Monday, March 29, 2010

Partially Buried

Preparing for his stay at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau paid a visit to an Irish railroad worker, James Collins, with a view to buying Collins’s shanty for boards. “It was of small dimensions,” Thoreau comments, but not much could be seen of it since dirt was “raised five feet all around as if it were a compost heap” (29). Striking a bargain with Collins, Thoreau unearths the cabin the next morning, dismantles it and removes the materials to the pondside.

Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed was created at Kent State University in Ohio during an arts festival in January 1970. The shed, part of an abandoned farm owned by the university and used as a storage space for dirt, gravel and firewood, had twenty loads of earth from a construction site piled on top of it until the central beam snapped from the pressure. The outmoded farm building and the forms of social and economic organisation it invokes are almost but not entirely obliterated by the overturning of earth by modern machinery. The shed becomes an instant ruin, a memorial to the Jeffersonian conviction that the small-scale, self-sustaining agrarian community might be the foundation of American national virtue. Sitting in his own shed in 1845, Thoreau had an idea that such a notion was already history. The once sacred art of husbandry, he complains, is now “pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely [...]. By avarice and selfishness, a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber” (103).

“It’s a Mud Mud Mud World” read the headline of a dismissive article in the local press following the completion of Partially Buried Woodshed (RS, 307). Mud had preoccupied Smithson since at least 1968, though it was too cold at Kent State for mud to flow and earth had to be used instead. In an essay for Artforum, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), Smithson envisions a disintegration of the “earth’s surface and the figments of the mind,” with “[v]arious agents, both fictional and real, somehow trad[ing] places with each other –– one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call ‘abstract geology’” (RS, 100). “Muddy thinking” for Smithson does not mean confused thinking. Instead, mud works as a solvent that collapses the distinction between mental and physical processes to produce a kind of materialist negative capability, with thought a form of entropic power that acts upon secure knowledge and wears it down: "One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason .[...] This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries" (RS, 100).


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008).
Flam, Jack, ed. Robert Smithson: Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).