org. Antônio Ewbank and Wallace V. Masuko

[versão em português]

Exhibition and newly published writings 
EARTH-WORDS, Robert Smithson: Artforum 1966-73

may 6th 2023, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.  

The publication was made with the support of Holt/Smithson Foundation and cmb
[Soon] For purchase and further information:
Editora Ébria

06.05 - 17.06.23
wednesdays to fridays: from 1pm to 7pm
saturday: from 11am to 7pm
free admission

travessa dona paula, 120
são paulo - sp


Fifty or sixty years ago, Robert Smithson's readers were not very numerous. Nor, was the reading of his work around the world. When I started translating his writings, as someone looking for “the true way to read a text,” I wanted to get away from the vertigo of numbers. Today, simply because there are so many interpretations available, it makes sense to doubt that new layers of understanding can be added to his work. But this abstract doubt, as the artist himself indicates, persists only if we ignore the material nature of his sculptural language. Smithson argues that writing should generate ideas in matter, not the other way around. For that reason, the translation itself suggests the use of an appropriate term - "printed-matter." It's a little disconcerting to realize that his language isn't exactly made up of ideas. It also consists of various objects and actions, of analogies and mirror images. The physical properties of language and materials are rarely expressed in a discrete way. Maybe we should take his words seriously, deal with the weight and dimensions of each sentence. Thus, it costs nothing to imagine such a (graphic) process of multiplication of printed-matter in space and time: heaps of languages or piles of languages literally accumulating in the labyrinth of corridors and shelves of an endless library of Babel. This volume would certainly be kept, within Borges' universe, in that wild region where the superstitious and vain custom of looking for meaning in books is repudiated. Books mean nothing in themselves.

Smithson is probably best known as the author of Spiral Jetty: made of earth and basalt rock, which winds counterclockwise from the center to the edge of a salt lake. Although inaccessible to the general public, the work soon became an icon of three-dimensional production of its time, through technical images, graphic representations, and textual reports. The more inattentive observer, however, does not realize that this monumental arm is part of a larger and multifaceted body. Apart from the jetty built in 1970, Spiral Jetty unfolds as a homonymous and contemporary film, a set of preparatory drawings, and a printed-matter, The Spiral Jetty, which was published two years later. It is also worth remembering the construction, two years earlier, of a triangulated spiral sculpture, Gyrostasis, which the artist refers to as “an abstract three-dimensional map that points to the Spiral Jetty.” These translations in different media and supports, far from just documenting the inaccessible pier, make up a complex whole and anticipate and complement the work. In the artist's terms, the dialectic between site (spiral jetty) and non-site (film + drawings + printed-matter + sculpture) establishes a concrete network of interrelationships.

There is a spiral construction made of autochthonous material located in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, which dialogues with: 1. a movie shot on film and reproduced indefinitely in museums and art galleries; 2. design drawings, including the treatment for that same film, used on the poster announcing its first showing at Dwan Gallery; 3. a printed-matter, published in Arts of Environment, which still circulates in books and art magazines, including being translated into other languages; 4. a white steel sculpture, which belongs to the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This arrangement of elements forms the space-time folds of the polyptych. We can represent the relationship in the form of a diagram, containing a fixed point (the site) and numerous mobile coordinates (non-sites), separated by variable distances and intervals. It is convenient to place the diagram on a world map or terrestrial globe. What matters is to make visible the dynamics of scaled bodies.
As smoke is to fire, shadow to building, windsock to wind – a map always points to some site. In the same way, the current reader, who has this non-site paper in their hands, traces a series of imaginary lines that connect them (perhaps unintentionally) to the Dallas-Fort Worth air terminal, to Passaic, to Yucatan, to the Cayuga Rock Salt Mine, to Central Park. It is curious to note that this relationship is not always chronological: sometimes the maps point to historic ruins, sometimes to ruins in reverse: they point to airports under construction, industrial suburbs, archaeological sites, mines, and parks. In short, every non-site is an index of a specific site.

Each language, medium, or support is willing to activate the others. Smithson institutes a kind of free transit between the verbal and the visual, evident in the construction Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read, which appears in the release of a collective exhibition with the same name held at Galeria Dwan in 1967. The construction reverses the logic of the senses by emphasizing both the material nature of words and the possibility of interpreting objects in general. It may seem like a banal observation, but all printed-matter is an amalgamation of idea and object. It is enough to recognize that the previous examples reveal an internal organization of the works, according to a specific lexicon (the conceptual pairing of site/non-site), and that this organization corresponds to real places, objects, and actions. This means that these works should not be judged in isolation, but combined with one another, according to a conceptual and material order. Furthermore, they demarcate and connect the inside and outside of institutional art spaces: the spaces of museums, galleries, and, in this specific case, art magazines. In such a context, the editorial space of publication exceeds its condition as a mere vehicle for the circulation of ideas and documentation of works. It also becomes a vehicle for works of art, some of which are ambiguous and difficult to classify, unavoidable material for the assimilation of the artist's sculptural language.

The interventions in different North American art magazines, first of all, mark a strange presence. The author's intention, when confronting critical and historiographical production, was to add printed-matter to a regime of circulation and functioning proper to certain discursive forms. At stake was the last word regarding works of art or, perhaps, a redefinition of the boundaries between art and criticism. It is noteworthy that, although his publications were sparse (Arts Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Aspen, among others), one-third of his output is concentrated in a single magazine. Here the reader will find a dozen printed-matter in a facsimile edition which were published in Artforum between 1966 and 1973. The first selection criterion for this collection, therefore, is quantitative (it was necessary to choose a starting point for the translation of his complete works). To illustrate the second criterion, which is conceptual and graphic, two examples will suffice. Some printed-matter have a more or less strong link between the verbal, the visual, and their material qualities, something like an internal cohesive force. Others exceed this cohesive force, creating a precise link with the magazine's format. In “Letters”, for example, Smithson uses the section dedicated to readers' opinions to criticize the essay “Art and Object,” by Michael Fried, published in Artforum itself a few months earlier. In addition to occupying a specific section, the intentional change of his authorial position is important: occupying the role of critic-reader. In “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan”, travel literature related to a series of ephemeral interventions carried out in the Gulf of Mexico, Smithson photographs nine variations of a set of square mirrors placed on the ground. It is no mere coincidence that both the mirrors and the photographs of the interventions replicate the emblematic square format of the magazine.

A word about entropy. “Entropy and the New Monuments” constitutes the main textual source for the debate about Smithson's use of this magnitude, associated with the irreversibility of the states of a physical system when shifting it from the field of science to that of the arts. For Smithson, artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and those connected with the Park Place Group give an idiosyncratic contour to entropy. Contrary to their conceptual use, they provide a “visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy,” which demonstrates through direct observation, not by means of explanation, that “energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness.” There seems to be an imaginative capacity stored in the principle of entropy that leads us to think that theoretical models shared between different fields of knowledge may constitute unexplored regions of the same problem. This analysis of “new monuments” further suggests that entropy is perhaps a repressed condition in the history of sculpture and architecture.

In conclusion, I will say that entropy has two faces: one, facing us, and the other, like the moon. In “The Monuments of Passaic,” Smithson brings an image to the arrow of time. A child plays in a sandbox that is divided in half, with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. She runs in the box clockwise; the sand starts to mix, to turn gray. Then, she runs counterclockwise. The result, obviously, is not the restoration of the original separation, but a deeper gray. That is, play causes an increase in entropy. Perhaps the amount of interpretations about a work of art also causes a similar increase in entropy. There is no better shade to represent consensus-making than gray. Although the artist, on more than one occasion, advises us to distrust his words. Paraphrasing the philosopher A. J. Ayer, he says that “we not only communicate what is true, but also what is false;” or rather, "the false often has greater 'reality' than the true." All information has its entropic side. How can you trust someone who baptizes a work Quick Millions, the name of a movie he claims he has never seen? Has he actually never seen the movie? Would he be referring to the 1931 film, directed by Rowland Brown, or the film shot in 1939, by Malcolm St. Clair? What kind of mirror of time is Robert Smithson's “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” versus “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan,” a narrative that tells the story of an expedition undertaken by explorer J. L. Stephens in the mid-19th century? What is the common denominator between the appropriation of the title of Brian Aldiss' book, Earthworks, and Smithson's use of the term to refer to certain three-dimensional production of the 1960s and 1970s? Between desert landscapes in the North American Midwest and a scenario of ecological catastrophe, Malthusian overpopulation, and forced labor camps set in the African continent?

The fact is that it is not just a spiral jetty, at the mercy of some cosmic cataclysm, that slowly ruins itself – all printed-matter is given over to dust and moths.

Antônio Ewbank

English version by Claudia Nogueira Barbosa


Torn photograph from the second stop (rubble). Second mountain of 6 stops on a section
Robert Smithson, 1970, photographic print , variable dimensions (original print 21 1/2 x 21 1/2 in. [54,6 x 54,6 cm]), from ARTISTS & PHOTOGRAPHS, published by Multiples, Inc.
© Holt/Smithson Foundation.

realização: coleção moraes-barbosa [Pedro Barbosa e Patrícia Moraes] // organização, expografia e design: Antônio Ewbank, Wallace V. Masuko // tradução: Claudia Nogueira // produção executiva e montagem: Cris Ambrosio, Pontogor // arquivo: Karol Pinto, Camila Bigliani // redes sociais: Bruno Baptistelli, Erica Ferrari //recepção: Erika Silva // transporte: Ivanildo José Alves // serviços gerais: Joseane da Silva, Celia Regina Alves Lima // agradecimentos: Lisa le Feuvre, diretora executiva da Holt/Smithson Foundation; Jeff Gibson, editor-chefe da ARTFORUM; editora ébria