New York

Robert Smithson

Dwan Gallery

Robert Smithson’s new film about the making of his Spiral Jetty, in the Great Salt Lake, informatively gives us a sense of what that magnificent sculpture, difficult of access, is like. But it is also, in itself, a beautiful thing. Smithson’s geopoetic commentary accompanies images of a road, dinosaur skeletons, maps of Atlantis, crusty landscapes, construction equipment, dump trucks dumping their loads, in such a natural rhythm that the sculpture seems to grow by some developmental necessity on the earth’s part.

As a film the movie belongs to the ill-defined category of the “artistic” documentary, meaning that it demonstrates something and conveys information, but that it does this with a concern for its own beauty. Iconographically, it relates to that contemporary version of the theme of Sisyphus—the dump-truck movie, Hell Drivers and a film by Chabrol being great examples. In fact, the Sisyphus theme surfaces here in the shot where, after the jetty is finished, we follow Smithson from behind (this is the only time we see a person in the film) as he runs its full length, stops, turns around, and jogs back; and of course the whole enterprise of laying the heavy stone rubble is Sisyphean. I am not saying this in order to circumscribe the film or limit its significance, but only to provide a mode of entrance into its meaning.

Toward the beginning of the film Smithson says of the site “Nothing has changed since I have been here.” The point is not that that surprises him—he was familiar with the geomorphology of the locale, and with geomorphology in general long before—but that it surprises us. In a city where you cannot be certain that your train will arrive, where the telephone may very well not work, where even the trivial mechanics of life are made occasions of collective anxiety, Smithson stands back calmly and shows us the puny anthill that we are. And in this light, his fascination with the interchangeability of scale in space (as well as in time) reveals the peaceful fact that whether the jetty is as “big” as a diatom or as “small” as a nebula, doesn’t really matter. And what tough little optimists crystals are—they just grow, then stay, and stay, and stay! Perhaps what the superficial landscape is to sentiment, Smithson’s geologic landscape is to the intelligence.

It is particularly appropriate that we confront Smithson’s work this way, on film, because of the fact that a particular film, Antonioni’s Red Desert, has had probably more than any other single work of art, the effect of awakening an appreciation of the unnoticed beauty of the raw and drab landscape which is really the rule and not the exception on the Earth. But Antonioni’s attitude is quite different from Smithson’s: his landscape was made raw and drab by the decadent irresponsibility of industrialism, and to share his fascination with the picturesque loveliness of nature in ruin is something in which, ten years later, we might not so readily allow ourselves to indulge. Smithson’s landscape may look similarly raw and drab, but it is virgin and calm, and it gives Antonioni’s North Italian slag-heap world an aspect of hectic absurdity, of a frantic human that leads back—whatever else we imagine—to Square One.

The film is also good qua film. There is a particularly skillful sense of visual form and of visual-verbal analogy. The formal strength shows in vivid and sustained analogies between the long takes, early in the film, of road, as we charge straight ahead toward what we feel as a real goal, the site, then, after a long time, take a welcome and thrilling bend—between this initial experience of the road and the subsequent experience of the jetty, with its long, straight approach, and the commencement of its curve. An accord between the gradually emerging spiral of the jetty and Smithson’s verbal commentary underlies the entire work, so much so that even what is not true—the persistent folk myth that there is a whirlpool in the lake at the mouth of a subterranean river linking it to the Pacific—becomes indispensably significant. I find these cinematographic strengths significant in a circumstantial way. Very often good sculptors make bad drawings, but just as often they make good prints. In fact the connection between sculpture and printmaking was discussed by Alberti, but if we consider film as a logical extension of printmaking, it strength.

It is possible, even likely, that we were not ready for the art of Robert Smithson until we had seen the earth from outer space. This new slant on the earth’s puniness and grandeur necessitated adaptations incredibly more severe than the startling aspect of the landscape when first seen from the airplane in the time of Cubism (with which the helicopter sequence in this film could be said to correspond). As yet only Smithson’s art has sufficient sweep and enough contemplative calm to deal with matters of such immensity as they enter the sphere of our real experience for the first time.

Joseph Masheck