What we know for sure is that Robert Smithson, an established artist and critic by the mid-1960s, took a bus from Manhattan, New York to the suburb of Passaic in New Jersey fifty years ago. He spent that hot, ‘cobalt blue’ day visiting sites (or, equally, sights), photographing them with an Instamatic 400 and noting everything down into his notebook. The formative experience from Saturday 30th September 1967 soon made its way into his famous travelogue, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, published that year in Artforum.
What we do not know for sure, when reading the text, is what to make of that visit. The tone and mood of Smithson’s descriptions cut from poetic contemplation and otherworldly impressions to irony straddled by borderline mourning. In such a short text, ambiguity assumes quite a commanding presence and the reader often has to revisit their previous conclusions about the meaning of this or that section.
Smithson’s article describes a series of monuments found on the outskirts and in the centre of Passaic which he slowly passes by. These are no pompous bronze sculptures of historically significant people, nor plaques to any battles or victories. After all, Passaic had no past, Smithson explains later on, no ‘big events’ to preserve. It was an emptied out place, a dreary industrial wasteland, and the monuments Smithson paid attention to were actually gigantic, mostly metal and concrete constellations – bridges, pipes, highways, car parks, slag heaps, quarries and sand boxes; stuff of the future and of heavy, steely, hard-edged science-fiction. Looking like artificial aliens, they were completely detached from any suggestion of nature and visually jutted out of the landscape. They disturbed.
However, they also enriched Smithson’s meditations on time and memory by his selection of them as new kinds of monuments. He famously called them ‘ruins in reverse, that is – all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built’. In other words, traditional (romantic) monuments follow a linear path to disintegration, dragging the past with them into the present and the future before gradually falling apart. Ruins in reverse challenge this chronology – decay-evoking states precede the original (which here becomes the final) state of homogeneity and equilibrium; future predates the past. As mentioned earlier, Passaic does not even have any substantial past, only what ‘passes for a future’, ‘a utopia minus a bottom’.
The futuristic quality of the place turns out to be but one side of a two-sided coin. The ruins, fragments and ‘out of date’ objects scattered around make Smithson drop into his travelogue observations and juxtapositions that stir up a sense of disillusion, perhaps even mourning. Industrial machinery apparently resembles ‘mechanical dinosaurs’; Passaic itself feels like ‘the hereafter’, ‘a clumsy eternity’ and ‘a cheap copy of The City of the Immortals’, a poor and delayed reflection of city grandeur. Visiting areas like this one effects travelling back in time, away from the current/central moment, as explained in ‘Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere’ (2004) – moving from an urban to a suburban place ‘takes the traveller to the edge of the temporal [order]’ and creates a sensation of dual time, similar to the experience of watching a film in the cinema. Days, months, years can all be compressed into as little as two hours of a film projection in which extreme past and future are only a few scenes away; when you are in the cinema, not only does the real time and the filmic time coincide and you experience passage of time at two different speeds but a form of discontinuity occurs: ‘To spend time in a movie house is to make a ‘’hole’’ in one’s life.’
The contrasting traits of Passaic – its backward-looking environment and ruins in reverse as well as lack of history and inevitable advancing to the future – further reflect a perpetual natural phenomenon obsessively studied and discussed by Smithson and one that brings clarity into the disorienting way time has been handled so far – entropy. Entropic action gradually erodes and wears down any self-contained system. It is an irreversible exhaustion and collapse of the system’s order which results in eventual equilibrium, or ‘all-encompassing sameness’. It is the descent into ruin that defines the landscape of Passaic and that very same process also brings about the future state towards which everything is heading; the monuments undergo entropy as ‘evolution in reverse’ and the retrogressive, outmoded character of this New Jersey suburb doubles up as its futuristic identity. As Smithson put it: ‘If the future is ‘out of date’ and ‘old-fashioned’, then I had been in the future.’
New monuments shatter conventional categories and experiences of time and space (as a continuum, as linearity, for example) and present a much more complex model of reality that disobeys order and rationality imposed on it. Entropy is a simultaneous flowing forward and backward, an unalterable movement extending in the direction of the future while unleashing deterioration and chaos instead of the progress that modernism used to preach. It contains both a mirror and its reflection; it marries two opposites into a lifetime of tension. Travelling to Passaic unavoidably opens up a world of the past as well as the future because the future is our past: ‘I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past.’ This must be here, in this ‘unimaginative suburb’ flattened by shabby, disused car parks of New Jersey!
Yes, admittedly, the future portrayed in these terms does not shimmer as anything grand and awe-inspiring (or even hopeful, for that matter) but, more importantly, it is conceived anew and full of possibility (well, apart from the certain demise of everything and everyone). What if we looked at the Passaic’s missing past as a liberation from the burdens and expectations of former eras? The new monuments Smithson concerned himself with were the opposite of statuary with fixed aesthetic and historical values that we would habitually look for; he selected and attached value to a very different set of objects with dubious unity, knowingly that they were not going to appeal or last.
Ann Morris, the author of ‘Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere’, argues that the artist’s choices show resistance to the notion of nostalgia which is a sensibility blatantly distorting the facts of the past and serving up a reality that never was. Preservation of things and events in stable, unchanging conditions (material, conceptual, aesthetic) often stokes such nostalgic feelings and perpetuates a fantasy that time can be controlled and manipulated, a concept which cinema, memorials and our own memories operate within and something that entropy contradicts. Smithson ends ‘Monuments of Passaic’ by warning precisely about this illusion that ‘false immortality of the film gives the viewer’ and reminding us that ‘superstars are fading’.
Entropy is a dynamic process of transformation which re-structures relationships inside and outside matter and establishes new configurations, always for a limited amount of time. We must stay on your toes -remain awake- and maybe even enjoy the fact that nothing will stay the same – this is a source of infinite potential and reinvention. Going back is unnatural and foolish: ‘It’s an attempt to recover a frontier…that no longer exists. Here we have to accept the entropic situation and more or less learn how to reincorporate these things that seem ugly,’ just like the ruined monuments of Passaic that look beastly and withering, uncontrolled and somehow limitless.
PS 1 – Download Smithson’s travellogue here: