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Smithson, Robert

b. 1938, Passaic, USA; d. 1973, near Amarillo, USA

Nonsite, Site Uncertain, 1968 Steel, cannel coal, 38 x 228.6 x 228.6 cm Collection: Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

In 1971 Robert Smithson inaugurated a new artistic discipline: ‘Land Reclamation Art’. In the Dutch town of Emmen he constructed Broken Circle / Spiral Hill in a deserted quarry. Shortly thereafter he wrote to a series of American companies that were active in the exploitation and reclamation of open-air mines. Smithson approached the Hanna Coal company about creating the earthwork Lake Edge Crescents in Egypt Valley, Ohio. He saw his art not only as a substitute for reclamation but also as a kind of hinge or focal point in the dialectic of destruction and reclamation. His sketch shows a strong formal similarity to Broken Circle but the materials (amongst others, the covers with off-white chalk and Crown Vetch, a legume used to forestall erosion) were specifically related to the mine company’s operation. Moreover, the construction he would introduce was more than five times bigger. Smithson thought that Egypt Valley had the appropriate scale for his art. In a collage from the same period, he associated the GEM of Egypt, a Giant Earth Mover at the Hanna Coal company, with King Kong, the grotesque gorilla that terrorised downtown Manhattan. With these types of confrontations Smithson’s works dismantle Western modernity’s linear and idealistic concept of progress. The dialectical relationship between site and nonsite also bears witness to this: no single notion offers a total image; the actual artwork exists in the dialectical movement between the centre (the nonsite) and the outskirts (the site) (see Smithson 1996). Nonsite, Site Uncertain – in which the origin (and as a result, the Site) is indeterminate in both space and time – gets its meaning and its sense from the shapes in which the rough material of coal as well as the charts of the Site are presented. With the shape of its components, this Nonsite points toward perspective and cartography, two powerful instruments or containers for the modern gaze, as well as to the pyramidal monuments of ancient civilisations. Moreover, this formal display also refers to Smithson’s famous drawing, Heap of Language. Here, the viewer’s gaze is confronted with its own rules and materiality. FM