Robert Smithson took a bus ride from New York ’s Port Authority to his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey on September 30, 1967. His observations as he walked through the suburban landscape, combined with photo documentation from his Instamatic camera, formed the basis for his most famous piece of writing, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” In it, he describes “monuments,” sites of industrial intervention into the land—a wooden footbridge, a pumping derrick, a large sandbox—as instances of ruins in reverse. Rather than structures that eventually crumble and decay, they “rise into ruin before they are built.” This notion runs counter to everything we believe a monument embodies.
On the 50th anniversary of Smithson’s Passaic stroll, America is catching up to him in the sense that our assumptions of what a monument is have been deeply shaken, and what was once presumed to be a given now is not. A month ago protesters toppled a monument of a Confederate soldier dressed in uniform installed outside the Durham County Courthouse in North Carolina. It had been dedicated to “the memory of the boys who wore the gray” sixty years after the American Civil War’s end, and the crowd who hastened its demise were in counter-protest to the weekend-long rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville that had resulted in violence, bloodshed, and death. Since then a number of other cities, including major metropolises like Baltimore, Dallas, and New York, have hastened to remove monuments inscribed to Confederate generals and soldiers even as a public debate rages about the appropriateness of such actions. “How will we remember our history?” cry those in favor of letting the monuments remain. A frequent reply: “They can go to a museum,” with the understanding that museum as it’s used here is used in the word’s oldest sense—a repository for relics and artifacts.
Smithson had little regard for the museum as institution. As early as 1967 he was noting a proclivity “toward a kind of specialized entertainment,” and that museums were taking on “more and more the aspects of a discotheque and less and less the aspects of art.” But his disregard wasn’t a hopeless one; on the contrary, he was interested in the chasm created by the museum’s divergence of functions. He envisioned it as a gap that “exists in the blank and void regions or settings that we never look at. A museum devoted to different kinds of emptiness could be developed. The emptiness could be defined by the actual installation of art. Installations should empty rooms, not fill them.”
Maybe it’s in this gap where the new museum for old monuments exists. What if we took these tributes to dead racists—people whose bygone bodies fought a war to keep other bodies in chattel, fought hard for their right to torture and subjugate—and remove them to a no-man’s land somewhere between art and a discothéque? Why not fill Smithson’s liminal emptiness with their installation, then turn out the lights, lock the door, and never look back, thus ensuring the room will also remain empty—empty of humanity past, present, and future? Of course by doing so, new gaps and other holes will be left across the landscape of America—holes where the monuments once stood. Smithson noticed a lot of holes in the Passaic landscape, too. He called them the “monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” So let’s leave the holes left by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson—don’t fill them in, don’t cover them up. Leave them so we remember why we aren’t abandoning history so much as we are abandoning a future where a few continue to be protected at the expense of the many.