A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects

By Robert Smithson

The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art. Various agents, both fictional and real, somehow trade places with each other—one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call “abstract geology.” One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries. This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain. The entire body is pulled into the cerebral sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as solid consciousness. A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an esthetic process that has scarcely been touched.

The manifestations of technology are at times less “extensions” of man (Marshall McLuhan’s anthropomorphism), than they are aggregates of elements. Even the most advanced tools and machines are made of the raw matter of the earth. Today’s highly refined technological tools are not much different in this respect from those of the caveman. Most of the better artists prefer processes that have not been idealized, or differentiated into “objective” meanings. Common shovels, awkward looking excavating devices, what Michael Heizer calls “dumb tools,” picks, pitchforks, the machine used by suburban contractors, grim tractors that have the clumsiness of armored dinosaurs, and plows that simply push dirt around. Machines like Benjamin Holt’s steam tractor (invented in 1885)—“It crawls over mud like a caterpillar.” Digging engines and other crawlers that can travel over rough terrain and steep grades. Drills and explosives that can produce shafts and earthquakes. Geometrical trenches could be dug with the help of the “ripper”—steel toothed rakes mounted on tractors. With such equipment construction takes on the look of destruction; perhaps that’s why certain architects hate bulldozers and steam shovels. They seem to turn the terrain into unfinished cities of organized wreckage. A sense of chaotic planning engulfs site after site. Subdivisions are made—but to what purpose? Building takes on a singular wildness as loaders scoop and drag soil all over the place. Excavations form shapeless mounds of debris, miniature landslides of dust, mud, sand and gravel. Dump trucks spill soil into an infinity of heaps. The dipper of the giant mining power shovel is 25 feet high and digs 140 cu. yds. (250 tons) in one bite. These processes of heavy construction have a devastating kind of primordial grandeur, and are in many ways more astonishing than the finished project—be it a road or a building. The actual disruption of the earth’s crust is at times very compelling, and seems to confirm Heraclitus’s Fragment 124, “The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion.” The tools of art have too long been confined to “the studio.” The city gives the illusion that earth does not exist. Heizer calls his earth projects “The alternative to the absolute city system.”

Recently, in Vancouver, lain Baxter put on an exhibition of Piles that were located at different points in the city; he also helped in the presentation of a Portfolio of Piles. Dumping and pouring become interesting techniques. Carl Andre’s “grave site”—a tiny pile of sand, was displayed under a stairway at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts last year. Andre, unlike Baxter, is more concerned with the elemental in things. Andre’s pile has no anthropomorphic overtones; he gives it a clarity that avoids the idea of temporal space. A serenification takes place. Dennis Oppenheim has also considered the “pile”—“the basic components of concrete and gypsum … devoid of manual organization.” Some of Oppenheim’s proposals suggest desert physiography—mesas, buttes, mushroom mounds, and other “deflations” (the removal of material from beach and other land surfaces by wind action). My own Tar Pool and Gravel Pit (1966) proposal makes one conscious of the primal ooze. A molten substance is poured into a square sink that is surrounded by another square sink of coarse gravel. The tar cools and flattens into a sticky level deposit. This carbonaceous sediment brings to mind a tertiary world of petroleum, asphalts, ozokerite, and bituminous agglomerations.

Primary Envelopment

At the low levels of consciousness the artist experiences undifferentiated or unbounded methods of procedure that break with the focused limits of rational technique. Here tools are undifferentiated from the material they operate on, or they seem to sink back into their primordial condition. Robert Morris (Artforum, April 1968) sees the paint brush vanish into Pollock’s “stick,” and the stick dissolve into “poured paint” from a container used by Morris Louis. What then is one to do with the container? This entropy of technique leaves one with an empty limit, or no limit at all. All differentiated technology becomes meaningless to the artist who knows this state. “What the Nominalists call the grit in the machine,” says T. E. Hulme in Cinders, “I call the fundamental element of the machine.” The rational critic of art cannot risk this abandonment into “oceanic” undifferentiation, he can only deal with the limits that come after this plunge into such a world of non-containment. At this point I must return to what I think is an important issue, namely Tony Smith’s “car ride” on the “unfinished turnpike.” “This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art.” (“Talking with Tony Smith” by Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., Artforum, December 1966.) He is talking about a sensation, not the finished work of art; this doesn’t imply that he is anti-art. Smith is describing the state of his mind in the “primary process” of making contact with matter. This process is called by Anton Ehrenzweig “dedifferentiation,” and it involves a suspended question regarding “limitlessness” (Freud’s notion of the “oceanic”) that goes back to Civilization and Its Discontents. Michael Fried’s shock at Smith’s experiences shows that the critic’s sense of limit cannot risk the rhythm of dedifferentiation that swings between “oceanic” fragmentation and strong determinants. Ehrenzweig says that in modern art this rhythm is “somewhat onesided”—toward the oceanic. Allan Kaprow’s thinking is a good example—“Most humans, it seems, still put up fences around their acts and thoughts.” (Artforum, June 1968.) Fried thinks he knows who has the “finest” fences around their art. Fried claims he rejects the “infinite,” but this is Fried writing in Artforum, February 1967 on Morris Louis: “The dazzling blankness of the untouched canvas at once repulses and engulfs the eye, like an infinite abyss, the abyss that opens up behind the least mark that we make on a flat surface, or would open up if innumerable conventions both of art and practical life did not restrict the consequences of our act within narrow bounds.” The “innumerable conventions” do not exist for certain artists who do exist within a physical “abyss.” Most critics cannot endure the suspension of boundaries between what Ehrenzweig calls the “self and the non-self.” They are apt to dismiss Malevich’s Non-Objective World as poetic debris, or only refer to the “abyss” as a rational metaphor “within narrow bounds.” The artist who is physically engulfed tries to give evidence of this experience through a limited (mapped) revision of the original unbounded state. I agree with Fried that limits are not part of the primary process that Tony Smith was talking about. There is different experience before the physical abyss than before the mapped revision. Nevertheless, the quality of Fried’s fear (dread) is high, but his experience of the abyss is low—a weak metaphor—“like an infinite abyss.”

The bins or containers of my Nonsites gather in the fragments that are experienced in the physical abyss of raw matter. The tools of technology become a part of the Earth’s geology as they sink back into their original state. Machines like dinosaurs must return to dust or rust. One might say a “de-architecturing” takes place before the artist sets his limits outside the studio or the room.

Better Homes And Industries

Great sprays of greenery make the Lambert live-in room an oasis atop a cliff dwelling. In a corner, lighted by skylights and spotlights, “Hard Red,” an oil by Jack Bush. All planting by Lambert Landscape Company.

—Caption under a photograph, House and Garden, July 1968

In Art in America, Sept.–Oct. 1966, there is a Portrait of Anthony Caro, with photographs of his sculpture in settings and landscapes that suggest English gardening. One work, Prima Luce 1966, painted yellow, matches the yellow daffodils peeking out behind it, and it sits on a well cut lawn. I know, the sculptor prefers to see his art indoors, but the fact that this work ended up where it did is no excuse for thoughtlessness about installation. The more compelling artists today are concerned with “place” or “site”—Smith, de Maria, Andre, Heizer, Oppenheim, Huebler—to name a few. Somehow, Caro’s work picks up its surroundings, and gives one a sense of a contrived, but tamed, “wildness” that echoes to the tradition of English gardening.

Around 1720 the English invented the antiformal garden as protest against the French formal garden. The French use of geometric forms was rejected as something “unnatural.” This seems to relate to today’s debate between socalled “formalism” and “anti-formalism.” The traces of weak naturalism cling to the background of Caro’s Prima Luce. A leftover Arcadia with flowery overtones gives the sculpture the look of some industrial ruin. The brightly painted surfaces cheerfully seem to avoid any suggestion of the “romantic ruin,” but they are on closer investigation related to just that. Caro’s industrial ruins, or concatenations of steel and aluminum may be viewed as Kantian “things-in-themselves,” or be placed into some syntax based on So and So’s theories, but at this point I will leave those notions to the keepers of “modernity.” The English consciousness of art has always been best displayed in its “landscape gardens.” “Sculpture” was used more to generate a set of conditions.

Clement Greenberg’s notion of “the landscape” reveals itself with shades of T. S. Eliot in an article, “Poetry of Vision” (Artforum, April 1968). Here “Anglicizing tastes” are evoked in his descriptions of the Irish landscape. “The ruined castles and abbeys,” says Greenberg, “that strew the beautiful countryside are gray and dim,” shows he takes “pleasure in ruins.” At any rate, the “pastoral,” it seems, is outmoded. The gardens of history are being replaced by sites of time.

Memory traces of tranquil gardens as “ideal nature”—jejune Edens that suggest an idea of banal “quality”—persist in popular magazines like House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens. A kind of watered down Victorianism, an elegant notion of industrialism in the woods; all this brings to mind some kind of wasted charm. The decadence of “interior decoration” is full of appeals to “country manners” and liberal-democratic notions of gentry. Many art magazines have gorgeous photographs of artificial industrial ruins (sculpture) on their pages. The “gloomy” ruins of aristocracy are transformed into the “happy” ruins of the humanist. Could one say that art degenerates as it approaches gardening?1 These “garden-traces” seem part of time and not history, they seem to be involved in the dissolution of “progress.” It was John Ruskin who spoke of the “dreadful Hammers” of the geologists, as they destroyed the classical order. The landscape reels back into the millions and millions of years of “geologic time.”

From Steel To Rust

As “technology” and “industry” began to become an ideology in the New York Art World in the late 50s and early 60s, the private studio notions of “craft” collapsed. The products of industry and technology began to have an appeal to the artist who wanted to work like a “steel welder” or a “laboratory technician.” This valuation of the material products of heavy industry, first developed by David Smith and later by Anthony Caro, led to a fetish for steel and aluminum as a medium (painted or unpainted).  Molded steel and cast aluminum are machine manufactured, and as a result they bear the stamp of technological ideology. Steel is a hard, tough metal, suggesting the permanence of technological values. It is composed of iron alloyed with various small percentages of carbon; steel may be alloyed with other metals, nickel, chromium, etc., to produce specific properties such as hardness and resistance to rusting. Yet, the more I think about steel itself, devoid of the technological refinements, the more rust becomes the fundamental property of steel. Rust itself is a reddish brown or reddish yellow coating that often appears on “steel sculpture,” and is caused by oxidation (an interesting non-technological condition), as during exposure to air or moisture; it consists almost entirely of ferric oxide, Fe₂O₃ and ferric hydroxide, Fe(OH)₃. In the technological mind rust evokes a fear of disuse, inactivity, entropy, and ruin. Why steel is valued over rust is a technological value, not an artistic one.

By excluding technological processes from the making of art, we began to discover other processes of a more fundamental order. The breakup or fragmentation of matter makes one aware of the sub-strata of the Earth before it is overly refined by industry into sheet metal, extruded I-beams, aluminum channels, tubes, wire, pipe, cold-rolled steel, iron bars, etc. I have often thought about non-resistant processes that would involve the actual sedimentation of matter or what I called “Pulverizations” back in 1966. Oxidation, hydration, carbonatization, and solution (the major processes of rock and mineral disintegration) are four methods that could be turned toward the making of art. The smelting process that goes into the making of steel and other alloys separates “impurities” from an original ore, and extracts metal in order to make a more “ideal” product. Burnt-out ore or slag-like rust is as basic and primary as the material smelted from it. Technological ideology has no sense of time other than its immediate “supply and demand,” and its laboratories function as blinders to the rest of the world. Like the refined “paints” of the studio, the refined “metals” of the laboratory exist within an “ideal system.” Such enclosed “pure” systems make it impossible to perceive any other kinds of processes than the ones of differentiated technology.

Refinement of matter from one state to another does not mean that so-called “impurities” of sediment are “bad”—the earth is built on sedimentation and disruption. A refinement based on all the matter that has been discarded by the technological ideal seems to be taking place. The coarse swathes of tar on Tony Smith’s plywood mock-ups are no more or less refined than the burnished or painted steel of David Smith. Tony Smith’s surfaces display more of a sense of the “prehistoric world” that is not reduced to ideals and pure gestalts. The fact remains that the mind and things of certain artists are not “unities,” but things in a state of arrested disruption. One might object to “hollow” volumes in favor of “solid materials,” but no materials are solid, they all contain caverns and fissures. Solids are particles built up around flux, they are objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked. All chaos is put into the dark inside of the art. By refusing “technological miracles” the artist begins to know the corroded moments, the carboniferous states of thought, the shrinkage of mental mud, in the geologic chaos—in the strata of esthetic consciousness. The refuse between mind and matter is a mine of information.

The Dislocation of Craft—And Fall of The Studio

Plato’s Timaeus shows the demiurge or the artist creating a model order, with his eyes fixed on a non-visual order of Ideas, and seeking to give the purest representation of them. The “classical” notion of the artist copying a perfect mental model has been shown to be an error. The modern artist in his “studio,” working out an abstract grammar within the limits of his “craft,” is trapped in but another snare. When the fissures between mind and matter multiply into an infinity of gaps, the studio begins to crumble and fall like The House of Usher, so that mind and matter get endlessly confounded. Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity. Such a condition exists without any appeal to “nature.” Sadism is the end product of nature, when it is based on the biomorphic order of rational creation. The artist is fettered by this order, if he believes himself to be creative, and this allows for his servitude which is designed by the vile laws of Culture. Our culture has lost its sense of death, so it can kill both mentally and physically, thinking all the time that it is establishing the most creative order possible.

The Dying Language

The names of minerals and the minerals themselves do not differ from each other, because at the bottom of both the material and the print is the beginning of an abysmal number of fissures. Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void. This discomforting language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution; the certainties of didactic discourse are hurled into the erosion of the poetic principle. Poetry being forever lost must submit to its own vacuity; it is somehow a product of exhaustion rather than creation. Poetry is always a dying language but never a dead language.

Journalism in the guise of art criticism fears the disruption of language, so it resorts to being “educational” and “historical.” Art critics are generally poets who have betrayed their art, and instead have tried to turn art into a matter of reasoned discourse, and, occasionally, when their “truth” breaks down, they resort to a poetic quote. Wittgenstein has shown us what can happen when language is “idealized,” and that it is hopeless to try to fit language into some absolute logic, whereby everything objective can be tested. We have to fabricate our rules as we go along the avalanches of language and over the terraces of criticism.

Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym seems to me excellent art criticism and prototype for rigorous “non-site” investigations. “Nothing worth mentioning occurred during the next twenty-four hours except that, in examining the ground to the eastward third chasm, we found two triangular holes of great depth, and also with black granite sides.” His descriptions of chasms and holes seem to verge on proposals for “earth words.” The shapes of the chasms themselves become “verbal roots” that spell out the difference between darkness and light. Poe ends his mental maze with the sentence—“I have graven it within the hills and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock.”

The Climate of Sight

The climate of sight changes from wet to dry and from dry to wet according to one’s mental weather. The prevailing conditions of one’s psyche affect how he views art. We have already heard much about “cool” or “hot” art, but not much about “wet” and “dry” art. The viewer, be he an artist or a critic, is subject to a climatology of the brain and eye. The wet mind enjoys “pools and stains” of paint. “Paint” itself appears to be a kind of liquefaction. Such wet eyes love to look on melting, dissolving, soaking surfaces that give the illusion at times of tending toward a gaseousness, atomization or fogginess . This watery syntax is at times related to the “canvas support.”

The world disintegrates around me.

—Yvonne Rainer

By Palm Desert springs often run dry.

—Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle

The following is a proposal for those who have leaky minds. It could be thought of as The Mind of Mud, or in later stages, The Mind of Clay.

The Mud Pool Project

1. Dig up 100 ft. sq. area of earth with a pitchfork.

2. Get local fire department to fill the area with water. A fire hose may be used for this purpose.

3. The area will be finished when it turns to mud.

4. Let it dry under the sun until it turns to clay.

5. Repeat process at will.

When dried under the sun’s rays for a sufficiently long time, mud and clay shrink and crack in a network of fissures which enclose polygonal areas.

—Fredric H. Lahee, Field Geology

The artist or critic with a dank brain is bound to end up appreciating anything that suggests saturation, a kind of watery effect, an overall seepage, discharges that submerge perceptions in an onrush of dripping observation. They are grateful for an art that evokes general liquid states, and disdain the desiccation of fluidity. They prize anything that looks drenched, be it canvas or steel. Depreciation of aridity means that one would prefer to see art in a dewy green setting, say the hills of Vermont, rather than the Painted Desert.

Aristotle believed that heat combined with dryness resulted in fire: where else could this feeling take place than in a desert or in Malevich’s head? “No more ‘likenesses of reality,’ no idealistic images, nothing but a desert!” says Malevich in The Non-Objective World. Walter DeMaria and Michael Heizer have actually worked in the Southwestern deserts. Says Heizer, in some scattered notes, “Earth liners installed in Sierras, and down on desert floor in Carson-Reno area.” The desert is less “nature” than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries. When the artist goes to the desert he enriches his absence and burns off the water (paint) on his brain. The slush of the city evaporates from the artist’s mind as he installs his art. Heizer’s “dry lakes” become mental maps that contain the vacancy of Thanatos. A consciousness of the desert operates between craving and satiety.

Jackson Pollock’s art tends toward a torrential sense of material that makes his paintings look like splashes of marine sediments. Deposits of paint cause layers and crusts that suggest nothing “formal” but rather a physical metaphor without realism or naturalism. Full Fathom Five becomes a Sargasso Sea, a dense lagoon of pigment, a logical state of an oceanic mind. Pollock’s introduction of pebbles into his private topographies suggests an interest in geological artifices. The rational idea of “painting” begins to disintegrate and decompose into so many sedimentary concepts. Both Yves Klein and Jean Dubuffet hinted at global or topographic sedimentary notions in their works—both worked with ashes and cinders. Says Dubuffet, regarding the North and South Poles, “The revolution of a being on its axis, reminiscent of a dervish, suggests fatiguing, wasted effort; it is not a pleasant idea to consider and seems instead the provisional solution, until a better one comes along, of despair.” A sense of the Earth as a map undergoing disruption leads the artist to the realization that nothing is certain or formal. Language itself becomes mountains of symbolic debris. Klein’s IKB globes betray a sense of futility—a collapsed logic. G. E. M. Anscombe writing on “Negation” in An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus says, “But it is clear then an all-white or all-black globe is not a map.” It is also clear that Klein’s all blue globe is not a map; rather it is an anti-map; a negation of “creation” and the “creator” that is supposed to be in the artist’s “self.”

The Wreck of Former Boundaries

The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistoric material that is entombed in the Earth’s crust. When one scans the ruined sites of pre-history one sees a heap of wrecked maps that upsets our present art historical limits. A rubble of logic confronts the viewer as he looks into the levels of the sedimentations. The abstract grids containing the raw matter are observed as something incomplete, broken and shattered.

In June, 1968, my wife Nancy, Virginia Dwan, Dan Graham, and I visited the slate quarries in Bangor-Pen Angyl, Pennsylvania. Banks of suspended slate hung over a greenish-blue pond at the bottom of a deep quarry. All boundaries and distinctions lost their meaning in this ocean of slate and collapsed all notions of gestalt unity. The present fell forward and backward into a tumult of “de-differentiation,” to use Anton Ehrenzweig’s word for entropy. It was as though one was at the bottom of a petrified sea and gazing on countless stratographic horizons that had fallen into endless directions of steepness. Syncline (downward) and anticline (upward) outcroppings and the asymmetrical cave-ins caused minor swoons and vertigos. The brittleness of the site seemed to swarm around one, causing a sense of displacement. I collected a canvas bag full of slate chips for a small Nonsite.

Yet, if art is art it must have limits. How can one contain this “oceanic” site? I have developed the Nonsite, which in a physical way contains the disruption of the site. The container is in a sense a fragment itself, something that could be called a three-dimensional map. Without appeal to “gestalts” or “antiform,” it actually exists as a fragment of a greater fragmentation. It is a three-dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment. There are no mysteries in these vestiges, no traces of an end or a beginning.

Cracking Perspectives and Grit in the Vanishing Point

Parallactic perspectives have introduced themselves into the new earth projects in a way that is physical and three-dimensional. This kind of convergence subverts gestalt surfaces and turns sites into vast illusions. The ground becomes a map.

The map of my Nonsite #1 (an indoor earthwork) has six vanishing points that lose themselves in a pre-existent earth mound that is at the center of a hexagonal airfield in the Pine Barren Plains in South New Jersey. Six runways radiate around a central axis. These runways anchor my 31 subdivisions. The actual Nonsite is made up of 31 metal containers of painted blue aluminum, each containing sand from the actual site.

De Maria’s parallel chalk lines are 12 feet apart and run a half a mile along the Dry Lake of El Mirage in the Mojave Desert. The dry mud under these lines is cracking into an infinite variety of polygons, mainly six-sided. Under the beating sun shrinkage is constantly going on causing irregular outlines. Rapid drying causes widely spaced cracks, while slow drying causes closely spaced cracks. (See E. M. Kindle’s “Some Factors Affecting the Development of Mud Cracks,” Journal of Geology, Vol. 25, 1917, p. 136.) De Maria’s lines make one conscious of a weakening cohesion that spreads out in all directions. Nevada is a good place for the person who wants to study cracks.

Heizer’s Compression Line is made by the earth pressing against the sides of two parallel lengths of plywood, so that they converge into two facing sunken perspectives. The earth surrounding this double perspective is composed of “hardpan” (a hard impervious sediment that does not become plastic, but can be shattered by explosives). A drainage layer exists under the entire work.

The Value of Time

For too long the artist has been estranged from his own “time.” Critics, by focusing on the “art object,” deprive the artist of any existence in the world of both mind and matter. The mental process of the artist which takes place in time is disowned, so that a commodity value can be maintained by a system independent of the artist. Art, in this sense, is considered “timeless” or a product of “no time at all”; this becomes a convenient way to exploit the artist out of his rightful claim to his temporal processes. The arguments for the contention that time is unreal is a fiction of language, and not of the material of time or art. Criticism, dependent on rational illusions, appeals to a society that values only commodity type art separated from the artist’s mind. By separating art from the “primary process,” the artist is cheated in more ways than one. Separate “things,” “forms,” “objects,” “shapes,” etc., with beginnings and endings are mere convenient fictions: there is only an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations. The fictions erected in the eroding time stream are apt to be swamped at any moment. The brain itself resembles an eroded rock from which ideas and ideals leak.

When a thing is seen through the consciousness of temporality, it is changed into something that is nothing. This all-engulfing sense provides the mental ground for the object, so that it ceases being a mere object and becomes art. The object gets to be less and less but exists as something clearer. Every object, if it is art, is charged with the rush of time even though it is static, but all this depends on the viewer. Not everybody sees the art in the same way, only an artist viewing art knows the ecstasy or dread, and this viewing takes place in time. A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance. A set of glances could be as solid as any thing or place, but the society continues to cheat the artist out of his “art of looking,” by only valuing “art objects.” The existence of the artist in time is worth as much as the finished product. Any critic who devalues the time of the artist is the enemy of art and the artist. The stronger and clearer the artist’s view of time the more he will resent any slander on his domain. By desecrating this domain, certain critics defraud the work and mind of the artist. Artists with a weak view of time are easily deceived by this victimizing kind of criticism, and are seduced into some trivial history. An artist is enslaved by time only if the time is controlled by someone or something other than himself. The deeper an artist sinks into the time stream the more it becomes oblivion; because of this, he must remain close to the temporal surfaces. Many would like to forget time altogether, because it conceals the “death principle” (every authentic artist knows this). Floating in this temporal river are the remnants of art history, yet the “present” cannot support the cultures of Europe, or even the archaic or primitive civilizations; it must instead explore the pre- and post-historic mind; it must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts. 

  • 1 The sinister in a primitive sense seems to have its origin in what could be called “quality gardens” (Paradise). Dreadful things seem to have happened in those half-forgotten Edens. Why does the Garden of Delights suggest something perverse? Torture gardens. Deer Park. The Grottos of Tiberius. Gardens of Virtue are somehow always “lost.” A degraded paradise is perhaps worse than a degraded hell. America abounds in banal heavens, in vapid “happy-hunting grounds,” and in “natural” hells like Death Valley National Monument or The Devil’s Playground. The public “sculpture garden” for the most part is an outdoor “room,” that in time becomes a limbo of modern isms. Too much thinking about “gardens” leads to perplexity and agitation. Gardens like the levels of criticism bring one to the brink of chaos. This footnote is turning into a dizzying maze, full of tenuous paths and innumerable riddles. The abysmal problem of gardens somehow involves a fall from somewhere or something. The certainty of the absolute garden will never be regained.
How to cite

Smithson, Robert. "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects." Artforum, September 1968.