– Autumn/Winter 2004

Speaking of Others

Mary Leclère

Tags: Land art, Robert Smithson, Roland Barthes

Sam Durant, Upside Down: Pastoral Scene, fiberglass, wood, mirror, acrylic paint and audio equipment; 12 works: mirrors 122cm x 122cm each, trees 91cm x 140cm x 152cmx76cm each, 2002. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Sam Durant, Upside Down: Pastoral Scene, fiberglass, wood, mirror, acrylic paint and audio equipment; 12 works: mirrors 122cm x 122cm each, trees 91cm x 140cm x 152cmx76cm each, 2002. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Among Robert Smithson's lesser-known works are three outdoor tree installations - dead stumps, actually, that he found and 'planted' upside-down in various locations in 1969. Third Upside-Down Tree was erected that spring in Yaxchilan, Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula while the artist was photographing a series of nine 'mirror displacements' to which the tree ended up becoming a sort of pendant.

The photographs document the displacement of the landscape (through its absorption and reflection) by twelve square mirrors inserted into the soil or foliage in loose grid formations. Because Smithson gathered up the mirrors and moved them to each successive site - they were objects as well as subjects of displacement - the photographs document the existence of now absent referents. He underscored this point in an essay accompanying the photographs entitled 'Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan', which was published in the September 1969 issue of Artforum. Inverting the traditional relationship between the artwork and its reproduction (the images do not simply document absent artworks but are an integral part of what is actually a text-based work), the essay describes the mirrors' itinerary in detail. It is by now commonplace to discuss the strate=es employed in this work within the context of a broad range of conceptual practices that staged what has been described as an 'escape attempt' from the museum-gallery nexus during the 1960s.1 Sam Durant's reintroduction of these Smithsonian referents -the trees and the mirrors - into the space of the gallery in a recent work not only harks back to those strate=es but also re-engages them in a new way.

Durant's installation Upside Down: Pastoral Scene (2002) consists of twelve simulated tree stumps

  1. See Lucy Lippard, 'Escape Attempts', Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, pp.vii-xxii.

  2. Robert Smithson, Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, Artforum, September 1969, p.32

  3. Ibid.

  4. Roland Barthes, 'Change the Object Itself', Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath (trans.), New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p.165

  5. Ibid., p.167

  6. Robert Smithson, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, Artforum, September 1968, p.49

  7. Roland Barthes, 'Myth Today', Mythologies, Annette Lavers (trans.), New York: Noonday Press, 1970, p.119

  8. Ibid., p.158

  9. Ibid., p.135

  10. R. Barthes, 'Change the Object Itself', op. cit., p.168

  11. For instance, in a book review of the 2003 book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, Adolph Reed, Jr. writes that the authors 'challenge what they describe as an emerging "racial realism", which claims that, as a result of the legislative victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, racism has been largely overcome as a significant determinant of black Americans' life chances. According to this view, inequalities in employment, wealth and income, education, or arrest and incarceration have more to do with blacks' own limitations than with discrimination or any systemic injustice.' By contrast, this book 'shows how racial exclusion in the past set in motion patterns of inequality that not only persist but worsen over time.' See Adolph Reed, Jr., Color Codes, Dissent, Summer 2004, p.91

  12. Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), 1997, p.26

  13. Ibid.

  14. For a discussion of the Panthers' collaborative efforts, see Charles E. Jones, 'Reconsidering Panther History: The Untold Story', in The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered], Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998, p.31

  15. David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000, p.40

  16. Michel Foucault, 'The Discourse on Language', The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p.216

  17. See Craig Owens, The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism, in Scott Bryson et al. (eds.), Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, pp.166-90

  18. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. quoted in Speaking Out: Some Distance to Go..., Art in America, vol.78, no.9, September 1990, p.82

  19. D. Margolick, op. cit., p.22

  20. R. Barthes, 'Myth Today', op. cit., p.124

  21. Ibid., p.125

  22. According to Louis Althusser's explication of the subject of ideology, '[T]he individual is interpellated as a (free) subject ... in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection "all by himself". There are no subjects except by and for their subjection.' Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, Ben Brewster (trans.), New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, p.182

  23. Arguably the artists' opposition to the position of certain critics itself contributed to the construction of this criticism as the dominant discourse.

  24. Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobio-graphical Writings, Peter Demetz (ed.), Edmund Jephcott (trans.), New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978, p.236

  25. R. Barthes, 'Change the Object Itself', op. cit., p.169