BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Robert Smithson

BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

Robert Smithson's Dead Tree was created in 1969 for the 'Prospect 69' exhibition at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle - and thereafter destroyed at the artist's direction. It has now been resurrected in Brooklyn by two local artists, Joe Amrhein and Brian Conley. Dead Tree is what has become known as a 'site/non-site' piece: the site (originally Langfeld, Germany) where the dead tree was scavenged, displaced to the non-site of the gallery, a loathsome but necessary venue in Smithson's art taxonomy. Amrhein and Conley go out of their way to be deferential to the spirit of its late creator: no mention is made of where the Brooklyn tree comes from, or where it's going after the show. A modest catalogue of writings (by the likes of Mel Bochner, J.G. Ballard, and Smithson's dealer John Weber) more often eulogises Smithson the man than discusses his newly revamped artwork.

Which is too bad, because it's a really great piece: in the one extant photograph of the Dusseldorf installation, a 40-foot long tree lies on its side in a spacious gallery, well-lit by spotlights and with 12 x 36 inch mirrors placed amid the still-leafy branches and exposed root ball. In Brooklyn, the situation is quite different - and more dramatic: a 35-foot long tree (also with dirt-caked roots and leaves intact) has been shoehorned into the tiny storefront gallery, a long, rectangular space that barely accommodates it. Viewers are faced with the crumbly, noduled roots when entering, then must squeeze along the wall to get a good look at only one side of the tree and the mirrors within. Evidence of the struggle to cram the tree into the room is everywhere: green and brown smudges on the white-painted walls and ceiling, plus cracked limbs and torn leaves on the tree itself.

The timing of the show is interesting, if not intentional. Currently in the boroughs of New York there is a campaign to eliminate a foreign species of wood-boring insect threatening to destroy the local foliage; trees are being cut down by the city with a deliberate vengeance, in an attempt to stem the invader's advance. This flavours the installation with both the small comfort that our late leafy friend might be one of these martyrs - and if it is, that it has been infected with something exotic that maybe we shouldn't get too near. The image that first came to mind when seeing the arboreal corpse was that of a beached whale - an equivalency perhaps possible only at a time when ecological awareness is part and parcel of everyday existence (even in the big city), along with an intimate, if osmotically acquired understanding of the functions of viral infection. Surely neither Smithson nor his viewers had such inklings way back in '69; the artist probably could have ripped a live tree out of the ground and not experienced much backlash.

One can't blame Amrhein and Conley, then, for dumping the body and then running away, curatorially speaking. Despite the many precedents among Smithson's contemporaries (notably Sol LeWitt) for having other people fabricate, install, and market their artworks without their physical presence to legitimise it, Amrhein and Conley make no claim for this work as 'living' art. Their version of 'Dead Tree' is more like a hologram, or better yet a talisman - an object hauled into the gallery as a signifier of its lost creator, who of late has become a symbol of all that was once pure and true in the art world. Floating around this mystical object is a faint hope that the great man himself might just appear, to take up the thing and haul it through the streets - rousing the hipster populace from their caffeinated stupor, inspiring them to doff their sunglasses and platform sandals and follow him to the nearest quarry or salt pond for a little earth-art communion.

But the spectral Smithson might not recognise the landscape he left back in 1973. His metaphysical leanings and anti-establishment rants have now been codified into separate, bureaucratised and politicised entities - namely Environmentalism (née ecology) and Conceptualism (née entropy, intellectual romanticism, timelessness and pragmatism). Smithson himself never self-identified as a practitioner of either discipline; but these days art is a job, and everyone's got a title, whether they like it or not. Smithson's title, increasingly, is 'Messiah' - whether he likes it or not. This is, of course, subject to change over time and with the tide of art's fashion. But at a moment when art's capacity for courage is in doubt, better Smithson than any number of other candidates less dedicated to his vision of a smarter and more harmonious world. And better he than someone less sure to persevere in in the face of the serious unfashionability of that goal.