Cezanne and his contemporaries were forced out of their studio by the photograph. They were in actual competition with photography, so they went to sites; because photography does make Nature an impossible concept. It somehow mitigates the whole concept of Nature in that the earth after photography becomes more of a museum. Geologists always talk of the earth as ‘a museum’; of the ‘abyss of time’ and treat it in terms of artifacts. The recovery of fragments of lost civilizations and the recovery of rocks makes the earth become a kind of artifice.
Photography squares everything. Every kind of random view is caught in a rectangular format so that the romantic idea of going to the beyond, of the infinite is checked by this so that things become measured. The artist is contorting, distorting his figures instead of just accepting the photograph.
I do think an interesting thing would be to check the behavior of Cezanne and the motivation to the site. Instead of thinking in formalist terms - we’ve gotten to such a high degree of abstraction out of that - where the Cubists claimed Cezanne and made his work into a kind of empty, formalism, we now have to reintroduce a kind of physicality; the actual place rather than the tendency to decoration which is a studio thing, because the Cubists brought Cezanne back into the studio. It would be interesting to deal with the ecology of the psychological behavior of the artist in the various sites from that period. Because in looking at the work today, you just can’t say its all just shapes, colors and lines. There is a physical reference, and that choice of subject matter is not simply a representational thing to be avoided. It has important physical implications. And then there is Cezanne’s perception: being on the ground, thrown back on to a kind of soil. I’m reversing the perspective to get another viewpoint, because we’ve seen it so long now from the decorative design point of view and not from the point of view of the physicality of the terrain. That perception is needed more now than the abstract because we’re now into such a kind of soupy, effete thing. It’s so one sided and groundless.
I’m interested in making a point in a designated area. That’s the focal point. You then have a dialectic between the point and the edge: within a single focus, a kind of Pascalian calculus between the edge and the middle or the fringe and the center operating within a designated area. And usually when you focus on it with a camera, it becomes a rectangle. The randomness to me is always very precise, a kind of zeroing in. But there is a random element: the choice is never abolished.
I would say the designation is what I call an open limit as opposed to a closed limit which is a non-site usually in an interior space. The open limit is a designation that I walk through in a kind of network looking for a site. And then I select the site. There’s no criteria; just how the material hits my psyche when I’m scanning it. But it’s a kind of low level scanning, almost unconscious. When you select, it’s fixed so that randomness is then determined. It’s determined in uncertainty. At the same time, the fringes or boundaries of the designation are always open. They’re only closed on the map, and the map serves as the designation. The map is like a key to where the site is and then you can operate within that sector.
Cayuga Salt Mine Site
This was the first interior underground site that I did, the one in the salt mine. There you have an amorphous room situation, an interior that’s completely free. There’s no right angles forming a rectilinear thing. So I’m adding the rectilinear focal point that sort of spills over into the fringes of the non-descript amorphousness. Then it’s all contained when you shoot the photograph so you have that dialectic in that. On a topographical earth surface you don’t have that kind of enclosure. There’s a sort of rhythm between containment and scattering. It’s a fundamental process that Anton Ehrenzweig has gone into, I think his views are very pertinent in that he talks about this in terms of containment or scattering.
An artist in a sense does not differentiate experience into objects. Everything is a field or maze, and you get that maze, serially, in the salt mine in that one goes from point to point. The seriality bifurcates. Some paths go somewhere, some don’t. You just follow and what you’re left with is like a network or a series of points, and then these points can then be built in conceptual structures.
The non-site situation doesn’t look like the mine. It’s abstract. The piece I did here utilizes the same dialectic of the site/non-site, except the one controlling element is the mirror which in a sense is deployed differently. There’s an element of shoring and supporting and pressures. The material becomes the container. In other non-sites, the container was rigid, the material amorphous. In this case, the container is amorphous, the mirror is the rigid thing. It’s a variation on the theme of the dialectic of the site/non-site.
I’m using a mirror because the mirror in a sense is both the physical mirror and the reflection: the mirror as a concept and abstraction; then the mirror as a fact within the mirror of the concept. So that’s a departure from the other kind of contained, scattering idea. But still the bi-polar unity between the two places is kept. Here the site/non-site becomes encompassed by mirror as a concept- mirroring, the mirror being a dialectic.
The mirror is a displacement, as an abstraction absorbing, reflecting the site in a very physical way. It’s an addition to the site. But I don’t leave the mirrors there. I pick them up. It’s slightly different from the site/non-site thing. Still in my mind it hasn’t completely disclosed itself. There’s still an implicit aspect to it. It’s another level of process that I’m exploring. A different method of containment.
The route to the site is very indeterminate. It’s important because it’s an abyss between the abstraction and the site; a kind of oblivion. You could go there on a highway, but a highway to the site is really an abstraction because you don’t really have contact with the earth. A trail is more of a physical thing. These are all variables, indeterminate elements which will attempt to determine the route from the museum to the mine. I’ll designate points on a line and stabilize the chaos between the two points. Like stepping stones. If I take somebody on a tour of the site, I just show them where I removed things. Not didactic, but dialectic.
Oblivion to me is a state when you’re not conscious of the time or space you are in. You’re oblivious to its limitations. Places without meaning, a kind of absent or pointless vanishing point.
There’s no order outside the order of the material.
I don’t think you can escape the primacy of the rectangle. I always see myself thrown back to the rectangle. That’s where my things don’t offer any kind of freedom in terms of endless visitas or infinite possibilities. There’s no exit, no road to utopia, no great beyond in terms of exhibition space. I see it as inevitability; of going toward the fringes, towards the broken, the entropic. But even that has limits.
Every single perception is essentially determinate. It isn’t a question of form or anti-form. It’s a limitation. I’m not all that interested in the problems of form and anti-form, but in limits and how these limits destroy themselves and disappear.
It’s not a matter of what I’d like to do, but how things result. There are strict limits, but they never stop until you do.
Text excerpted from ROBERT SMITHSON: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS, 2nd Edition, edited by Jack Flam, The University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press, LTD. London, England; 1996