COLLECTION OF B.Z. AND MICHAEL SCHWARTZ
“On Saturday, September 30, 1967,” as artist Robert Smithson was careful to specify, he embarked on a trip from New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to his hometown. He was about to undertake what in his now-famous text he would call “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” (It’s not clear whether the piece should be called an essay or a story; perhaps it’s best to call it an artwork made of writing and pictures.) The monuments in question were things like concrete abutments for a highway under construction and a pumping derrick connected to a long pipe. As he stepped off the bus at his first monument, a bridge connecting Bergen and Passaic counties across the Passaic River, Smithson noticed that “Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an overexposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a series of detached ‘stills’ through my Instamatic into my eye. When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.”
Writing in a tone derived in part from the deceptive objectivity of the French nouveau roman (he quotes from Mobile, Michel Butor’s collage-travelogue of the United States) and in part from British new-wave science fiction (he entertains himself on the bus ride with the New York Times and Brian Aldiss’s dystopian sci-fi novel Earthworks), Smithson evokes a vacant reality made only of “memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” Critics fascinated with Smithson’s apparently post-Duchampian idea that banal objects become art simply by being looked at a certain way–that “a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance,” as he would write a year later–have often overlooked the way Smithson framed his saturnine view of postindustrial culture through the eye of the camera. His alienation allows him to perceive that things, made or natural, are mere photographs of themselves, and that these photographs are essentially “stills” excerpted from the film that is time. Rereading “The Monuments of Passaic,” one begins to wonder whether the grainy snapshots with which Smithson illustrated his text are secretly not photographs of the monuments but in fact the monuments themselves. It is clear that, for him, the image is always of something that was already an image. Artists have perennially had the feeling that they are merely the channel for something that is already art, but Smithson’s notion of sunlight pitching images into his eye through the camera is a peculiarly gnostic or paranoid version of it, with a visceral punch characteristic of a contemporary of William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.