touring the bush (16) : caribbean, tropical nonplace (smithson)
our tour of the caribbean begins a bit off the actual caribbean. this is perfectly legitimate, given our (consciously) slanted search for the tropical nonplace. april 15, 1969. robert smithson is boarding a pan am flight from new york to mexico, headed for the yucatán, not excactly on vacation. he is on a half-mission, a blurry expedition. he carries a beautiful book under his arm. the book is full of pictures of ancient ruins devoured by the jungle.
the book itself feels ancient and exotic. it’s written by this guy named john lloyd stephens, a reknown explorer / anthropologist from the 1800s. stephens had also gone to yucatán, a hundred and something years before. but smithson was determind to make his the inverse of stephens’s classic voyage that stunk of colonialism and historical prejudice. in smithson’s version of the stephens expedtion, the grand, dead ruins of chichen itzá and palenque en up being dumped for pictures of “displaced” mirrors and the ungreat living ruins of an unfinished cheap roadside motel.
stephens’s travelogue includes exquisite meticulous drawings of mayan architectural relics. in a very xixth-century fashion, stephens resented the abandonment of the monumental remnants to the wild and oblivion, he felt contemporary descendants of the maya had discarded their heritage, erased tracks of memory and identity due to careless disregard, fallen victims to their own cultural disorder and indifference. civilization (or culture relevance, historical time) in yucatán had run its course, it was a site of cultural has-beens, devoid of a current and living sense of meaning. a place and people overwhelmed and left numb by their own fallen greatness.
the same primitive slabs and stone idols that stephens brought back to new york, smithson saw in the american natural history museum when he was a kid (the museum would remain his favorite). eventually he got his own mayan (anti)expedition. stephens’s 1848 travelogue was named "incidents of travel in yucatan,” and smithson played with this tile in his own “incidents of mirror-travel in yucatan.”
in an essay titled "landscapes of indifference", jennifer roberts draws this twisted spiral relation between the two:
"perhaps smithson's most conspicuous inversion of stephens's precedent derives from the fact that none of the famous maya ruins appears in any of his illustrations, even though several of the photographs were taken within eyeshot of the major archaeological sites. dispersed and half-covered by sediment or branches, the blocky mirrors of the displacements suggest the ruins, but their empty reference to the desired historical spectacle proposes a systematic erasure of stephens's visionary enterprise. this refusal to see the maya ruins amounts in many ways to their paradoxical re-covering--to their removal from the conditions of archaeology that, over the past century and a half, had endorsed their use as imperialist trophies or their recontextualization as art objects"
smithson in his ambitions of being a "blind traveler," of doing away with the purpose and the prejudice of the classic archeological enterprise, and stepping away from stephens's faults, ends up falling in a neighboring and even deeper pit:
"the collapse of the visual field in yucatan is attended in smithson's narrative by the collapse of the historical field. smithson's mirror displacements function as models of passive memory as well as passive vision."
futher down his tropical trail, smithson reached antiarchitectural heaven and turned things up a notch. the shitty little hotel palenque (still standing, still growing, and still unfinished today) would be the subject of a smithson slideshow/standup-performance offered at the university of utah in 1972 (only one year before his premature death). part art, part irony, part architectural scam, the hotel palenque piece became mythic.
in the end, smithson fell short of his intentions and his proclamations. hotel palenque is little more than highbrow mexican curios:
“my feeling is that this hotel is built with the same spirit that the mayans built their temples…the structure has all of the convolution and terror, in a sense, that you would find in a typical mayan temple…of serpentine facades loaded with spirals and rocks carved in the shape of woven twigs and things; it's quite nice. do that to me this window, this seemingly useless window really called forth all sorts of truths about the mexican temperament… one can't figure out why they put that door there but it seems to belong, it seems to have some incredible sort of mayan necessity. it just grew up sort of like a tropical growth, a sort of mexican geologic, man-made wonder."
smithson falls prey to the same (albeit ultra-refined) western(izing) b.s. essentialism:
"for all his inversions of stephens's narrative, smithson perpetuates, even amplifies, stephens's belief in yucatecan amnesia, indifference, and myopia. and although he hopes to inhabit this status instead of performing corrective surgery on it, his work maintains much of stephens's imperialist violence. both smithson and stephens picture the yucatan peninsula as indifferent in order to extract from it a heritage. for stephens, the contemporary idleness of the maya authorizes his appropriation of the region's archaeological artifacts. for smithson, the idleness, now seen as eternal, is itself the artifact."
kai vöckler writes that in the scattered mirrors of yucatán (and the soft-glow slides of palenque) “the virtual can be intersected with the real…smithson allows time and space to collapse, opposing the apathy of the material to identity and existence.” withouth knowing it, or with the same self-effacing intentions many avant-garde works share, smithson's non-sites picture, plant and play echoes of the future contemporary superconsumption patterns and economies of the region that render new voids and stylized images of a reality that isn't there, and never was.
next : tropical nonplace (castro)