Robert Smithson in Nancy Holt, The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York 1979, p. 124
At the end of his life and groundbreaking career, Robert Smithson envisioned several land-reclamation projects that aimed to transform abandoned industrial sites from places of disuse into radical forms of public art. As studies for two of his most significant land art projects—one executed and one proposed—Robert Smithson’s Broken Circle/Spiral Hill and Project for an Open Pit with Lake, from 1971 and 1972 respectively, are important foundational records in Smithson’s career, showcasing the clarity of his artistic vision as well as his mastery over diverse pictorial strategies.
In Broken Circle/Spiral Hill Smithson renders in three dimensions a landscape dominated by the two works, their scale, mass and earthen composition defining the dynamic scene. Depicting Smithson’s only extant earthwork outside of North America, the drawing showcases a topography utterly transformed by the Broken Circle and Spiral Hill. In June 1971, Smithson completed the project in a sand quarry in Emmen, produced at the invitation of the major outdoor sculpture exhibition Sonsbeek button de Perken (Beyond the Pale). Smithson carved the earthwork out of the land, flooding manmade dikes to evoke the devastating North Sea Flood of 1953 that caused 2,000 deaths and inundated 340,000 acres of land. In a 1971 issue of Arts Magazine, Smithson wrote of the project: “Between violence and calm is lucid understanding and perception… What goes on between the raging flood and the peaceful pond?" Today, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill is immensely significant as one of only three monumental land artworks that Smithson considered to be permanent—the other two being Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah and Amarillo Ramp in Amarillo, Texas.
Contrasting the verisimilitude of Smithson’s drawing for Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, his study for Project for an Open Pit with Lake is reduced and flattened into seemingly pure abstraction, the riveting central form emerging from a sea of crosshatching like a talisman or hieroglyph. Conceived originally as a reclamation project for the Bingham Copper Mining Pit—spanning two miles wide, the oldest open-pit copper mine and largest manmade excavation in the world—Smithson had envisioned a never-realized earthwork that in its ambitious scale would have greatly surpassed his monumental Spiral Jetty. Still active from 1848 through to the present day, the monumental pit has been mined for its gold, silver, copper, and molybdenite. Smithson proposed the project to Kennecott Copper Corporation in the early 1970s; he had hoped to take advantage of mining companies’ receptiveness to various innovative reclamation projects as a means to address waste land. Smithson imagined four dividing crescent rises at the bottom of the massive spiral cavity, which during heavy rains would create four rising jetties of polluted water that from above would resemble a whirling vortex. Rendered in Smithson’s preferred aerial view, similar to the perspective of his famed films, the study eschews representations of his proposed earthwork’s staggering dimensionality in order to draw attention to its refined and idealized formal qualities. His drawing for the earthwork contains an innate symmetry, with elegant tendrils curving in towards its center from four cardinal quadrants. Yet despite the work’s reduced visual language, the study remains instructional and communicative of a proposed materiality, each tendril no doubt constructed of many thousands of tons of earth, and the negative space within filled with water. Without approval from Kennecott, the project was never realized.
These two significant studies bring together Smithson’s preoccupations with the conflation of art and landscape, of human intervention and entropy, and with the question of what bears being observed, paid attention to, and pondered. The works exemplify Smithson’s enduring relevance in Contemporary Art and urban architecture today; in his ambitious interventions into the earth—both formally and socio-politically—Smithson’s pioneering projects continue to inspire artists to expand boundaries of radical possibility for engaging with the world. In summarizing his artistic aim, Smithson stated, “the old landscape of naturalism and realism is being replaced by the new landscape of abstraction and artifice” (Robert Smithson, Aerial Art, p.180). Both Smithson’s Broken Circle/Spiral Hill and Project for an Open Pit with Lake communicate that notion, utilizing the materiality and logic of the landscape to abstract it and create something that remains as aesthetically and socially groundbreaking today as it was in the early 1970s.
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