Robert Smithson: Time Crystals, Curated by Amelia Barikin and Chris McAuliffe

The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 10 March—8 July 2018

The University of Queensland Art Museum’s Robert Smithson: Time Crystals presents its audience with a challenge: to discard the idea of chronological time, which sequentially flows and progresses, and to instead consider time as a crystalline complex, an interconnected grid, existing and growing all at once. And so we are led through the work of Robert Smithson not via a familiar narrative of land art spectacle, but through the intricacies of the philosophy that drove his artistic vision. [1]

Entering the first room of the exhibition, the viewer is met with a subdued atmosphere. The dark walls swallow the small amount of light that bounces off the glass and mirror structures placed around the room. A number of Smithson’s sculptural works are shown here, alongside a selection of photographs and ephemera. The centrepiece is undoubtedly Rocks and Mirror Square II (1971). Resting on the floor in the centre of the room, this square arrangement of mirrors and rocks produces a potent illusion: the mirror grid creates a seemingly infinite repetition of the square rock form. Here, we are given the sense of crystalline growth in motion—as events in time are alluded to via visual layering—and it is on this foundation that the exhibition rests.

The concept of time as a crystal has a rich interdisciplinary history. Not only can we look to Gilles Deleuze’s formulation of the ‘crystal-image’ in relation to post-war cinema, but even the field of physics has had its turn with the recent discovery of scientifically certified time crystals. [2] For Smithson, the philosophy of crystalline time is about dislocation and displacement, about a time in which ‘newness’ and ‘oldness’ are fallacies, and, most importantly, about a time in which chronological development is cast aside. [3] While such a philosophy may seem hard to grasp, this exhibition’s greatest strength lies in removing that difficulty and enabling its audience to see crystalline time in action.

Throughout the four exhibition spaces we are presented with eight vitrines. In these vitrines, curators Amelia Barikin and Chris McAuliffe have presented books, handwritten and typewritten texts, concept drawings, photos, and miscellaneous ephemera belonging to Smithson, all from different times and places, but here existing together and all at once. Some particularly striking items include a book on ‘mathematical crystallography’, a copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and Smithson’s final bar tab from his regular New York haunt, Max’s Kansas City, totalling $997.97. The placement of each item was chosen as a result of meticulous archival research undertaken by the curators, which involved scouring Smithson’s archive to locate key quotes, references, and source ideas connected to his practice. All selected materials have been displayed emulating Smithson’s own process of dislocation and displacement, and his rejection of chronological hierarchy. And so it is in these vitrines that I have found myself witnessing—and thus finally understanding the idea of—a crystalline form of time.

Dispersed across the exhibition, these vitrines extend their crystalline tendrils—in a manner analogous to the illusory expansion of Rocks and Mirror Square II—to encompass all of Smithson’s works featured throughout. Other key works include the famous Spiral Jetty (1970) documentary, and Smithson’s satirical lecture on a derelict hotel in Mexico, Hotel Palenque (1969-72). Spiral Jetty, in particular, serves to aid our understanding of the concept of crystalline time within Smithson’s practice. In this film, Smithson documents the construction of his Spiral Jetty (1970) earthwork, located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. However, instead of providing a locational orientation at the beginning of the film, Smithson cuts the first segment of the work—in which we are shown footage of the dirt road that leads to the lake— with shots of ancient and fictional maps, all centred around the location of the Great Salt Lake itself. In this process of cutting and disruption, Smithson directly deconstructs the audience’s sense of spatial orientation, and fills the resultant void with a temporal layering, thus orienting the Spiral Jetty within this rich cross-temporal space. [4]

In the final room of the exhibition, Smithson and Nancy Holt’s iconic video work, Swamp (1971), is projected alongside one of the aforementioned vitrines and a bookshelf displaying a number of books from Smithson’s personal library. In Swamp, we assume Holt’s point of view as she wanders through a marshy forest of reeds while Smithson directs her, but remains outside of the frame. In an exhibition walkthrough, Barikin described Swamp as capturing the experience of exploring Smithson’s immense archive: an experience of being ‘lost in the thicket’. And I suppose it is exactly this feeling that comes with crystalline time: without chronology and the organisational structures that depend upon it, we ourselves become disoriented. My parting suggestion to anyone considering a visit to Robert Smithson: Time Crystals is, quite simply, to embrace the dislocation and displacement, and to lose themselves in the thicket of Smithson’s archive and work.

Robert Smithson: Time Crystals is a partnership between The University of Queensland Art Museum and Monash University Museum of Art. The exhibition will travel to MUMA, Melbourne, from July 21 to September 22.

[1] It is essential that here I acknowledge my employment as a member of The University of Queensland Art Museum’s install team. While this may make it impossible for me to voice an entirely impartial opinion of this exhibition, working closely with the curators and registrars, as well as spending extended time with the works themselves during the installation period, has provided me with much insight that has been essential in formulating this review.

[2] For Deleuzian crystal-images see Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Crystals of Time’ [extract], in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Roberta Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 78-83. For recent time crystal developments in physics see Soonwon Choi et al, ‘Observation of discrete time-crystalline order in a disordered dipolar many-body system,’ Nature 543 (March 2017): 221-225. DOI: 10.1038/nature21426

[3] Amelia Barikin and Chris McAuliffe, ‘Robert Smithson: Time Crystals,’ in Robert Smithson: Time Crystals [exhibition catalogue] (Melbourne: MUMA, 2018): 9-10.

[4] See Andrew Uroskie, ‘La Jetée En Spirale: Robert Smithson's Stratigraphic Cinema,’ Grey Room 19 (2005): 54-79.

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Installation view of vitrine containing archival materials from the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Carl Warner


Installation view featuring archival materials, including books from Robert Smithson’s library, from the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Carl Warner


Installation view of Robert Smithson, Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1–9) 1969, nine chromogenic prints from chromogenic slides (126 format), each image 61 x 61 cm, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee and with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Linda Fischbach, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Brian McIver, Peter Norton Foundation, Willem Peppler, Denise Rich, Rachel Rudin, David Teiger, Ginny Williams and Elliot K. Wolk, 1999. Photo: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY. © Holt-Smithson Foundation/VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

Carl Warner


Installation view of vitrine containing archival materials from the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Carl Warner


Installation view of first gallery in Robert Smithson: Time Crystals. Featured in the foreground is Robert Smithson’s Rocks and Mirror Square II 1971, basalt rocks and mirrors, loaned by the National Gallery of Australia, Purchased 1977.

Carl Warner


Installation view of Robert Smithson, Enantiomorphic Chambers 1965 (original destroyed, exhibition copy 1999), painted steel and mirror, two parts, each 61 x 76.2 x 78.7 cm, Courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation. The Estate of Robert Smithson is part of the Holt-Smithson Foundation, and is represented by James Cohan Gallery, New York. © Holt-Smithson Foundation/VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

Carl Warner


Christian Rizzalli is a student of art history at The University of Queensland, whose main art historical interest lies in the use of photography as a powerful ideological tool. He is currently in his Honours year (2018), and is preparing to write his thesis on the use of documentary photography in post-war Italy.

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