text and interview by XERXES COOK
all artwork by ROBERT SMITHSON
copyright holt / smithson foundation and adagp, paris, 2021
the robert smithson exhibition opened in london the same week scientists announced that the global mass of man-made materials — concrete, metal, asphalt, plastic, etc. — outweighs all living biomass on earth. what would the legendary land-art artist have thought of that?
we talked to lisa le feuvre, director of the holt / smithson foundation in santa fe, new mexico, to learn about the artist’s enduring interest in islands.
“Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago,” Robert Smithson said. We were in Manhattan, the concrete jungle of an island he and his wife, fellow artist Nancy Holt, called home. “You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000-mile glacial wall, as much as 2,000-feet thick. Alone on the vast glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake.”
Best known for his monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long vortex of basalt rocks rising up from Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Smithson likened himself to a “geological agent.” Central to his thinking was exploring the notion of entropy within the man-made, to consider how long the landmarks of the Anthropocene era — the glass skyscrapers, gas stations, and steel beams underpinning much of humanity — would survive when subjected to the elemental forces from which life and land emerge and inevitably decay.
An autodidact whose creations required forklifts, bulldozers, cranes, and thousands of hours of physical labor, Smithson produced “only” four earthworks before his life was cut short in a plane crash, at the age of 35, while surveying the scrublands of northern Texas in 1973 for Amarillo Ramp. A 140-foot-long rubble mound in the shape of a horseshoe emerging from the bed of a dried-up artificial lake, the work was realized posthumously by Holt and Richard Serra, to live on, like Spiral Jetty, as a constantly evolving demonstration of the ideas and actions from which much of today’s environmental art has sprung.
Alongside his earthworks, paintings, photographs, films, “quasi-minimalist” sculptures, architectural proposals, and essays on “non-sites,” Smithson’s legacy lives on through his influence on artists such as Tacita Dean, Cyprien Gaillard, and Mike Nelson, to name but a few. He was so prolific that a whole archipelago of unrealized ideas, a collection of 50 drawings of imaginary islands made between 1961 and 1973, remained unseen for close to 50 years after his death, until they were exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London in late 2020.
XERXES COOK — What’s the story behind Robert Smithson’s islands?
LISA LE FEUVRE — Robert Smithson was fascinated by ruins and spirals, the tense relationship between human beings and nature, and how we humans could reconcile our relationship with the surface of the planet. And he kept coming back to islands: islands are really something that run throughout history in this way — Thomas More’s Utopia is set on an island. You might have island fantasies — we project ideas onto islands — or you might look at an island and think about it as being a microcosm for the world. There’s this amazing thing that Smithson said around 1970: “If you look at the world from space, you can see that our planet is just an island in the universe.” This is a really useful way for thinking about our place in the world in 2020. We’re almost living in our own little pocket islands; we’re staying at home all the time, and our home becomes an island. Or we’re keeping contact with a tiny group of people, and that’s another almost island community. Smithson was interested in islands because we project our imagination onto them, and on top of that, they really are all about limits. There’s this great book by Rachel Carson called The Edge of the Sea. She talks about the shoreline, and she says: “At one moment, it is possessed by the sea, and at one moment, it is possessed by the land. It’s always changing. Nothing is ever stable.” And I started to think that’s exactly what Smithson was interested in — the complete instability of our life.
XERXES COOK — It’s really uncanny timing to be exhibiting these works, and Smithson’s ideas of deep geological time and the Anthropocene era, for the first time, in the same week it was announced that the man-made now outweighs the entirety of Earth’s biomass. What would Robert Smithson have made of that?
LISA LE FEUVRE — Smithson was quite counter to the ecological ideas of his time. He thought it was crazy to try to go back in time to reverse the damage humans have done to the planet. Instead, what he wanted to do is to look and accept, and then do something with it. Smithson was interested in the idea that all industries should work with artists — in fact, he said at one point that artists have the ability to open a dialogue between the ecologist and the industrialist. A lot of the drawings that we’ve chosen for this exhibition are embodying the slow development of these ideas within Smithson’s life. Smithson wanted to invent islands. He wanted to work with islands, to imagine islands. And these drawings have enabled us to make connections that now seem really obvious, but we hadn’t made before. For example, islands are made from volcanic activity; when you look at Smithson’s work, he’s making works that are referencing volcanoes and lava flows and basalts, as much as he is islands.
XERXES COOK — There are many of his recurring motifs — such as spirals, maps, and forking paths that resemble branches or roots — in these drawings of imaginary islands. His interest in them seems to foreshadow what we now call biomimicry and touches on Eastern notions of nonlinear time. What do they signify within Smithson’s thinking?
LISA LE FEUVRE — Smithson once said, “Nature never moves in a straight line.” He really understood that humans are part of nature. So, for him, his interest in colors, spirals, and forking paths are both metaphorical and literal. They open up a methodology for thinking because if we want to test out our ideas, we have to think in a forking path, where we go down blind alleys and dead-ends, and then come back to them again. We’ve been talking for 15 minutes or so, and our conversation is spiraling and forking. We’re having a conversation in the present, talking about the past, thinking about the future — it’s the way our mind works. His best-known work, Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is a site you have to physically go to, based on this amazing spiral in the landscape. But that’s not all the work is. The work is the desire to travel there or the actual journey of going there — he’s encouraging us to not just think about an end point, but to think about the journey to it. This metaphorical side could be a prescription for thinking, a prescription for living, or it could simply be a mirror reflection of the worlds that we inhabit.
XERXES COOK — That’s beautiful. Why was Smithson so interested in mangroves — is it because their roots echo the form of forking paths?
LISA LE FEUVRE — I imagine it’s because mangroves are island-builders. Mangroves grow in sediment in the ocean, they catch rubbish, and suddenly they form islands. I think Smithson was fascinated by the idea that if you plant a mangrove, you can make an island. When you think about it, that’s just the most bizarre thing — but even now, we still have islands being formed from volcanic eruptions. It’s that sense of working with nature; he wanted to think about: how could a human being make an island?
XERXES COOK — Man also makes islands through dredging sand, like the Palm Islands in Dubai or Nagoya Airport in Japan; similar processes went into the construction of Venice and the islands of Kerala’s backwaters, centuries earlier.
LISA LE FEUVRE — That’s right. Smithson was obsessed with the Netherlands — in 1971, he made a work in Emmen, about two hours outside of Amsterdam: Broken Circle/Spiral Hill. And if you think about how that country was made, it’s literally making land by controlling the sea.
XERXES COOK — Talking about how mangroves collect trash brings to mind the incredible amount of plastic swirling around our oceans today. Smithson’s works explored the materials of his time — such as concrete, bricks, and asphalt — and how they would decay. What do you think he would make of the situation we’re in today, where nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form or another?
LISA LE FEUVRE — It’s a useful thing to ask: “What would Smithson be interested in now?” And, of course, he would be investigating the plastic islands swirling around our ocean gyres. I read in the news this morning that even a newborn baby will have pieces of plastic within their body; it’s so much a part of what we have brought to the planet.
XERXES COOK — Writing about his unrealized Island of Broken Glass in the Florida Keys, Smithson described islands as “a taboo territory.” What do you think he meant by that?
LISA LE FEUVRE — I’m not really sure. A taboo is something you’re not meant to do, and what is restricting about islands? In literature, islands have been used as a place where things happen that can’t take place elsewhere. And why is that? It’s because islands have limits, and the limits of the island enables them to be places for experiments. I’m thinking about H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, places where disturbing things happen. Think about those reality TV shows set on islands; islands have this sense that they can be controlled in some way, but they’re also a place where progressive and positive ideas can happen. Islands are extraplanetary, even though they’re on our planet.
XERXES COOK — What does it mean to live on an island?
LISA LE FEUVRE — There’s a great thing that Smithson said about scale: “A grain of sand, if you look at it from a certain aspect, can be as large as a boulder.” So, islands are all about scale, aren’t they? I grew up on a very small island, Guernsey, and I remember my dad saying: “Lisa, I can’t believe I’ve got to pick you up from the other side of the island. It’s going to take me 15 minutes to drive there. It’s just too far.” That was the scale of proximity. Before I moved to the United States, I would say: “Oh, I’m not going to take a train from London all the way to Edinburgh. That’s a whole day’s commitment.”
XERXES COOK — A whole four hours!
LISA LE FEUVRE — Exactly. Now, in the United States, I think nothing of traveling four hours to go to someone’s house for lunch. So, islands have this set scale to them, and to come back to this idea of taboo, maybe, on islands, things feel much more extreme because they’re smaller. Islands are used for incarceration — think about Guantánamo.
XERXES COOK — Australia.
LISA LE FEUVRE — Rikers [Island].
XERXES COOK — Alcatraz.
LISA LE FEUVRE — Maybe it fits the way we’re living now — my whole world is my house. I could not leave for a week and be perfectly happy, whereas eight months ago I couldn’t do that.
XERXES COOK — I went to Folkestone on England’s South Coast last summer, where H.G. Wells lived and wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau. From the cliffs by his house, you can see the lights of Calais at night — and the lights of boats carrying migrants, and the helicopters coming to meet them — and after months of living in lockdown in London, it was a shock to be reminded that Britain is an island.
LISA LE FEUVRE — It’s interesting: Britain is a dreadful and wonderful place, at the same time. Yet the idea that you saw people trying to come to this island for a better life is instructive — Britain is a really privileged place to be. But I also wonder if the myth of Britain is the myth of all islands: it’s special, it’s exotic, it’s different, and it’s a safe place. Everything is comparative, isn’t it? Maybe it’s safe, compared with places where life is just intolerable. Islands are points of arrival; people want to come to them. The cliché of going on holiday is that you go to an island. Why? And then, when you’re moving for a new life, that sense of arriving at the shore is so important, and arriving by boat is so evocative, whether it’s a luxury steamship or a rubber dinghy that you barely manage to survive. It’s not to romanticize it, but perhaps that brings us back to what Rachel Carson was writing about: the edge of the sea is an evocative place that’s always changing. A place where everything shifts — not just the geological landscape or the animals, sea life, and flora, but also the lives that they impact.
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