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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Surprises at the Smithson Show

I have been looking forward to seeing the Robert Smithson retrospective since well before it opened in LA last year. I finally had my chance last Sunday at the Whitney, and it would be fair to say that my expectations weren't met.

I was surprised by several things:

I did, though, find it interesting to finally have the chance to watch the 32-minute-long film Smithson made on the creation of Spiral Jetty. I had seen pieces of it in the past, but I've never had the opportunity to watch the whole thing from start to finish.

Like the other films included in the show it's hokey and arrogant. Smithson starts the film with close-up images of the sun and shots of dinosaur skeletons in a museum. (The dinosaur shots, for some reason, were taken through a red filter.) By doing so, he chooses to situate Spiral Jetty in the context of nature and natural history. Throughout the film Smithson keeps the view of Spiral Jetty closely cropped so that nothing other than his work and the work's immediate surroundings is visible. This effectively established the framework for critical discussions of the work that would occur over the next two and a half decades.

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.

The show does an admirable job of providing context for Smithson's great earthworks, but the gallery-sized pieces themselves (other than the Non-sites and a couple of the Displacements) disappoint.

Related: MAN has a great piece today on the experience of visiting Spiral Jetty which also mentions the industrial landscape that Smithson chose to elide in his own presentation of the work.

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