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From Smithson to New Media

From Smithson to New Media

John Haber

March 06, 2008

Robert Smithson liked deductive logic and formal systems well enough, so long as others took care of them. His spiral of earth, slowly sinking into the Great Salt Lake, could almost parody a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. But had he foreseen a digital universe, would he ever have entered the gallery? Robert Smithson’s Red Sandstone Corner Piece (estate of the artist/James Cohan gallery, 1968) Nonsite as rupture

Smithson did enter the gallery, of course, where his work has a notably low-tech and strikingly physical presence—even in the mirror. His Enantiomorphic Chambers, like his arrays of mirrors amid salt and rubble, could almost make a mockery of conceptual art. As for fancier algorithms underlying digital art now, better bury them with an old-fashioned steam shovel before they get out of hand.

It takes chance, in the collision of millions upon millions of molecules, to produce his beloved entropy and the arrow of time. It takes a serious rupture of gallery and museum walls to create earthworks, the mark of the creative artist on the landscape. It takes a more subtle breach to invent nonsites, the presence of the landscape within a gallery. It takes a certain permeability between artist, object, nature, and human history to suffer either then to take its course. Spiral Jetty now makes its reappearance from time to time after many years underwater, and I hardly know whether to thank happenstance, patterns of water use, or global warming.

For those more attached to round numbers, however, Robert Smithson would have turned seventy with the new year—or, more exactly, January 2. (The law of large numbers means some slippage.) He will have died thirty-five years ago this July. Gordon Matta-Clark, another site-specific artist who labored hard to destroy a site, was born and died precisely five years after him. Both also had retrospectives in the last three years, at the very same New York museum, and it might disappoint them both to spot a trend, rather than mere coincidence. Sites and nonsites are where the action is.

When MOMA reopened in 2004, it displayed the film of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. When the Met added a small gallery for contemporary photography in 2007, it included Matta-Clark. Worse for those who insist on sites as open communities, their Whitney retrospectives came with a sense of closure. A pier that Matta-Clark illegally helped dismantle is giving way to more space for salmon and a park along the Hudson. The Floating Island that Smithson planned, a barge of still more rubble, circled Manhattan. More to the point, their influence is everywhere.

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