That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is – all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.
–Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”
There is a case to be made that Robert Smithson’s expanded practice is a form of mythopoesis that involves a very particular ‘fictioning’ of the landscape (when this names a re-imagining of what’s already there and a foregrounding of other, often non-human temporalities). A work like Spiral Jetty for example – when this includes the film and essay as well as the actual jetty in the Great Salt Lake – operates as a complex myth-making machine (one that is accentuated through the jetty’s disappearance and relatively recent reemergence) that activates its particular context whilst also producing a particular scene in which past and future co-exist. As far as the past goes, Spiral Jetty resonates with ancient earthworks and other prehistoric monuments and markings (which Smithson was interested in); in terms of the future, the essay and film of Spiral Jetty borrow tropes from science fiction (Smithson was himself a fan of the genre). But also, in the narrative they construct, operate as a form of Science Fiction (or science fictioning) themselves. 1 Other of Smithson’s essays on his own work also have this character, for example, “Incidents of MirrorTravel in the Yucatan”, which records a mythic journey Smithson and his partner, the artist Nancy Holt, made through the Yucatan landscape and the insertion of small mirrors into this landscape in order to both foster mirror travel (a form of spacetime travel), but also, as laid out in the essay, to summon forth Mayan deities.2
Smithson’s other writings on the artists that were his contemporaries also involve a particular kind of fictioning of their work. For example “The Crystal Land” (1966) on Don Judd where the references are as much to a writer like J. G. Ballard as they are art historical: “The first time I saw Don Judd’s ‘pink plexiglass box’, it suggested a giant crystal from another planet. After talking to Judd, I found out we had a mutual interest in geology and mineralogy, so we decided to go rock hunting in New Jersey” (Smithson 1996a: 7). Smithson alerts us to something ‘alien’ about the box and, indeed, other of Judd’s ‘specific objects’ (should they also be called ‘science fiction objects’?). They have a certain otherworldly and ‘non-artistic’ character (especially for audiences at the time). The essay (and others like it) offer a kind of counter history of minimalism to those more sanitised accounts that ‘explain’ these new kinds of industrially produced objects in reference to art history, spectatorship and an all-too-human phenomenology. Smithson’s account fictions this new kind of art as arriving from some other space-time.
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