Shooting the Archaeozoic (on Robert Smithson)

January 2005


The movie began as a series of disconnections, a bramble of stabilized fragments taken from things obscure and fluid, ingredients trapped in a succession of frames, a stream of viscosities both still and moving. And the movie editor, bending over such a chaos of ‘takes’, resembles a palaeontologist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels. Film strips hung from the cutter’s rack, bits and pieces of Utah, out-takes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, and salt buried in lengths of footage.[1]

In 1970 Robert Smithson returned to New York City from the remote elsewhere of Rozel Point, Salt Lake, Utah, with a “bramble” of 16mm film footage in his hand. He had overseen the construction of Spiral Jetty, a 1500-foot long coil of basalt rocks that would quickly become known as the signature example of the Earthworks movement and eventually be recognized as one of the major works of American art. With tightly framed footage of the jetty’s construction and expansive, vertiginous aerial footage of the completed work, Smithson enlisted Robert Fiore’s help with the intention of putting together a film.

Tellingly, the film began—with a nod to Russian avant-garde cinema—as a silent movie of machinic production. Fiore recalls: “Once the picture was in some sort of order, I began to add sound, and this was a great discovery for Bob. He loved all of the effects that went with the bulldozers and other machinery. So we began to think up other scenes to film.”[2] In a reversal of the usual editing process the film grew as it was assembled. Smithson ventured out to shoot more images—a stack of books on a mirror, the Hall of Late Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), scattered atlas pages in a New Jersey quarry and so on—that would spiral outward from the Utah footage.

The entire editing process was a ‘great discovery’ for Smithson: to some extent Spiral Jetty preserves the process of its development. Before the credits roll, the film concludes with a shot of the editing room in which the film was assembled. Hung above the movieola editing machine is a photocopy of the earthwork, flanked by spiral reels of film. The movieola—which allows a film to be constructed from “bits and pieces”—became the perfect device for Smithson to explore the vast reaches of time. He wrote:

Everything about movies and moviemaking is archaic and crude. One is transported by the Archaeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras. The movieola becomes a “time machine” that transforms trucks into dinosaurs. Fiore pulled lengths of film out of the movieola with the grace of a Neanderthal pulling intestines from a slaughtered mammoth. Outside his 13th Street loft window one expected to see Pleistoscene faunas, glacial uplifts, living fossils and other prehistoric wonders.[3]

Recently J.G. Ballard anticipated that our descendants in the remote future would perceive Smithson’s earthworks as time machines—”artifacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.”[4] I would suggest that the Spiral Jetty film does, in fact, “switch on” the earthwork and articulate a complex ordering of time, even suggesting the eventual fate of an earthwork encrusted with salt through a series of filmed stills. (That future is now.) If the movieola is a time machine, so is the film constructed with it.

Spiral Jetty does not rely on special effects, such as slow-motion or time-lapse photography, to represent time travel. In George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’The Time Machine (1895), for example, a rear-screen projection of time-lapse imagery illustrates the protagonist’s journey from 1900 to the year 802,701 in a rather theatrical manner. Smithson employed only the most basic tool available to any filmmaker: the cut. The dominant strand of classic (i.e., Hollywood) filmmaking, from D.W. Griffith on, attempted to present a seamless sense of temporal continuity by disguising the editing as much as possible. Outside this tradition, however, one can trace Smithson’s editing to the revolutionary montage experiments of Kuleshov and Eisenstein or to the Surrealist films of Buñuel, which all attempted to use the cut as a shock to thought—to produce ideological meaning in the Russian films or the irrational in those of Buñuel—by splicing one shot to the next.

Clearly indebted to the Russian avant-garde, Smithson reveals classic continuity editing as artifice, returning the cut to its Archaeozoic origins: infinitely small, yet infinitely dense, Smithson uses the cut between two shots as a Big Bang. One might consider the famous match cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—a Neanderthal tosses a bone that “becomes” a spaceship—as a precedent for Spiral Jetty, yet Smithson repeatedly uses the cut to move through time, as a lacuna that spans prehistoric past and post-historical future and lands at various points in between.

As evidenced by his writings, Smithson absorbed the imaginative temporal models constructed in countless literary sources, including Wells’ The Time Machine, John Taine’s 1930’s pulp serial The Time Stream, Edgar Allan Poe’s 1848 cosmological prose-poem Eureka and Jorge Luis Borges’ metaphysical detective story The Garden of Forking Paths (1941). However, it is the influence of cinema that is most apparent inSpiral Jetty. If Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) is a temporal labyrinth, his film Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968) is an explicit, if unusual, entry into the time travel genre. In the latter a man who fails a suicide attempt becomes the subject of a failed time travel experiment in which he gets “lost” in the recent past. Although Resnais depicts a bizarre gourd-like time machine, time travel is not illustrated but actualized through abrupt edits and repetition. Like Resnais, Smithson uses the basic cinematic apparatus as an “agency to distribute time.”

Perhaps the most striking influence on Smithson’s film is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), in which a time traveller, chosen for his “haunting memories,” is sent from post-apocalyptic Paris into the past, where he is murdered at an airport terminal. The murder is witnessed by a boy who is, paradoxically, the time traveller. Like Smithson’s Jetty, Marker’s La Jetée features maps and “timeless animals” in a natural history museum. His film is a succession of still images, and, like Spiral Jetty, the cuts between shots are transparent cuts in time.

However, Smithson is not the time traveller of Spiral Jetty—the viewer is. Smithson’s few appearances mark the ‘non-existent present’ of the film, circa 1970.[5] This is reinforced, in part, by point-of-view shots taken from a moving vehicle. Smithson writes: “A road that goes forward and backward between things and places that are elsewhere. You might say the road is nowhere in particular. The disjunction operating between reality and film drives one into a sense of cosmic rupture.”[6] That Smithson intends these shots to suggest “forwards” and “backwards” without explicitly connecting the images to the site of the earthwork, allows the images to operate as signs—not signs of transportation (in space), but rather signs of the transportive (in time). Importantly, these shots are only signs of time travel: cosmic rupture occurs between the shots, in the lacunae of the film.

Two such shots—”backwards,” then “forwards”—act as a parenthesis of sorts, driving the viewer into and out of a four-shot sequence filmed in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs in the AMNH. The camera, fitted with a blood-red filter, pans over dinosaur skeletons while a metronome plays through an echo filter, a trippy audio sign of temporal displacement. The hallucinatory mood is underlined by Smithson’s deadpan intonation of Samuel Beckett’s words from The Unnamable (1953): “Nothing has ever changed since I have been here, but I dare not infer from this that nothing ever will change.”

Ironically perhaps, the AMNH has changed over time. The classic vitrines in Spiral Jetty have been replaced by sleeker, Minimalist-inspired displays. But despite such fashionable updates, the AMNH remains a time machine in its own right: the hallways and stairwells are like the splices in Smithson’s film, lacunae connecting various scales of time. One’s sense of time is constantly reordered as one circulates through the building’s stratigraphic architecture. In 2000 the AMNH opened the Rose Center, a huge glass box dedicated to the history of the universe.[7] Inside, one spirals along the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway after watching a Big Bang film that covers the Archaeozoic Period in five minutes: an appropriate, if unwitting, tribute to the Spiral Jetty earthwork and film.

Smithson’s conception of the gallery-bound non-site circa 1968—sample materials removed from a remote geographical site combined with containers, maps, photos and text—follows directly from the didactic displays of the natural history museum but transposes the display to a sculptural context. Since 1970 a number of historians and critics have maintained that the Spiral Jetty film is the non-site of the earthwork. I believe the relationship is more complex: the earthwork is, in essence, already a non-site of basalt boulders and mud removed from Rozel Point and placed directly back into the site in the form of an involutionary spiral, shifting the non-site emphasis from displacement in space to displacement in time, or a shift from radical separation to complex piling up.

The Spiral Jetty film is another site—a cinematic site—that also contains a non-site. The editing room in the final shot of the film operates as a non-site because it “contains” the entirety of the film into which it is spliced, an involution of time folded back into time. In a paradoxical act of autogenesis the final shot gives “birth” to the film that has just concluded.[8] To date the Spiral Jetty film is frequently defined as a documentary. This suggests that the film is secondary to the earthwork that shares its title, despite the probability that far more people have viewed the film than have visited the earthwork in Utah. Smithson’s film is not about the experience of an earthwork; it is about the experience of film. To the extent that Smithson’s project, since 1970, had shifted to questions of time, the Spiral Jetty film—an inherently temporal construct—deserves to be reconsidered as a primary site of experience.

Smithson, the devoted cinephile, haunted the Anthology Film Archive with its “essential repertory” of avant-garde cinema, as well as the “crummy baroque” cinemas on 42nd Street, screening B-movie gems. In 1966 he wrote: “Time is compressed or stopped inside the movie house, and this in turn provides the viewer with an entropic condition.”[9] In 1970 Smithson the filmmaker discovered that a single shot can penetrate the history of cinema like a core sample, and in the editing room the cinematic apparatus could transform a bulldozer into a dinosaur or an earthwork sculpture into a film set.

Spiral Jetty contains the entire stratigraphic history of cinema, more or less. It has been mentioned that Smithson’s spiralling run on the earthwork, filmed from a helicopter, alludes to Cary Grant being chased by the crop-duster in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).[10] Not content to stop with Hitch, Smithson’s jetty run also recalls Peter Fonda’s LSD-inspired run from the Messengers of Death in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), and, from the final scene of Marker’s La Jetée, the time traveller’s fatal run on … a jetty. Despite such allusions, it is important to remember that Spiral Jetty was initially screened on the wall of Dwan Gallery in 1970, not in a theatrical setting. At the recent Smithson retrospective at Los Angeles MoCA, the film was shown in the basement cinema on a “loop,” with the apparatus—updated to current (art world) fashion as a DVD projector—rendered invisible: entropy averted.

At Dwan in 1970 the clattering projector—its spiral reels mirroring the reels in the final shot of the film—reminded the viewer of the linear, mechanical unfolding of time at 24 frames per second, even as the film on the wall propelled the viewer back and forth through time’s vast order. After the credits rolled, the film would be rewound from one spiral reel to another and slightly degraded each time in the process. Film is reversible, but entropy is not. The transparency of the film medium is tied to the transparency of time. Smithson may have recognized the eventual obsolescence of film by declaring it an Archaeozoic medium, but he also exploited its radical potential for cosmic rupture with the archaic cut and some crude splicing tape.

1. Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings , ed. Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p. 150.

2. E-mail to the author, August 1, 2004.

3. Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” p. 150.

4. J.G. Ballard, “Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist,” in Dead Tree , exhibition catalogue, ed. Brian Conley and Joe Amrhein, Pierogi, New York, 2000, p. 31.

5. Elisabeth C. Childs was the first writer to follow Smithson’s thinking about the Spiral Jetty film in relation to time travel, although she asserts that Smithson is the time traveler. See her “Robert Smithson and Film: Spiral Jetty Reconsidered,” Arts Magazine , vol. 56, no. 2 (October 1981), pp. 68–81.

6. Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” pp. 151–2.

7. The Rose Center replaced the original Hayden Planetarium, the subject of “The Domain of the Great Bear,” written by Smithson and Mel Bochner, published in Art Voices , Fall 1966 (reprinted in its original layout in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings ).

8. Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is the first example in which the editing machine used to cut the film enters the diegesis of the film itself. Similar disruptions occur in Gimme Shelter, by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, as the Rolling Stones sit around an editing machine witnessing the construction of the film we are watching. Gimme Shelter hit cinemas a month after Spiral Jetty was screened at Dwan.

9. Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, p. 17.

10. The reference to North By Northwest was first noted by Robert Hobbs in 1981 and has since been repeated by a number of historians and theorists.