Landscapes of Indifference: Robert Smithson and John Lloyd Stephens in Yucatan

Article excerpt

I actually value indifference. I think it's something that has aesthetic possibilities.--Robert Smithson, "What Is a Museum?" 1967(1)

Robert Smithson and John Lloyd Stephens were both New Jersey-born residents of Manhattan, wherefrom each embarked on a well-publicized excursion to the Yucatan Peninsula. One left New York on Monday, October 9, 1841, aboard the cargo ship Tennessee, the other on Tuesday, April 15, 1969, aboard Pan Am flight 67.(2) Both published narratives of their travels: Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan was a twovolume book published by Harper and Brothers in 1843, while Smithson's "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" appeared as an article in the September 1969 issue of Artforum.3 Both narratives included illustrations (Figs. 1, 2).

The immediate similarities end there. Stephens's antebellum adventure, steeped in nineteenth-century imperialist and positivist rhetoric, bears so little direct resemblance to Smithson's meandering, skeptical treatment that the two barely seem worth discussing in the same breath.4 Indeed, Smithson himself downplayed his connection to Stephens; although he knew Stephens's writings and suggested in his title a desire to reflect on them, he avoided any direct reference to Stephens in the body of his article. When he did speak explicitly of Stephens, it was only to negate him; in one interview he referred to his Yucatan trip as an "antiexpedition" to Stephens's.5

Yet despite Smithson's apparent attempts to disavow Stephens and his nineteenth-century baggage, Smithson's Yucatan project can be fruitfully examined in terms of the dialogue it invites with the tradition of expedition narrative. This essay will argue that by forcing Smithson's Yucatan expedition into this historical perspective, we find ourselves confronted with new questions about his entire body of landscape production.

Although Smithson is best known today as a land or earthworks artist (his Spiral Jetty provides a standard illustration of the movement for art history survey texts), his quintessential medium was arguably neither land nor earth but rather travel. Smithson spoke often of his desire to be "thrown out to the edges," and in nearly all of his most influential work-his Site/Nonsites (Fig. 8), his eccentric Artforum travelogues, his far-flung earthworks-he used the act of expedition to establish a trademark dialectic between center and periphery.s In interpreting this complex expeditionary dialectic, scholars of Smithson's work have generally focused on its radical opposition to the high-modernist aesthetics prevailing in the 1960s. This approach, which interprets Smithson as a key figure in the transition from "modern" to "postmodern" models of art production, has shown how Smithson's traveling practice dislocated the traditional sites of artistic production, complicated the authorial function, violated disciplinary boundaries, and obscured the distinctions between the visual and the verbal.7

These analyses have done an excellent and necessary job of accounting for-indeed, helping to determine-Smithson's status as one of the most influential artists of the late twentieth century. Yet in their emphasis on Smithson's protopostmodernism they have been obliged to extract Smithson's travels from broader historical contexts, notably the long (and largely unsavory) Western expeditionary tradition. The postmodern analytical lens rightly sees Smithson's iconoclastic trip to Mexico as an attack on his immediate highmodernist critical forebears, such as Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg, but it fails to illuminate the simultaneous dialogue that the project sets up with earlier precursors, such as Hernan Cortes and Stephens. Moreover, attuned as it must be to indeterminacies, this criticism cannot address the determinate role that late 1960s attitudes toward primitivism, Central America, and the Maya played in Smithson's project. Thus, it cannot explain how Smithson's expedition might have been different had it occurred at another historical moment or in some other tropical landscape, nor can it hold Smithson politically accountable for the image of the region that he constructs. …