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PRINT February 1998

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Robert Smithson

IN HIS “SITE/NON-SITE” projects of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Robert Smithson mapped the ravages and beauties of the twentieth-century landscape. His chosen sites were poisoned lakes, rubbish dumps, and construction zones, by-products of industrial capitalism. Intervening and scavenging in these wastelands, he carried back from them evocative fragments—stones, salt crystals, tar samples—which, in the gallery, became non-sites, abstract reminders of the absent site’s meaning. “My view of art,” Smithson wrote in 1969, “springs from a dialectical position that deals with whether something exists or doesn’t exist.”

Some thirty years after Smithson invented the site/non-site paradigm, two Brooklyn-based individuals, gallerist Joe Amrhein of Pierogi 2000 and artist and independent curator Brian Conley, have undertaken to exhume a pair of Smithson’s lesser-known pieces. Dead Tree—literally a 40-foot-long tree crammed into the gallery—was on exhibit at Pierogi last spring. Floating Island: To Travel Around Manhattan Island—a miniforest/park planted on a barge and pulled by tugboat—has yet to be realized, although Amrhein and Conley hope to do so in the near future, if supplemental funding can be found.

With only modest scholarly documentation, and even less in the way of notes from the artist, Amrhein and Conley understand that their reconstructions can never be exact. Instead, they are probing the physical qualities of Smithson’s materials and the intellectual challenges of his process: the dialectical existence/non-existence in question has become the oeuvre of Smithson himself. Just as Smithson sought to re-evaluate and recontextualize polluted places in the landscape, Amrhein and Conley are re-evaluating and recontextualizing the art he made.

Smithson’s work—conceived in rebellion against the gallery system and operating in the noncommodifiable formats of Earth art and installation—often ended up dismantled and destroyed. Today, much of it exists only in documentary form: photographs, drawings, notes, and reminiscences from friends and colleagues. (Smithson contemporaries Mel Bochner, Lawrence Weiner, and Joan Jonas each contributed essays and anecdotes to the modest catalogue Pierogi 2000 published in conjunction with the Dead Tree installation.)

The absence of the work itself invites a kind of archival fetishism—a fascination with authenticity, which since Smithson’s death in 1973 extends to the artist personally. Moreover, documentary ephemera is portable and sells, factors in which Smithson had relatively little interest. For him, the site was “oceanic,” a “physical, raw reality” that resisted containment or codification. The non-sites then became “large, abstract maps made into three dimensions. You are thrown back onto the site.” This conceptual process might also describe how the Pierogi curators are approaching Smithson as a historical figure and investigating his artistic influence on them. In their view, his work—not the man but his output as a thinker and aesthetician—becomes the site, the “oceanic” or limitless locale that has been compromised by cultural systems of procurement and commodification. The reinvented projects, in turn, function as non-sites that carry shards of the original works back to a place in which they can be seen, contemplated, and digested as “ponderous, weighty absences.” As Amrhein said of Dead Tree, “We made it a time/non-time piece.”

Meanwhile, the neighborhood in which Pierogi 2000 is located might have appealed to Smithson as a “site” in its own right. North Williamsburg is home not only to a generation of emerging artists, but to both the Radiac waste-transfer station and one of the largest subterranean oil spills in the world. The gallery is narrow, and there is no vestibule, which means there is little mediation between inside and outside spaces. Installed there, Dead Tree overwhelmed the room. The tree had to be shoehorned in crown first; its upper branches grazed the back wall and its roots nearly blocked the door. Oblong mirrors, propped against the trunk and among the limbs, fractured and multiplied its parts.

When Smithson realized his original Dead Tree project for the “Prospect 69” exhibition at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle (curated by Konrad Fischer and Hans Strelow), the space was much grander, and the tree with its mirrors appeared isolated, almost stately. Or so it seems from the single documentary photograph that survives; no mention of this piece is made in the artist’s papers or in those of the Kunsthalle. Amrhein and Conley conceived the reconstruction in cooperation with the John Weber Gallery, which co-represents the Smithson estate. They also obtained the blessing of Smithson’s widow and executor, Nancy Holt. After that, they were more or less on their own.

Freighted with historical and conceptual meaning, the Pierogi 2000 Dead Tree (a wild cherry from Delaware that had already been slated to be cut down) remained impressively raw and powerful. Trees, as Smithson in effect demonstrated, are innately satisfying sculptural presences, both soaring and earthbound, delicate and massive. Mixing reflected bits of tree with fragments of viewers’ bodies, the mirrors physicalized in a literal way the juxtapositions—of object and environment, nature and culture—that fascinated Smithson.

The tree seemed monumental in the gallery’s interior, but it also looked conquered, like a beached whale or felled elephant. Branches had been broken during installation, exposing green wood, and there were also green stains on the wall where entry had been forced. The smell was earthy, but not fresh. As specified by the Düsseldorf photograph, the leaves were withering into drab, fluted cones. It may not have been the curators’ intention, but their choice of this particular piece—a mighty form presented dead, its corpus cracked and battered—was particularly apt. If the dead tree in the white cube called to mind the living organism growing somewhere outside, Dead Tree also embodied the physical absence of its author.

If the reinstallation of Dead Tree left its instigators physically (as well as fiscally) drained, the proposed follow-up, Floating Island, is even more ambitious. At least Dead Tree was once realized and had been photographed. Floating Island was never more than an idea, and thus rests at the other pole of Smithson’s dialectic of being and non-being. John Weber provided one moderately detailed reproduction of a drawing, dated 1970. (Interestingly, the estate of Gordon Matta-Clark possesses drawings entitled “Parked Island Barges on the Hudson,” dated 1970–71, inviting speculation as to the extent of the younger artist’s collaboration with Smithson.)

The practical enthusiasm that brought Dead Tree to Brooklyn will require a broader base of support—both from private sources and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—if Floating Island is to be launched. Conley has already researched renting a barge and tug, and the Snug Harbor exhibition space on Staten Island has been approached about storing the barge when it isn’t being pulled around Manhattan. All this will be expensive. But the major problem, it seems, would be ensuring that the trees on Floating Island remain upright and alive. The drawing specifies “trees common to NY region” such as weeping willows, plus “bushes, rock, moss, earth and path.” As drawn, the trees tower above the tug. But there are no guy wires in the rendering, so the roots would have to be set in boulders or concrete within the barge. No one is sure how this will work.

In his essay, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Smithson wrote, “A park can no longer be seen as ‘a thing-in-itself,’ but rather as a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region—the park becomes a ‘thing-for-us.’” The dynamic of these physical relationships may prove to be more complex than Pierogi 2000’s limited resources can sustain. Then again, they were apparently more than Smithson could handle either. Seeing Olmsted as something of a precursor in designing public green-space projects, Smithson in the same essay reminds readers of the bureaucratic snafus and philistinism Olmsted encountered in the 1870s while negotiating with the City of New York over designs for the new Central Park. And in 1972, discussing the creation of Spiral Jetty, Smithson commented: “I thought of making an island with the help of boats and barges, but in the end I would let the site determine what I would build.” Whether Floating Island ever gets built depends a good deal on the power of Smithson’s idea to function in the minds of the art public as a site worthy of revisitation.

In the way that “non-sites point to existing sites but tend to negate them,” Amrhein and Conley’s investigations both summon and recast Smithson’s work. The interdependent relationships that Smithson outlined in some sense determine the curators’ actions, because his output becomes both the object and the process; his works are both (re-)created and destroyed. Are these Oedipal impulses, a staging of the father in order to upstage him? Or perhaps some kind of ritual is going on, a hope that there will be salutary benefit in walking where the teacher walked, performing actions an ancestor performed. Either way, what is certain is that these are not experiments in connoisseurship. The resurrected Dead Tree and Floating Island cannot be sold as museum-quality reproductions or framed as heavily researched scholarship. For better or for worse, Amrhein and Conley’s endeavor is about getting their hands dirty on the dialectic. Conley describes this as “a poignant and useful scenario” for wresting ideas from the stasis of the museum and hauling them back—transformed as they may be by time and history—into the active arena of artistic thought.

Frances Richard contributes frequently to Artforum.