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Robert Smithson

The Invention of Landscape

Robert Smithson (1938–1973) is one of the best-known representatives of Land Art. His site-specific landscape sculpture in the Great Salt Lake, Utah – the “Spiral Jetty” – has become a true icon. Having died in a tragic plane crash at the very early age of only 35, the artist subsequently became a legend himself.

Robert Smithson, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, 1971, Courtesy Estate of Robert Smithson/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2012

Robert Smithson is one of the most interesting artists who tried new, institution-critical art forms and represented visionary ideas from the 1960s. Probably the best-known work by Smithson is his monumental Earthwork “Spiral Jetty”, which was realized in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The only land art project realized in Europe was created in 1971 in connection with the exhibition “Sonsbeek buiten de perken”, which included extensive art projects across the Netherlands.

After a long search, Smithson found a suitable area in Emmen, which, in contrast to the rest of Holland, did not appear completely cultivated and idyllic, but rather raw. For the De Boer family's sand pit still in operation, he developed various sculptural interventions in sketches, of which the two-part idea of “Broken Circle/Spiral Hill” ultimately turned out to be feasible. In the pit, an existing sand plateau, which was gradually removed, created a broken circular formation, divided into moles and channels. A few meters from the shore, there is a heaped-up hill on which a spiral path winds upwards.

Parallel to the planning process of the earthworks, sketches and thinking processes were developed for a cinematic continuation of the idea. The drawings titled “Shooting Procedure/Movie Treatment” give a good impression of how exactly Smithson had planned individual shots and tracking shots. The first recordings were made in 1971. Due to the sudden death due to a plane crash in 1973, the film could never be completed by himself. The implementation has now been realized by Nancy Holt, artist and Smithson’s widow, together with curator Theo Tegelaers and additional Dutch support. With the help of Smithson’s designs and knowledge of the narrative structure of the film for “Spiral Jetty”, the project was realized as a film by and at the same time about Smithson and now bears the expanded title “Breaking Ground: Broken Circle/Spiral Hill 1971–2011”. The film was produced by Nancy Holt and Theo Tegelaers with the support of LAND ART CONTEMPORARY and SKOR.

The Museum for Contemporary Art Siegen presented Smithson’s first solo exhibition in Germany since 1989. The exhibition “Robert Smithson. The Invention of the Landscape” revolved around the landscape work that was created in the Netherlands in 1971, which is less well known and therefore more complex. Overall, the exhibition provided an insight into almost all of Smithson's artistic media. Four films, 30 drawings, photographs, source material and an installation were shown.

“Breaking Ground: Broken Circle/Spiral Hill” was presented to the German public for the first time in the Museum for Contemporary Art Siegen. Embedded in the context of drawings that Smithson made at every stage, the complex process – the nesting of geological process, artistic work and perception – becomes evident.