Robert Smithson’s aesthetics and the future of Earth Art

Mariya Veleva, Departamento de Alemán, Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación, Santiago de Chile

Industrialization, dense urbanization and environmental pollution are part of human civilization and directly related to the current pandemic. We can take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink and rede-fine our relation to the environment and industry, as well to industrial culture (in terms of Adorno); art may help us in this intention. The statement that art could mediate between industry, ecology and society was developed by Robert Smithson during the 1970s.

This text, since it is based on Smithson’s aesthetic theory, will follow the evolution of his particular artistic attitude concerning environment, industry and industrial culture. The emphasis is put on his aesthetic sensitization to altered environments through special body experience. I will try to show that this complex body experience was the necessary condition for his ecological turn in his later Earth Art projects. Smithson’s critical thinking on society and technology as well his interest in entropy, together with this complex body experience of the sites, defined important aspects of his oeuvre and aesthetic theory. I will also stress some of these genuinely realistic, anti-idealistic, anti-roman-tic, anti-utopian aspects in Smithson’s work and thinking, intending to demonstrate how art could help society to recover from its current disease.

Smithson’s artistic fondness was evident from the beginning of his career — starting from his first expedition to the industrial zone of Passaic, New Jersey, which gave birth to the work Monument Passaic, New Jersey — not for unadulterated nature, but for postindustrial landscapes. This led to Smithson’s many expeditions during the 1960s. Most of these expeditions resulted in his non-sitesthat were exhibited in the Dwan Gallery, which means that his aesthetic approach in this stage was still bound to the traditional form of exhibition.1Nevertheless, he insisted on the wholeness of his aesthetic experience, defining the categories of outside-inside in their dialectical relation:

I never thought of isolating my objects in any particu-lar way. Gradually, more and more, I have come to see their relationship to the outside world, and final-ly when I started making the Nonsites, the dialectic became very strong. These Nonsites became maps that pointed to sites in the world outside the gallery, and a dialectical view began to subsume a purist, abstract tendency. (Smithson [1973]: 311)


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