PRINT Summer 1998


One Saturday in September 1967, Robert Smithson, equipped with a Kodak Instamatic and a copy of Brian Aldiss’ science-fiction novel Earthworks, took a No. 30 bus out of Port Authority, bound for Passaic, New Jersey. Passaic is, to put it mildly, an unprepossessing burg, a transit corridor between Smithson’s two childhood homes, Rutherford and Clifton. Famously, Smithson had been assisted into the world by Rutherford’s kindly pediatrician-poet, Dr. William Carlos Williams, author of the epic Paterson, which ponders the Passaic River, its falls, its power, its prehistory and history, and the social, economic, and spiritual consequences of that history. Smithson was on his way to consider the further corruption of those consequences.

He got off the bus just past the bridge that leads into town from Highway 3. He had found his first monument, the bridge itself. “Noonday sunshine cinema-ized the site, ” he wrote in his account, originally published in this magazine, “turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. . . . When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.” He found other monuments: a parking lot, a sandbox, the concrete abutments of a highway-in-progress, a pumping derrick partly supported by pontoons, and a set of six pipes—which he viewed as a horizontal fountain—that pumped water from a pond into the river. These last two monuments were locked in some occult bond: “It was as though the pipe [attached to the derrick] was secretly sodomizing some hidden technological orifice, and causing a monstrous sexual organ (the fountain) to have an orgasm.”

Smithson’s text reads like a parody of the journals of nineteenth-century explorers. The Instamatic photographs, meanwhile, a bunch of plain pictures of ugly industrial remnants in a blank landscape, forecast the sculptural work of the following decade, by Smithson and such others as Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Michael Heizer. The sandbox could be a Judd; the pipes a Robert Morris. The fact that Smithson had bought Earthworks (“about a soil shortage, and . . . the manufacture of artificial soil”) at the bus terminal before leaving is preposterously apt. It is as if an entire style—two styles, if you count the mock-scientific, mock-documentary aspect of conceptualism—was born in the course of a seemingly desultory stroll that afternoon.

I absorbed all this stuff as a teenager, maybe by osmosis. In the late ’60s I commuted every day by train from my parents’ house in suburban New Jersey to high school in Manhattan, passing through the no-man’s-land of salt marshes and coke-smelting plants and dead-refrigerator dumps that stretched east from Newark almost to Hoboken. I spent those parts of my trip staring out the window. It was a wasteland, the graveyard of industry, and it possessed some kind of spectral, rebarbative beauty I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A few years later, living in Manhattan, I would tour the most forgotten and decaying portions of New York City I dared to venture in, to gaze at crumbling wharves and shuttered factories and sealed warehouses, possessed by their mystery and the sense that they represented entropy in action, a material prophecy of the future.

At some point along the way, I read Smithson’s account of his tour of Passaic. When I went through the text again recently I felt as though it had tunneled directly into my unconscious and burrowed out a nest there. I recognized that, in one way or another, I’ve been echoing Smithson’s words all these years. He writes of Passaic: “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.” (As others have noted, he in turn sounds for all the world like Walter Benjamin in “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century”: “In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”) At another point he says: “I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past; it is in yesterday’s newspapers, in the jejune advertisements of science-fiction movies, in the false mirror of our rejected dreams. Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs.”

I feel a kind of vertigo when I read those sentences. Recently I wrote a book that is a rumination on my own origins and on the reciprocal relationship between time and place. I deliberately alluded to Smithson in titling the concluding chapter “Non-Site,” but when I did so I was unaware how indebted I was to him for that chapter’s content as well: “The future is an abandoned city, a locomotive ensnared in jungle growth . . .” It’s a list of dumps; and there are other echoes besides. Smithson’s words, and his vast geological oblivion machines, such as Spiral Jetty, show us the permeability of time, the beauty of decay, the collapse of the future, and the pitiless inconsequentiality of things. If you would see his own monument, just look around you.