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Hester van Hensbergen: 'Mirror Displacements 1969/2020'

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Robert Smithson's Mirror Displacement constructed on Chesil Beach, Dorset and photographed by the artist 1969
© Estate of Robert Smithson, VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2012.

The landscape is a cold equilibrium. There is a thick white sky over dunes of mottled pebbles intersected by a series of hard shards of glass. The shards are mirrors, patterned out along the stones and charting a path into the distance. Though everything seems still, the deep shelves of shingle speak of the ocean offstage, which has shaped these hard cascades. The upright mirrors would prove ineffectual tide breakers against the rush of the autumn waters, but they will be gone by then, pulled away by the artist, Robert Smithson.

Mirror Displacements was captured at Chesil Beach, an eighteen-mile shingle beach in Dorset, in late summer 1969. Smithson and fellow land artist Nancy Holt spent August and September that year visiting beaches, woods, ancient structures, and quarries across southern England and Wales. It was a distant world from the Utah desert projects for which they are both famous – Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) stretching out into the Great Salt Lake in an enormous curl of basalt, and the four vast open-ended concrete cylinders of Holt’s magnificent Sun Tunnels (1976), arranged in a compass formation to capture the sun at solstice.

Despite the vast difference of environments, Smithson had hit onto his core theme. Entropy – the law of dissipation and decay – would occupy him from 1966 until his death in a plane crash in 1973. The rock and soil of the earth’s crust would become his medium. In 1967, returning to his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey with a copy of the British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss’s eco-dystopia Earthworks (1965) in hand, Smithson had explained the idea with a sand box, a monument to decadent suburbia. Here, contained in a box under the “dead light” of the Passaic sun, was a “map of infinite disintegration”.[1] The sand box charted a cold death wrought slowly, minerals that had dissipated over deep time, ultimately signaling the disassemblage of entire continents. The entropy concept offered a way of exploring the irrevocable passage of time, and Smithson sought to pattern, intervene in, and contain (or sandbox) the fragmenting earth – to do “earth work” as he saw it – to demonstrate the futility of such attempts at order in the face of the inevitable.

The end of the 1960s inaugurated the first environmental crisis, when the detrimental effects of industrial civilization – pollution, depleted natural resources, soil degradation, and wider ecosystem disruption – stoked fears of famines and ecological collapse. A major energy crisis and a serious economic downturn brought on a general malaise in the rich countries of Britain and America. The idea of entropy as a way to capture a deep sense of social and ecological decline was gaining traction well beyond the remits of fantasy writing and art theory. The quirky ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whom Smithson read, had declared entropy the governing law of all economic processes. Soon the economist would set about developing a radical, hard to stomach, vision for a viable human future. The only way forward was a great downscaling: depopulation and a return to subsistence farming practices that relied almost exclusively on the energy of the sun.

Now, in the second environmental crisis, there is a catalogue of planetary boundaries that are continually transgressed: mass extinctions, fertilizer pollution, climate change, and catastrophic zoonotic diseases which emerge out of industrial farming practices and wilderness intrusion. At the edge of the water, though, entropy still governs. My Passaic is Bridport, a town at the westernmost tip of Chesil Beach; the beach and its ever-shifting composition of stone, sand, and pebbles might have been my own sand box monument. The coastline is fast eroding, and human interventions seem like impotent obstructions to the inescapable. If anything, the hourglass of sand is moving ever faster – it exceeds fossil fuels as the most extracted resource in the world and is the second most used after water.

Last time I came to the beach here, we half-raced each other to the water, clambering down the grassy verge and across large sandstone boulders before selecting a stopping point abruptly. We stripped and pulled on our bathing suits – two swimsuits, one pair of shorts – flashing fleshy bottoms as we navigated our towels. I reached the sea last, my feet softened by a year away from the shingle but made up for it by pitching myself headfirst into the icy plain of the early summer saltwater. Every so often, pappy white clouds passed across like impasto on the blue horizon.

There were children playing. They built unstable settlements out of soft clay from the rapidly receding cliffs. Smithson’s entropic theory could have been made for this coastline. His words are oppressive and hypnotic. “One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion”, he insisted, pulling the reader in and down, “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.”[2] The game of abstraction can be intoxicating, making the reader desire that slow disintegration of their mind, from rocky edifice to smooth stone to granulated sand.

Resisting Smithson’s incantations requires us to assert that entropy and erosion are not everything when it comes to minerals. The political theorist Jane Bennett writes very differently, of the vibrant and vital agency of matter.[3] Even rocks are agents, their slow turgid flow remaking space and terrain. It is hard to think of a rock this way, and Bennett suggests a little anthropomorphism might be helpful, to see the life in objects as intentional. Admiring their vitality, the way they vibrate with infinite untold possibilities even as they appear perfectly still, is one way to imaginatively enter this other worldview. Remembering their viscous journeys through sediment, feeling their warmth now, and wondering where next. We don’t need to know – we can let them emanate. This sense, that earth-agents are tumultuous and historical and purposeful, is a way of sharpening perspective and hope in the Anthropocene.

After the swim, we lay on our backs and felt the hot cracked pebbles against our ribs and thighs. Under Bennett’s influence, I felt their vibrancy and, deeper down, the condensed energy of the fossils that are so populous on this stretch of Jurassic coast, sinking between strata of time. Looking at Smithson’s photograph again, I do not only see futile dissipations. There is the promise of different weather in the glint of the glass. In its reflection, the stones blush, full of energy.

[1] Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam, ed., 1996, p. 74.

[2] Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects”, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam, ed., 1996, p.100.

[3] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 2010.

Hester van Hensbergen is a PhD researcher in Politics at the University of Cambridge writing about postwar ecological economics, time, and environmental crisis. She is also an occasional food writer. Her most recent essay, 'The Pig in the Backyard', was published in Vittles this month.