too long already, so I’ll have to look into the questions of the current oil drilling situation in another post. Meanwhile, don’t forget to write your letter of support for the Jetty! Demand that the state restore the 18 trailerloads of pumps and junk immediately!

Leaving On A Jet Plane, Speaking On Art Tuesday

Spiral Doily, found at the Sinclair Station, Corinne, UT, 2005

“Spiral Doily” postcard, Corinne, UT, 2005

Yow, didn’t realize how radio silent it’s been around here. I’ve been working on a couple of deadlines, one article I’ll go into later, and a lecture I’m just tightening up right now.
I’m heading off to Salt Lake City to speak at the University of Utah’s Visiting Artist [sic] Lecture Series. Given the venue, I’ll be talking a bit about Robert Smithson [who also rather famously gave a lecture at the school in 1972], the Spiral Jetty, and some of the stories and themes from both the blog here and my articles for the NY Times.
If I were pressed for a poetic theme, it’d be the mutable afterlife of a work of contemporary art. If I were presenting at CAA, I’d try to come up with a zingy title involving money. One thing that strikes me about most of the art historical world is the willful blindness on subjects of the market and its relationship to art and how it’s produced and consumed.
Once when I was talking to Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s, he used the term “economic curatorship,” something of an attention economy wherein works get greater attention and exposure precisely because of their prices. It’s an undeniable effect, but unless you’re an auctioneer, money is usually only mentioned in relation to art in an uncritically pejorative way.
This is all part of what I’m thinking about for the talk–the audience will include BFA and MFA students as well as art history folks, as well as my Utah relatives up to two or three times removed, I hear–how much of it goes in is still TBD.
If you’re the reader of greg.org who’s in Salt Lake City and who’s not related to me, you should feel free to come, too. Tuesday, Apr. 3 at 5pm, ART 158, in the Fine Art building, just between the library and the museum.
There’s some webcasting/podcasting/streaming element to it as well; as soon as I figure that out, I’ll post it here.

Non-Sensical Non-Site Non-Art?: Smithson’s “Hotel Palenque”


Curator Nancy Spector described Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, which the Guggenheim acquired in 1999 from the artist’s estate [controlled by his widow Nancy Holt and represented by James Cohan Gallery] this way:

Hotel Palenque perfectly embodies the artist’s notion of a “ruin in reverse.” During a trip to Mexico in 1969, he photographed an old, eccentrically constructed hotel, which was undergoing a cycle of simultaneous decay and renovation. Smithson used these images in a lecture presented to architecture students at the University of Utah in 1972, in which he humorously analyzed the centerless, “de-architecturalized” site.
Extant today as a slide installation with a tape recording of the artist’s voice, Hotel Palenque provides a direct view into Smithson’s theoretical approach to the effects of entropy on the cultural landscape.

Smithson’s lecture combines deadpan delivery with absurdist architectural/archeological analysis of a contemporary ruin, a critique–or a spoof–of the kind of academic jargon-laden travelogue usually reserved for slideshows of “real” architecture like the nearby Mayan temple complex.
The lecture is available in several formats: the Guggenheim version was included in the recent MoCA/Whitney retrospective; an illustrated transcript was published in Parkett #43 in 1995; and the incomparable UbuWeb has a 362mb film of the 1972 event for download. [update: uh. ] There was even a “cover version” “performed” by an artist last year in Portland.
But re-viewing the “original” really makes me wonder. The differences between various posthumous incarnations and interpretations of the “Hotel Palenque” lecture seem significant enough to make me question what Smithson actually intended for the lecture, how it was originally received, how it has been contextualized today, and if it is even a “work” at all.
The medium through which art is experienced inevitably influences its perception and interpretation. For an entire generation while it was submerged, the Spiral Jetty “existed”–or was experienced–only through memory, history, text and photo documentation, and, importantly, the artist’s own “making of” film. Once the actual work started re-emerging in 1993-94, its experiential aspects have shifted; now The Visit, the spatial situation, environmental conditions and entropic forces at the site, and the interplay between the Jetty‘s manifestations come to the fore.
Similarly, Palenque is consistently described in hindsight, through the sophisticated conceptual contstruct of Smithson’s writings, but to watch it, Palenque actually sounds like a dorky, rambling joke, more parody than pronouncement. The only real jargon he uses are “situation” [in the architectural sense] and “de-architecturization.” Otherwise, the real/only humor comes from the juxtaposition of his blandly weighty assertions of importance and photos of torn plastic roofing, piles of bricks, and a room propped up by shaky-looking poles [“this is how we approached the site; our car is right there, see between those two columns?”]


The lecture is described as funny, but the only laughter I could hear sounded nervous, or at least tentative. And without knowing anything of how the lecture came to be, and how it was received and reviewed at the time, I can’t help but imagine that some people, like Smithson’s hosts, or his audience, might have felt like the butt of some smart-alecky New York artist’s practical joke. Overall, I guess I find it hard to reconcile Smithson’s sophomoric performance with his hallowed reputation; the lecture fits more neatly with his early, critically challenging “high school notebook doodle” drawings of busty angels than it does with his heavily theoretical Artforum articles.
[It’s worth pointing out that Smithson’s photo/slides, on the other hand, feel very resolved and coherent. I was repeatedly reminded of Gabriel Orozco’s photos of “found” sculptural scenarios and moments, as well as of Smithson’s own Passaic series and other photographs. We have a favorite photo, a top-down shot of a pile of bricks, that he did after returning from the Yucatan; the man does have a way with rubble.]
But the most problematic issue about Palenque could be a non-issue for almost any conceptual artist, but it seems paramount given Smithson’s own ideological concerns with the gallery/museum space and system: to what extent should the lecture be considered “performance” or a “work of art” itself? The Guggenheim’s version of Hotel Palenque consists of a slideshow and an audiotape, which plays in polite form in a museum gallery.
But before/besides that incarnation, the lecture “existed” [or was experienced] as a filmed version, made with a handheld camera seated somewhere in the crowd in Salt Lake City. Smithson himself is off camera, and several times, the slides themselves are, too. The film is a bootleg only to the extent Baltimore artist Jon Routson‘s self-consciously askew video recordings of movies are, which is to say, “not at all.” The amateurish, sometimes forgetful framing and the handheld jitters heighten the experiential, audience perspective. There’s one passage where the camera bobs up and down in synch with its operator’s breathing. These are all central, even overwhelming, elements of the Palenque film, and they’re utterly absent from the “institutionalized” version, just as Smithson’s delivery is lost in the Parkett transcript [a version which no one would mistake for anything but documentation or reportage.] It’s enough to make me wonder just what the Guggenheim bought–or just what the Smithson estate sold–with Hotel Palenque which, by 1999, had to be one of the few significant “pieces” or, less problematically, holdings, left in the estate.
The Guggenheim also bought, at the same time, nine slides of Yucatan Mirror Displacements, iconic images of landscape interventions which Smithson made on the same 1969 trip. But these slides–which illustrated an Artforum essay and are widely reproduced in print–have never existed to my knowledge in artist-sanctioned formats like traditionally editioned prints. I’d be very interested to see documentation or scholarship on this question–which is also a fancy way of saying I have no idea or direct knowledge at this point–to see just how closely Smithson’s definition of defined, purchasable work jibes with notions operative in 1999 among art dealers and museum acquisition committees.
Because there have already been plenty of cases where Smithson’s ideas, his works, and his estate’s interpretations of them sometimes seem out of synch. Had Smithson not died suddenly and tragically the next year would this offhand-seeming ramble be treated with even a fraction of the reverence it has received? And if there had been more sculptures and clearly identifiable “work” to sell in the estate when Smithson’s star re-emerged in the late 1990’s, would Hotel Palenque ever have made it out of the archives and into a major museum’s collection?
Previously: UT gov’t decides to clean up the Jetty site
Nancy Holt floats the idea of “restoring” the Jetty
“The Spiral Doily”: What if sprawl is the real entropy?
Other Smithson-related posts on greg.org
Elsewhere: Brian Dillon’s appreciation of the lecture as artform in Frieze

What If Sprawl Is The Real Entropy?

Maybe we have the whole Smithsonian entropy thing wrong.
In 2002, Artforum’s Nico Israel whined with condescension about the homogenous strip mall & fast food landscape he had to endure on his road trip from one perfectly isolated Earthwork [Spiral Jetty] to another [Double Negative].
Then, as the Jetty has re-emerged year after year, visitor traffic has increased dramatically, along with press coverage and local awareness and appreciation.
Road signs to the Jetty appear in the middle of what was once unmarked desert scrub.
Tour buses idle where once only high-clearance 4WD’s were advised to go. The Dia Center takes ownership [?] of the Jetty.
And Smithson’s widow, fresh on the heels of fabricating a piece that didn’t exist during the artist’s lifetime, mentions offhandedly that she doesn’t see how adding rocks and regrading ramps would conflict with her husband’s idea of entropy.
And now, the industrial detritus that has long defined the Jetty’s site for visitors–and, to some extent at least, for the artist himself, who chose Rozel Point as much for the abandoned oil derricks as for the water’s reddish-pink tint–has been cleaned up and hauled away, deemed “an eyesore” by the State [as if anyone had bothered to look there until a couple of years ago].
Should we care? Conventional art world wisdom holds that Smithson’s entropy dictated a hands-off approach to his work. Que sera sera, dust to dust. Nature will take its inexorable course; stopping, fighting, or reversing this [d]evolution through restoration, maintenance, or re-creation is doing a disservice to Smithson’s ideas and his legacy.

“The Spiral Doily,” picked up in Utah on
my last trip to the Jetty

But in his seminal Artforum essay of 1966, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” the examples of entropy Smithson cited weren’t ivy-covered ruins and rubble, but New Jersey, Philip Johnson and the “cold glass boxes” of Park Avenue, and suburban sprawl. “The slurbs, urban sprawl, and the infinite number, of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy.”
Just this week, Reuters reported on a land use study that shows Suburban Sprawl may be an irrestistable force in the US. When he sited Spiral Jetty in BF Utah, was Smithson building against New Jerseyification, or just ahead of it? Is it possible–or is it just convenient acquiescence to suggest–that roped-off “Nature”-driven degradation is not, in fact, entropy, but Romanticism? Maybe letting “civilization” have its paving, scrubbing, sprucing up, licensing, Acoustiguiding, Ritz Carlton Jettyway Weekend Packaging way with the Jetty isn’t closer to the end game Smithson envisioned?
Entropy and the New Monuments [robertsmithson.com]
Suburban sprawl an irresistible force in US [reuters]

Cleanup Crew: 1, Entropy: 0 At The Spiral Jetty

From The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/21/06:

Spiral Jetty cleanup: Utah officials last month removed several tons of junk from Rozel Point, the area along the Great Salt Lake’s north shore that is home to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
“Anyone who has made the trip to see the famous Spiral Jetty . . . has passed through the area and certainly noted that it was an eyesore,” says Joel Frandsen, director of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which supervised the cleanup along with the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
Workers removed 18 loads of junk and plugged more than a dozen abandoned oil wells.

I spoke to someone at Forestry for some more detail. Included in that list of eyesores are the burned out trailer, that weird amphibious tank thing, the abandoned cars, basically most of the industrial detritus that fed into visitors’ sense of Smithsonian entropy. [Todd discusses this and has pictures of the now-gone junk on From The Floor.]
And about those oil wells, it turns out the oil is quite viscous, kind of tar-like, and it pools very slowly over the years. Some might say that for Smithson, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Well it’s moot now.
The project took a couple of weeks and supposedly focused only on sovereign land: state-owned shoreline, which is determined by elevation [i.e., the land, below 4,201′ I think, which is about four feet higher than the Jetty itself. Depending on the terrain, a 4′ change in elevation can take you quite a ways inland, although I can’t see it going all the way up to the trailer…hmm.]
There was also talk of negotiating an easement for parking, so that visitors won’t have to park on the road or trespass when they park beyond the “end of road” sign.
I didn’t get the sense that the Dia Center was involved in the project in any way, but we’ll see. I have some queries into them at the moment. The deadline for bids for a concession to operate a capuccino-and-smoothie cart during the peak Jetty months of June-October will begin March 15. OK, I made that last one up. I hope.
SLTrib Visual Arts [sltrib.com, thanks to Monty for the heads up]
Previous greg.org-on-Jetty action

Digging Dugway

Whoa. The Dugway Proving Ground is in Skull Valley, an hour and a half west of Salt Lake City. It’s where the US Army tests chemical and biological weapons and defense systems. It’s the site of an incineration program for the US’s stockpiles of bio/chem weapons. And it’s probably the greatest piece of Earth Art since the Nazca Lines.
The DoD’s alterations of the landscape–seen here in Terraserver photographs–rival the Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, Roden Crater, even, in both aesthetic power and content. Flash forward a few hundred years and ask yourself, which desert markmaking will have the most to say about the mid-20th century?
Dugway’s been dealt out of the Earth Art discussion because it’s a) functional, and b) institutional, not individual, but those seem like quaint technicalities. What if the only reason they’re not considered art–or considered alongside art, at least–is that no one’s really had access to them?
Dugway Proving Ground [pruned, via tropolism]
previously: earth art via satellite

All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be In Passaic

I guess there’s some…irony? justice? synchronicity? between Robert Smithson’s non-site works–pieces of far-off locations displaced into a gallery–and twiddling your thumbs at a boring* Smithson symposium in a college auditorium while the last 36 hours of the artist’s Floating Island tick by in gorgeous, sunny, autumnal splendor.
Net net: forget the next three sessions of the symposium (maybe they’ll be podcast), and get your butt to the river to watch the barges go by.
[*although one potential bombshell was dropped, it went seemingly unnoticed. In answer to the moderator’s question about ever rebuilding the Spiral Jetty by allowing new rocks to be piled onto it, the artist’s widow and executor Nancy Holt didn’t reject the idea.
There’s precedent, she said, because Smithson sometimes instructed Holt or other friends go get rocks for his pieces. He didn’t privilege the hand of the artist, she said. True, perhaps, but only partly relevant; more to the point is Smithson’s own intentions for the effects of entropy on the Jetty, not whether he had to be present to dump the rocks. The other factor is how to deal with increasing touristification of the site, which now gets tour buses and up to 100 visitors/day.]

All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be In Passaic

I guess there’s some…irony? justice? synchronicity? between Robert Smithson’s non-site works–pieces of far-off locations displaced into a gallery–and twiddling your thumbs at a boring* Smithson symposium in a college auditorium while the last 36 hours of the artist’s Floating Island tick by in gorgeous, sunny, autumnal splendor.
Net net: forget the next three sessions of the symposium (maybe they’ll be podcast), and get your butt to the river to watch the barges go by.
[*although one potential bombshell was dropped, it went seemingly unnoticed. In answer to the moderator’s question about ever rebuilding the Spiral Jetty by allowing new rocks to be piled onto it, the artist’s widow and executor Nancy Holt didn’t reject the idea.
There’s precedent, she said, because Smithson sometimes instructed Holt or other friends go get rocks for his pieces. He didn’t privilege the hand of the artist, she said. True, perhaps, but only partly relevant; more to the point is Smithson’s own intentions for the effects of entropy on the Jetty, not whether he had to be present to dump the rocks. The other factor is how to deal with increasing touristification of the site, which now gets tour buses and up to 100 visitors/day.]