A New Geometry of fear :: the road from Smithson to Nelson

I’ve mentioned Robert Smithson before in a previous post and still haven’t quite satisfied myself (and probably never will) that whatever I’ve read and written about his work Asphalt Rundown adequately describes the profound influence this work has had on a particular type of environmental art. Had Smithson survived into this decade, our account of this work could have been judged within the context of an extended practice – but it stands now, frozen in time as an abiding monument to the decaying hulks of a modernism that surrounds us.   When I recently saw the Mike Nelson exhibit M6 at Eastside Projects gallery, Digbeth – in the old heart of ‘motor-city’ Birmingham, the kinship between these works stood out instantly. In a recent interview with CultureCritic Mike Nelson said: “it’s interesting to try to make work that just is what it is.” but for me, more than just the methods or materials utilised, it’s the motives they suggest and what, politically they represent that I feel calls for a closer reading of the genealogy that these two works share.


ASPHALT RUNDOWN, Robert Smithson, Rome, Italy, Oct, 1969


M6, Mike Nelson, Eastside Projects Gallery, Birmingham, UK, Feb, 2013

In Smithson’s 1969 work Asphalt Rundown, we find an interaction with the landscape which calls into question the aspirations and values approved by the culture of the day. That it is a pessimistic vision there is no doubt. It re-presents a culture separating itself from a ‘natural’ environment; and this separation is not a transcendence but the simultaneous collapse that Debord described in 1967 as one of: (an) “economic history, whose entire previous development centred around the opposition between town and country, (and) has arrived at a level of success which simultaneously annihilates both terms“. This eco-critical example Smithson gives us of humanity’s impact upon the earth is representative of the view that if there indeed exists this separation it follows that there must be an objectifying dualism at the heart of our relationship with the ‘given’: a nature-as-object utilitarianianism, blindly driven by the empirical west’s scientific rational. In Smithsons intervention, the west’s geo-politicized geography is subsuming the very geology of the earth.  But we have to remember this work was produced in the apocalyptic atmosphere of the cold war and seven years after the Cuban missile crisis. An atmosphere of anxiety, calibrated to obliteration but which nonetheless parallels our own neo-biblical doomsday scenarios. The art historian Herbert Read famously wrote of the “iconography of despair, or of defiance….Here are the images of flight, or ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear..”


Kenneth Armthorpe: People In The Wind (1950)

At the time this art was simply expressed at a remove, an anxiety, a nascent if palpable consternation for the future. In Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown as in Nelson’s M6 it’s no longer just an anxiety. The dirty bomb warned of by Heidegger’s Gestell (1950): the technological enframement of nature and of man, has brought forth from concealment a transfigured landscape while we have been, “transfixed in the will to master it” (ibid). The philosopher Wittgenstein, who shared this sense of pessimism wrote in his post war diaries:

It is very remarkable that we should be inclined to think of civilisation – houses, trees, cars, etc – as separating man from his origins, from what is lofty and eternal, etc. Our civilised environment, along with it’s trees and plants, strikes us then as though it were cheaply wrapped in cellophane and isolated from everything great, from God, as it were. This is a remarkable picture that intrudes on us.

This narrative ‘fall’ from Eden and expulsion from paradise with it’s concomitant loss of divine grace  and estrangement from the promised land is a modern pastoral and ‘remains very much the picture on which we rely in most, if not all, of our thinking about the environmental crisis’ (Phillips, 2003). Most of the intellectual tools we need to respond to the critical statement made by Smithson in Asphalt Rundown are still bound up with the millennia old codes we’ve inherited from our nomadic ancestors. And there were far fewer of them. So what’s going down at Eastside and can Mike’s M6 help? Lets start with the knowing and overly understated materiality of the gallery release info sheet, which tells us that:

‘M6’ acts as an invocation of the highways and their concrete islands, memorialising their past production and the shifting economies of spent resources and also that: utilitarian objects have been collected as if they were trophies of an ignored parallel world – a dark abject monument. I like that. And most tellingly: The anthropomorphic conjuring of a scorpion or an eagle…The human, the climatic, and the elemental combine in these momentary offerings mimiking the death and disfigurement that we fear.

There’s some poetry here but note the use of the terms: anthropomorphic and The human, but it’s the inclusion of fear at the end that is the most telling for the reasons above, I’ll try these in order.

This exhibition, 44 years on from Smithson’s, has crossed a diameter, its nature-as-object-as-nature circularity, is a material witness, an indexical remnant of the actuality alluded to in the literature – nuancing a cause-célèbre of a socio-technological, anthropocentric narcissism that resonates in an analogous way, with those bands of tarmac surrounding the city: providing gazing banks to  border the reflective pools we crave. The work is at once sublime in the Kantian sense and aesthetically roars of the energy spent in the tumult of activity that has left us with this awe-inspiring register. I love it, one of the tyres was locked up so hard during heavy braking that a hole was worn right through it! – there must have been a moment of sheer terror as the driver of this megaladon of road traffic jackknifed, and for a moment lost control. Freud, following Gustave Le Bon might anatomise the loss of conscious boundaries that can occur when an individual was caught up in a unified, fast-moving crowd. However our boundaries in the wider sense, may have been breached here by our own creeping cultural paralysis – while outside, the ‘environment’ (which is now pure self-aware Gestell) has entirely replaced anything un-factored by human desire with facsimile. Is this progress – still modern and almost cathartic; but what kind of aesthetic sensibility is it? Some-one mentioned at an ESP crit I attended that Mike had mentioned-to-refute any association with J.G.Ballards ‘Crash’ (1973 – Dir’ Cronenberg 1996) but it would be a shame not to count “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology” (ibid) as part of the appeal of the work. Even the multi-ton concrete island that situates M6 within the gallery space has as much in common with the ‘Non-sites’ of Smithson as it does Ballardian dystopia. But this is not the whole picture, I believe the type of conceptual art epitomised here by Smithson and Nelson moves beyond the traditional considerations of aesthetics. Since Hume and Kant until the modern parables of environmental catastrophe, we viewed beauty as being a subjective innate sensibility:

‘The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Every reference of representations, even that of sensations, may be objective (and then it signifies the real [element] of an empirical representation), save only the reference to the feeling of pleasure and pain, by which nothing in the object is signified, but through which there is a feeling in the subject as it is affected by the representation’. (Kant 1790, The Critique of Judgment, the Third Critique section 1)

Kant goes on to discuss beauty as being distinct from the sublime which was to be found out-there in the realm of nature whose aesthetic path was somehow different, sometimes awesome (by producing the fear of death in the witness) other and objective. The judgement that something is sublime is a judgement that it is beyond the limits of comprehension – that it is an object of fear. Now, especially since the popularization of the environmental movement in the 1960’s and succinctly expressed by Robert Smithson and Mike Nelson; we have the dawning realization that objectification of and separation from nature was wrong – and was part of the problem – as the deliciously wierd Ayn Rand held: “the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable“. I can’t debate constucted vs essentialist identities here even-though Mike’s statement of: “interest in the construction of identity and “otherness””( Art Forum 11/2/13) calls for it. Suffice it to say that the cultural back-drop of a corporate-sponsored anthropocentrism, arrogant industrialism and technological enframement has lead to a utilitarian view where the natural is sought to be managed, controlled and profited from. But the ‘environment’ (and with it the sublime), have not only entered politics and human history they have entered us and our collective understanding of the place humanity has in the scheme of things: that WE are a force of nature; like the volcano or tsunami, the sublime is no longer an objective out-there, but inside of us – we carry it around – and when expressed, rarely conforms to traditional notions of beauty. Fair-well aesthetics.



Art Forum, excerpt Mike Nelson (11/2/2013) found online: http://artforum.com/words/id=39313. Last accessed 15/2/2013

Ballard, J,G. (1973) Crash, Jonathan Cape, London, ISBN 022400783

Debord, G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle tr Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, London #175. ISBN: 0946061122. on-line, can be found at:  http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm last accessed 15/2/13

Freud, S. ‘Le Bon’s Description of the Group Mind’, in Civilization, Society and Religion (PFL 12) p. 98-109

Heidegger, M. (1950) The Question Concerning Technology, Basic Writings Ed. David Krell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), pp 324, 337  Bremen, The Question Concerning Technology   Online, can be found at:  last accessed 15/2013

Kant, I. (1892) Critique of Judgement, Translated by James Creed Meredith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 (original publication date 1952), Oxford World’s Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-280617-8.

Nelson, M. (2013) ‘Rubber, air, speed, an explosion, death’: Mike Nelson on his new exhibition M6… Culture Critic Blog, online:  http://www.culturecritic.co.uk/blog/mike-nelson-interview/ last accessed 15/2/2013

Phillips, D. (2003) The Truth of Ecology, Nature, Culture and Literature in America, Oxford University Press, New York, p38, ISBN 019513768-X

Rand, A. (1982) Philosophy who needs it, ed Peikoff, L, Bobbs-Meryl, United States

Read, H. (1952) New Aspects of British Sculpture, British Pavillion Catalogue, Venice Beinalle 1952

Wittgenstein, L. (Post WWII Diaries) Culture and Value, ed. G. H. Von Wright, tran. Peter Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 50e


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