Secrets of the Domes: Mel Bochner on "The Domain of the Great Bear"
Griffin, Tim, Artforum International
SOMETIMES AN EDITOR JUST NEEDS TO FILL THE PAGES. Or so Mel Bochner recently remarked, explaining how his collaboration with Robert Smithson, "The Domain of the Great Bear," found its way into Art Voices magazine forty years ago this month. In this case, the fact that the publication's editor, Sam Edwards, took a dim view of the artistic community's increasingly theoretical peregrinations during the mid-'60s only helped the duo's chances. The vague sense of befuddlement Edwards apparently felt at their idiosyncratic proposal to look at "cultural architecture and museums" was, according to Bochner, one that the skeptical editor was all too happy to pass along to his readers. And, it turns out, his attitude was not entirely out of keeping with the underlying spirit of the project: The artists' desire to work within the magazine format reflected their awareness of the increasingly significant role of discourse in artistic circles--a rising tide of language in which the belle lettristic style of earlier criticism was giving way to more penetrating, formalized endeavors. As Rosalind Krauss recently observed, speaking of sentiments that emerged during the '60s, "Dealers ... used to feel that the work of art didn't exist in a discursive vacuum, that it was given its existence in part by critical discourse." Or, as Bochner put it, recalling the bottom-line mind-set of a couple of twenty-something artists in 1966, "There was the sense that if a show didn't get reviewed, it didn't exist."
But why, given such a concern with the evolution of art criticism, turn to New York's Hayden Planetarium as a subject? As taken up by Bochner and Smithson in "Domain," the site was clearly attractive for its evident obsolescence: a dark and hushed arena cluttered with the unmistakable technologies of one era--and its corresponding worldview--yielding to those of another. In the reminiscence that follows here, Bochner describes their interest in the architectural and ideological rift between the bleak cosmology of the building's 1930s design and the "expansionist" vision of a '60s technocracy and industrial complex, manifest in the institution's ongoing renovations. Yet the recalcitrant presence of the obsolete (embedded in the planetarium's structures and displays, to say nothing of its cryptlike archive, perused at length by the artists) undercut any notion of progress, rendering the newest intellectual program of the universe merely the latest addition to a frigid terrain of failed ideas. While one should not look past the contraptions and comic-book-type illustrations of "Domain" as sources of simple amusement for two friends revisiting the antiquated scene of so many proverbial high school field trips, the seriousness of the endeavor and its implications--Max Ernst, we might recall, returned to the engravings of his parents' time to make such collage novels as Une Semaine de bonte--should also not be underestimated. In the context of art magazines and the emergent discourse of the mid-'60s, the specter of the outmoded served to playfully defuse any dialectical view of modern art, recasting its story as merely a journey of so many styles.
Nevertheless, only a handful of Bochner and Smithson's friends and colleagues were likely ever to make such a connection. In turn, one must recognize today that their undercover approach had a slightly different and perhaps more provocative relationship to art-critical discourse than that often attributed to then-nascent Conceptual art, which presumably questioned or even annexed the role of the critic by rendering an artwork's connection to its underlying ideas more literal or transparent. "Domain," by contrast, may be more correctly said to deploy a kind of deadpan poetics (the quasi-fictive likes of which are discerned today in projects ranging from Pierre Huyghe's El Diario del Fin del Mundo to the Center for Land Use Interpretation). Proffering a compilation of texts yet never providing the framework for any specific reading, the collaboration revolves on an opacity of intent, and so forces readers to think both within and about ideas of what should appear in the pages of an art magazine. …