Friday, January 21, 2011

Designer of the Month: Robert Smithson

Week 3: Displacements

It's easy to look at Robert Smithson's work and be unsure as to how exactly it should be categorized. As I mentioned at the start of my discussion about him, Smithson was a writer as well as an artist, coining many of the terms he would use to describe his art himself. Last week, I talked a little bit about Smithson's Nonsites. This week, I want to look at Smithson's Displacements, another category of his work that is similar to his Nonsites, but which are much more of a step in the direction away from the gallery and towards his earthworks than any of the previous pieces we've looked at.

Robert Smithson, Chalk-Mirror Displacement, 1969. Sixteen mirrors and chalk, approx. 10' in diameter. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Unlike Smithson's Nonsites, which incorporated materials from a location into stand-alone sculptures to be displayed in a gallery, his Displacements were frequently created within a particular environment and were meant only as temporary works. When they were shown within a gallery space, Smithson would create dual Displacements, one at the intended location and its twin within the gallery, thereby playing with the traditional confines of the exhibition space and creating entirely new parameters for contemporary sculpture.[1] There's some contention about where exactly the Nonsite ends and the Displacement begins, but a few main factors distinguish these two categories. First, rather than taking material from a location and placing it in a container, the material used in a gallery Displacement would instead be piled onto mirrors.[2] While Smithson's Nonesites were always placed indoors, many of his Displacements were created outside, with a twin Displacement, sometimes also referred to as a Nonsite, shown in a gallery space.[3] A bit confusing, I know, but it's important to consider that at the time, Smithson was both creating and writing about totally new types of sculpture, and many of these ideas were completely different than anything that had ever been seen before. Sometimes, all that would be left of a Displacement was a photograph, with the creation and discussion of the work more important to Smithson than the actual sculpture itself. Of course, for anything that was photographed, Smithson was then able to take these physical records and turn them into artworks as well. Smithson aptly entitled these photographic records of his Displacements "Slideworks," the format of which were 35mm slide transparencies.[4] As Elyse Goldberg explains in her introduction to The Estate of Robert Smithson, "These photographs are simultaneously artwork and document and are not a formal rendering of the landscape in traditional photographic terms. Like the materials in the Nonsites, the images themselves become displacements."[5]

Robert Smithson, Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), 1969. Nine chromogenic prints from 35mm slides, 24 x 24 inches (61 x 61 cm) each. © Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Another one of Smithson's ideas for his Displacements was that they could serve as a sort of travelogue. The above work, an image from Smithson's Slidework entitled Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), is a great example of this. As Nancy Spector describes this work for the Guggenheim Collection Collection online, "The mirrors reflected and refracted the surrounding environs, displacing the solidity of the landscape and shattering its forms. Part Earthwork and part image, the displacements contemplate temporality; while the mirror records the passage of time, its photograph suspends time."[6] This work was part of a larger photo essay entitled "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" (published in Artforum in September 1969), in which Smithson describes a trip that he took around the Yucatan Peninsula, and which he records the 9 sites at which he set up 12 square mirrors, photographed them, and then dismantled the arrangement.[7]

[1] The Art Institute of Chicago online, "About This Artwork: Chalk-Mirror Displacement,", (accessed January 20, 2011).

[2] Eugenie Tsai, "Robert Smithson: Plotting A Line From Passaic, New Jersey, To Amarillo, Texas," Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 26.

[3] Elyse Goldberg, "Introduction: About Robert Smithson," The Estate of Robert Smithson online,, (accessed January 20, 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nancy Spector, "Robert Smithson: Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9)," The Guggenheim New York Collection online,, (accessed January 20, 2011).

[7] Eugenie Tsai, "Robert Smithson: Plotting A Line From Passaic, New Jersey, To Amarillo, Texas," Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 28.

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