Dear Robert Smithson,
If you were to examine how we regard nature in its current condition, would you consider our culture to be in an entropic, near-apocalyptic downturn or on the verge of environmental revolution and innovation? Or would you perhaps think that we are cyclically traversing one to get to the other, as you suggested in 1972: “Nature does not proceed in a straight line. … Nature is never finished.” Can the same be said for culture?
You obsessed over an unadorned, unidealized “nature as both sunny and stormy.” Shaped by these notions of landscape, your works engage conflicted human forces that are just as prominent in nature. How do science and art intervene with nature on a contemporaneous scale? What are the aesthetic boundaries that govern each discipline? If we set aside the constructed language of dialectics such as nature and culture, land and our division of it, plants and architecture, we come closer to a fluid, boundary-free world, one that, like a painter’s abstraction, relishes ambiguity and the richness of invention and revelation.
Your Spiral Jetty (1970) is a quintessential example of fusing the natural and its human manufacture. Nature here is not the Otherness we often see; yet as a geologic pier, it is organized and shaped according to its own principal materials (basalt rock) and primary structures (a spiral). As an aesthetic statement, however, isn’t the Jetty more akin to a painting (wasn’t the Great Salt Lake selected for its otherworldly reddish color and ability to conjure blazing light, like a Pollock or a mirage of van Gogh?) than to an ecological intervention like your proposal for the reclamation of the strip mine (evoking the relationship between education, politics, and art)? Despite how art history has neatly co-opted Earthworks/Land Art with environmentalism, these movements appear to have been less about ecology than about aesthetic decisions taken outside of the picture plane and the white box that had heretofore circumscribed them.
The artist-consultant you prescribe in this arrangement fuses the roles of scientist and artist and brings to mind the artificial reef projects my father advised upon in North Carolina in the late 1970s and 1980s. At a time when the fish population off the Eastern Seaboard was diminishing, ocean reefs for aquatic habitats were created from ships, boxcars, and a couple of hundred thousand tires. These reefs were funded by state taxes on fuels used by boats (mostly in the fishing industry) and created in the interest of commercial fishermen. The project also conveniently disposed of the industrial waste of bygone and current eras, as the dominant mode of commodity transit when railways gave way to trucking. However, after a 10-year encrusting of edible marine plants and animals, these artificial reefs became landscaped underwater habitats and living panoramas. A veneer of marine organisms enveloped and coated the long-since unrecognizable and unsightly human-made materials.
Were these reefs art? Maybe in their prominent economic self-interest and scientific/commercial function, they were not. Yet in their scientific process and aesthetic engagement with nature and ecology, you can sense similar ways of thinking about art and your/our relationship to the outer world. In this way, the artificial reefs, like Spiral Jetty, are reparative gestures of the beauty created by the gyrating negotiations of human control versus natural chaos. They give back a splendor to nature and the landscape from which our industries have taken.
While your works were mostly funded by the art world from which you tried to escape, my father’s research was largely funded by industries that created many of the ecological problems he attempted to repair. It would have been fascinating for the two of you to have collaborated on a larger scale project with longer time frames and funding from the worlds of art, science, and industry. Under such conditions, would science and art have been seamlessly conjoined? Like the fragile symbiotic balance maintained between nature and culture, I can’t help but think that this collaboration would have served to explore and further develop the interstitial sites of the arts and sciences.