Broken Circle and Spiral Hill? Smithson’s Spirals, Pataphysics, Syzygy and Survival


Presentation Title:

  • Broken Circle and Spiral Hill? Smithson’s Spirals, Pataphysics, Syzygy and Survival



  • Robert Smithson read about various scientific topics and applied this knowledge to his work, but he was fundamentally anti-institutional, and was as skeptical of science and industry as he was of environmentalism and the art world. His artworks and writings are brilliantly insightful, formally resolved, and logical as well as infuriatingly opaque, unresolved, and incoherent. He died at the age of thirty-five, leaving us to wonder how his work might have matured, and what clues his subsequent production might have offered to understanding his oeuvre. Like the pataphysical proposals of late nineteenth century author Alfred Jarry, who died at thirty-four, Smithson seems to have been seeking out and articulating an alternate reality, a new system of values in which the “imaginary nature of things as glimpsed by the heightened vision of poetry or science or love can be seized and lived as real” (Shattuck ix). In contrast to the academicism of prevailing trends in art research today, Smithson’s work seems much more aligned with the pataphysical pursuit of “imaginary solutions” that examine “the laws governing exceptions” and describe “a universe which can be – and perhaps should be – envisaged in place of the traditional one” (Harris fn 13). In this respect, the work of both Jarry and Smithson can provide a useful corrective to an overly rationalistic approach to art research, offering the field – and contemporary art in general – potentially valuable tools for forms of practice that challenge rather than adopt conventional academic models and epistemological constructs. The copious scholarly and critical writing on Smithson has made very little of the many parallels between the inventor of earthworks and the author of pataphysics, despite the established fact that the artist read Jarry while working on the Spiral Jetty in 1970, which undoubtedly influenced the subsequent Broken Circle &/ Spiral Hill (BC &/ SH, 1971, Emmen.) This  oversight can be explained in part by current trends in Smithson scholarship, which disparage readings of the artist’s work that emphasize symbolic and/or mystical inferences. Nonetheless, given the insightful literature reassessing Jarry’s influence on twentieth century artists including Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Rodney Graham, a consideration of Smithson’s spiral earthworks in connection with Jarry is long overdue (Harris, Anastasi).