In about two weeks the Robert Smithson madness in New York will end, as the Floating Island event has already past and Smithson retrospective at the Whitney comes down October 23. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Smithson (his earth work Spiral Jetty, is one of the few pieces of art that are part of America’s collective cultural consciousness, and his work within the field of art criticism was not only widely influential around the time of its publication date, but still resonates today.) And this is why Smithson is one of those few artists whose work gets to be produced posthumously.
Let’s be clear on this point, I am generally not a fan of works brought to life after an artist’s death. There is something about this practice that reminds me of making a shirt out of a Mondrian painting. Inevitably it’s not what the artist intended. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a project that is actually based on source sketch to a myriad of ill conceived design projects, but the point is that the work has suffered without the artistic direction of Smithson.
In case you didn’t click on The Floating Island event link above (which is entirely possible given my own propensity to this sort clicking laziness), this is a piece produced by Minetta Brook and the Whitney whereby a floating park-island was constructed and pulled around Manhattan for a week by a tugboat. The completion of this project will be marked when the flora and fauna of this island are transplanted in Central Park — and who knows when this will be since this is up the Park and is based upon their needs.
The trouble with this work is twofold. First, it is based on a quick sketch the artist made in the ’70s, and there simply isn’t enough of the artist’s hand in the project. The landscaping of the island was hired out and is uninspired at best; the deciduous trees look dead rather than fall like, the ground is boring to look at because it is too level, and the shrubbery disappears within the five trees that appear to have been planted. These problems are consistent with the larger issue with the island’s aesthetic which is scale. From the landscaping to the island itself, there is nothing appears to be just the right size. The piece either needed to be a lot bigger or a lot smaller to be properly noticed. Even the President of the Whitney, Robert J. Hurst, inadvertently acknowledged this in his speech at the opening event three weeks ago when he referred to the island as “cute”, (a term the artist would not have been pleased hear were he still alive). Of course, the word that came to my mind is rinky dink, so, of the two, certainly cute is preferable. I should also note that he referred to the event as the “little project that could”. It’s hard to imagine a more diminutive talk about work the Whitney played no small roll in bringing to fruition.
Aesthetic problems aside, the fundamental flaw of this piece is that it was intended to take place in a very different time. The project was conceived in the 70’s – the New York landscape was a lot different. Central Park was a bit of a waste land, the city was ensconced in crime; the notion of a floating park in the 70’s would have been more than just a pleasant site, it would have been desired and even needed. In 2005, it’s a nice treat for rich Manhattanites*, but it almost seems a little decadent given the change of landscape and economics in the city. And thus, the project really is a little like a shirt inspired by Mondrian, because it really isn’t the project he intended. Despite having Nancy Holt and others assure us that this is what Smithson would have intended, surely he could have not envisioned the 2005, I’ll IM your treo where the island is, private floating island party on the pier event.
*The barge was originally to be pulled around the entire city, but due to the UN meetings it was rerouted for most of the week, and traveled up to midtown and back…a lot of richy-rich on this route.