Robert Smithson

By Jones. K. Marriott | Artforum International, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Robert Smithson


Jones. K. Marriott, Artforum International


INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR PHOTOGRAPHY

For Robert Smithson, photography was fraught with ontological complexity, "cameras," he said, "possess the power to invent many worlds." Though he made use of a range of photographic media, from serial photography to film, he was always sharply conscious of the danger of being limited by the representational qualities of a given method. He kept his use of photography as open-ended as possible, and while the act of recording a site remained integral to his projects--which were always fluid in conception and often ephemeral in form--in his careful hands it yielded infinitely more than a means of documentation.

The numerous gems in this show of photoworks included pieces documenting seminal projects such as the "mirror displacements," the Spiral Jetty, 1970, and The Monuments of Passaic, 1967. An extraordinary sequence of slides depicting an array of views of the Hotel Palenque in Mexico--a functioning ruin in 1969--at which Smithson stayed with his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan while he completed the project, was less familiar. These scenes--which in their bare sincerity and air of primitive fantasy resemble the tawdry B-movies by which he was endlessly fascinated--were shown accompanied by a tape of often hilarious, mock-anthropological commentary, in which Smithson referred to the Palenque's ongoing decay, and periodic, makeshift renovation, as a kind of cosmic program accomplished with "sensitivity and grace."

Though he adored cinema and frequently invoked it in his writing as a loose, framing metaphor, Smithson was less comfortable using film than still photography. His 1970 film, The Spiral Jetty, however--while more hyperbolic than photographs of the same subject--effectively exposes the underlying structure of the work it documents. In much the same way that his texts serve at once as foil and lyrical counterpoint to his art, the film's voiceover is powerfully evocative, while it is also distancing and discombobulating, obsessing over minutiae such as crystal formation and the symptoms of sunstroke, revealing the Spiral Jetty to be, above all, an explosion of scale. …

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