Earthworks: Robert Smithson, Sam Durant, And Mary Brogger
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue
Through September 5
It’s hard to top the sight of Robert Smithson skipping along Spiral Jetty. Toward the end of the film he made documenting the earthwork’s construction on the Great Salt Lake in 1970, the artist picks his way over the 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide counterclockwise coil of mud and black basalt rocks, letting viewers grasp its scale for the first time. It’s an unusually playful moment for a movie that links land art to cosmic phenomena and prehistoric natural forces. Earlier footage conflates the monstrous dump trucks building Spiral Jetty with dinosaurs.
Smithson’s 32-minute film is the centerpiece of Earthworks, relegating the rest of the show—two sculptures by Sam Durant and Mary Brogger—to proof of the late artist’s continuing influence. While Durant and Brogger respond to Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed rather than Spiral Jetty, the two projects, completed a few months apart in 1970, both address entropy, a favo- rite Smithson theme. (He created Partially Buried Woodshed during a residency at Ohio’s Kent State University, piling dirt onto a wooden structure until its central roof beam cracked.)
Both works changed in ways Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, couldn’t anticipate. Spiral Jetty was submerged for decades by the Great Salt Lake, and within the past few years has been threatened by oil drilling. A few months after the artist finished Partially Buried Woodshed, it became an unofficial memorial to the four Kent State students killed by the National Guard that year. Burned by arsonists, the structure was removed from campus in 1984.
This dark history influences Durant’s 1998 installation Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) and Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock). Dirt piled on two mirrors— references to Smithson’s sculptures—hides two speakers. One plays a recording of peace activist Wavy Gravy speaking at Woodstock. The other broadcasts Mick Jagger’s pleas for calm at Altamont, which the Rolling Stones hoped would be their “Woodstock West” before the concert degenerated into fatal violence.
The two men’s voices blur into incoherent shouting, suggesting that Woodstock’s hippie triumph is inseparable from the traumatic end of 1960s idealism. The horrors of the era won’t die; they speak to us from Durant’s twin grave mounds. We get it: It was a heavy time—but the weight of all these historical and art-historical references threatens to suffocate viewers.
Brogger’s Earthwork (2000) introduces some welcome humor. The artist turns a small model of the Mies van der Rohe–designed Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, into a birdhouse, sullying the modernist icon with a pile of birdseed resembling Smithson’s mud and rocks. (Michael Green and Diana Nawi, who organized Earthworks for the MCA, also note Brogger’s debt to Walter De Maria’s Earth Room.)
The grave that Earthwork brings to mind belongs to Mies and he is spinning in it. Brogger’s sculpture stops seeming absurd, however, once one recalls the real Farnsworth House’s encounters with nature: The Fox River has flooded the landmark several times, causing severe damage in 1996 and 2008. Smithson—who expected salt crystals to engulf Spiral Jetty and considered the weathering of Partially Buried Woodshed part of the piece—might have appreciated the entropy.
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