Works (from left to right):
Ashpalt on eroded cliff, 1969
Floating Island – Barge to Travel Around Manhatten Island, 1971
The Hypothetical Continent of Lemura, 1969
Island Project, 1970
Robert Smithson, an American artist and writer active in the 1960s and early ’70s, is perhaps best known for his so-called “earthworks.” Smithson died tragically in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of thirty-five while surveying the west Texas landscape as the site for a new earthwork, Amarillo Ramp. His legacy endures because of the deep philosophical thinking that informed his “earthworks,” a term Smithson adopted in 1967 to distinguish his work from that of other practitioners of land art. The name references a 1965 science fiction novel by Brian Aldiss about a dystopian world.
During the 1960s, Smithson delved into the crisis of history, mourning the idea of progress after World War II . He also questioned the limits of human perception as conditioned by perspectival images and began reading about space– time, the fourth dimension. His relentless inquiry led him to revelatory, albeit darker, explorations of the material world and its entropic tendency—that is, to move from order to disorder. Rather than cling to expectations of “progress” through revolutionary action, Smithson reimagined history according to ideas he borrowed from geology and physics, embracing loss and fragmentation as inevitable planetary processes. For some, the artwork that resulted from this belief system, founded on principles of decay, was depressing. The rocks and mirrors that define Smithson’s aesthetic appear to be inflicted by numbness, boredom, and indifference to the ongoing struggles against social inequality, political violence, and environmental devastation. Beneath Smithson’s philosophical critique—that of human striving against entropic processes—runs a shrewd condemnation of the existing political regime and its promise of a better tomorrow. Smithson was invariably concerned with political discourse, especially with the idealization of the American West as the promised land of freedom and prosperity. In his work, Smithson confronted the machinery of enterprise and innovation that spread toxicity and ruin across the American frontier.
Dead Tree (1969/2015) is emblematic of Smithson’s earthworks. Its presentation at the Biennale di Venezia, along with a suite of other works, will be its fourth reconstruction. Originally conceived for Prospect 69 at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf in Germany, the work was later reconstructed in Brooklyn, New York (1997), Stuttgart, Germany (1999), and Oslo, Norway (2000). Per the artist’s specifications, Dead Tree is to be approximately 35 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter. Double-sided mirrors are randomly placed within its desiccating leafy branches and crumbling root ball to conjure an overall sense of displacement. It is a monument to a revolution in human thought.