Robert Smithson: Entropy and the Newer Monuments

by Lucy Cantwell , Spring 2011

In the past several months, I have taken a postcard from Amir Berbic, another from Francis Alÿs, and a blank poster and a piece of candy from Felix Gonzalez-Torres. They were housed and presented by the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Art Institute again, respectively, and each piece was accompanied by a mounted wall plaque, inviting viewers to participate. The Felix Gonzalez-Torres poster was the only one within any related context; it was presented at the MCA as a part of the exhibition Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its Audience, examining the interplay between audience and art experience (Jeff Koons’s mirrored Rabbit of 1986, Adrian Piper’s interrogating the audience in Cornered, 1988). The rest were stationed within the galleries alongside other, more traditionally presented work, but all were meant to be physically consumed as their neighbors were to be visually.

Alÿs’s postcard is a photograph of the ocean with a small explanatory text on the bottom describing his journey from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego without crossing the U.S-Mexico border; an accompanying map is presented on the reverse. Berbic presents a number of photographs of Dubai with enigmatic slogans laid over the pictures, such as “OUR WORLD IS GETTING BIGGER AND BETTER,” displayed on rotating stands as seen by tourists the world over. The poster from Gonzalez-Torres is blank, with a thick black border while his candy was similarly simple, wrapped only in colorful cellophane. Though each of these artists are expressing valuable and interesting observations on the state of our world, my interest lies in the questions surrounding physical consumption in an institutional setting rather than the actual formal considerations contained within the art itself. The pieces will thus be understood largely as a unified group (work meant to be taken away by the viewers in a setting that traditionally prohibits such impulses) rather than as individual statements, though they no doubt are.

The ideas explored in Robert Smithson’s essay “Entropy and the New Monuments” contextualize these works because of his efforts at understanding art that at once addresses and rejects dominant surrounding structures. Smithson details what he saw as the emergent trend amongst his contemporaries to produce work that faces “the possibility of other dimensions, with a new kind of sight.” He roots this discussion in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, he states, “extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained,” describing the works’ ability to radically engage with our world in new ways by being “monuments to or against entropy.” Drawing explicit connections between the Smithson essay and the artworks I have brought to bear, we will entertain questions about art consumption and its attendant complications.

Smithson affirms the art in his essay because of its refusal to engage with conservative value systems at every level; from the formative act to the manner in which it is perceived. He roots “values” in a commodity obsessed world, writing that “as the cloying effect of such ‘values,’” such as the purity of a brand of soap or the branding of dog food “wears off, one perceives the ‘facts’ of the outer edge… that infinitesimal condition known as entropy.” It is by acknowledging and engaging this stasis that worthy art can be produced.

The specific treatment received by the artworks considered here raises a number of questions relating to time and thus their relationship with entropy. The institutional replenishing that ensures the accompanying plaques never refer to that which isn’t there—indeed this is explicitly a responsibility of the attendant institution to Gonzalez-Torres’s candy example Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991)—allows both the past, when the pile was full(er), and the future when it disappears, to coexist in the present. The past becomes a mutable thing not understandable through natural progression, and the future remains in flux, as the pile never reaches a definitive end point. Smithson writes that the disengagement with a traditional time structure “all but annihilates the value of the notion of ‘action’ in art” as action is necessarily defined as movement across a field. He is not only affirming inactive, abiding art pieces such as the self-contained stacked postcards of Alÿs or posters of Gonzalez-Torres, but condemning traditional value judgments that would discount these pieces for their refusal to engage with traditionally active questions of form or content. These transactions—past and future for present, attendance for a souvenir—raise questions about how exactly consumption is operating.

The complications of the postcards, posters and candy and their manner of display appeals to this directly, as audience interaction complicates it. The art I took derives meaning from the lack of time and thus the lack of accompanying action, removing itself from a forward-looking value system based on progress. However, by encouraging audience consumption, the pieces continue to acknowledge consumerism, perhaps the most dominant value system of our contemporary world; as the pieces resist action, we insist on it.

In a discussion of Robert Morris’s sculpture, Smithson describes the creative act that can extend my pieces’ entropic nature rather than limiting it, because of the audience consumption. He describes Morris’s sculptures as “facsimiles of ready-mades within high Mannerist frames of reference,” which can include the postcards and posters resting within the attenuated museum system. He points to the in-formed artifice of a fake ready-made, creating an object for the purpose of signifying real life. Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled could be a true ready-made, taking pre-produced candy and repurposing it, but the addition of his organizing framework (take a candy so that it can one day be replaced) nullifies that conceit. The others, made as they were for presentation, are certainly acts such as Smithson describes. The similarities between these later works and Smithson’s framework provides an avenue through which the inclusion of the consumptive impulse becomes a signifier of awareness, rather than blind acceptance.

Furthermore, in a discussion of communication theory and how it applies to modern artwork, Smithson addresses the question of falseness. He writes, “Not only do we communicate what is true, but also what is false. Often the false has a greater ‘reality’ than the true. Therefore it seems that all information, and that includes anything that is visible, has its entropic side. Falseness, as an ultimate, is inextricably a part of entropy.” By including the false, value-based consumptive aspect of their existence as postcards and posters, the work I am discussing in fact affirms its own entropic side as a component of this ultimately destructive pattern, and returns meaning to aspects that at first seemed to qualify their function.

Smithson discusses other work, particularly by Paul Thek, that also deals with consumption, and methods of operating outside traditional systems of value. Instead of postcards that explicitly affirm the limitations of our consumerist society and thus persist without aspiration as an entropic object, Thek created “bloody meat in the shape of a birthday cake… contained under a pyramidal chrome framework.” Thek produced work that makes the grotesques of traditional value systems explicit, while the recently viewed works I am discussing simply point to the pointlessness of such systems, for what does that postcard fundamentally provide the consumer? Nothing but itself.

Ultimately, Smithson’s article revolves around the question of perception. A litany of phrases are sprinkled through the essay such as “forget the future,” “where is the time” and “a million years is contained in a second, yet we tend to forget the second as soon as it happens.” These all depend on a subjective understanding of experience. The art that he discusses hinges on an awareness of itself: of the action or inaction contained within its bounds, of the past and future as it affirms the present, of value systems so they can be explicitly ignored or subverted. The works that I saw and took go one step farther, to an acceptance of their imperfect position within a multitude of contingencies, not the least of which are the pervasive value systems through which they persist.

The power of the smaller scale, less monumental works seen in Chicago and New York lies in their ability to engage viewers through familiar language as a way of showing them the bounds of their experience and what it means to be a part of the world. They are not the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd that become “hideouts for time,” although Gonzalez-Torres comes close (time is simply suspended there, in plain sight). But these later works remain indebted to Smithson’s approach to art: his focus that insisted just as strongly on what wasn’t there and never would be, as on what was and what was to come.