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Robert Smithson’s Vancouver Sojourn: Glue Pour, 1970

This is an article from the Summer 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

When the drum delivered by National Starch and Chemical Company was pried open, its sticky contents were a garish orange—not the expected neutral grey. Buoyed by the convivial mood of his co-conspirators, master of ceremonies Robert Smithson proceeded to lower the barrel into position atop the steeply inclined clay bank near the University of British Columbia campus, a site scouted by Vancouver artist and accomplice Christos Dikeakos.

Dikeakos’s grainy documentation of Smithson’s Glue Pour (1970) captures the prehistoric drama of the event. The adhesive slime, released from its plastic liner, conjured the manufactured terrors, and unintended comedy, of a science-fiction movie. “At the commencement of the pour everyone laughed or had a smile on their face,” recalls Dikeakos. Yet it was only in retrospect that Smithson’s simulated magma flow evoked, for some, a sexually charged travesty of Modernist painting’s theatrics (picture a cross between the poured canvases of Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis and a stag film).

The radically “impure” character of Glue Pour is characteristic of the multidisciplinary American artist’s work as a whole, which deliberately straddles (and sometimes crosses) the line between sublime and kitsch. This mixed pedigree is equally descriptive of his visits to Vancouver in late 1969 through early 1970 in preparation for Glue Pour and the infamously unrealized earthwork Island of Broken Glass. Where one might expect a narrative of one-way influence—the precocious American master leaving his mark on an underdeveloped art scene—in reality, the story is more convoluted, and strange.

Smithson was obsessed by the paradoxes of history, and the artist’s approach to time as a process whose violence, like Humpty Dumpty’s fall, can never be undone resonated powerfully with Dikeakos. “Glue Pour, for Smithson, was to be a study in erosional aesthetics,” he observes. “As it was happening there must have been ideas and thoughts realized, like the multiple identities that occur in a fluid state of past to present time.” Raiding the field of geology in search of metaphors with which to think through the possibility of history conceived as a material substance predisposed to irrevocable decay, the time-travelling artist was given to thinking in pairs. Like parallel strata exposed by excavation, Smithson’s art and ideas always risked colliding with themselves. The most familiar by-products of the artist’s twinned concepts are his Non-Sites: gallery installations that transgress the boundaries of the museum through literal and symbolic dialogue with remote sites—wilderness areas, or the wastelands of the metropolitan fringe.

Did Vancouver attract Smithson’s interest precisely through its potential to act as a—provincial and wild—Non-Site to the urbanity and bustle of the artist’s New York base? With its picture-postcard mountains and ocean views, the West Coast city must have seemed productively closer to the stuff of tourist fantasy than conventional fodder for high art. But the vortex of unsuspected parallels with his own practice awaiting him in the so-called Terminal City must have surprised even the well-travelled Smithson.

In 1969, Vancouver was, in more sense than one, suspended at the margins of the established art system. Yet in retrospect it is striking how much of what Smithson encountered, inhabiting his habitual role of conceptual sightseer, must have seemed more like uncanny confirmation than “discovery.” 

For starters, there was the conceptually savvy urban photography practiced by artists including Dikeakos—who, along with fellow UBC students Illyas Pagonis and Duane Lunden, assisted Smithson in locating and documenting Glue Pour. The computer-like methodology of “scanning” the coded surfaces of Vancouver’s urban milieu snapshot-style preceded the American’s arrival, via influences including Smithson’s own gonzo journalism and the early photoconceptualism of N.E. Thing Co. “Smithson’s wasteland photos and Ed Ruscha’s objective photography had a direct correlation to my interest in picturing and photo-scanning the rust belt of False Creek in Vancouver,” recalls Dikeakos. “It’s important to mention the Baxters. Their use of Duchamp’s ready-made nomination in the catalogue A Portfolio of Piles (1968) was a seminal work for photoconceptual practice here.”

In Dennis Wheeler, a precocious structural filmmaker, writer and former student of IAIN BAXTER&’s, Smithson found an intellectual equal already immersed in the process of integrating the non-linear implications of a scanning methodology into the study of cinema. In addition to assisting with Glue Pour, Wheeler became Smithson’s constant companion on his visits to Vancouver—a relationship recorded in the formidable dialogue of four posthumously published interviews.

“Smithson met his match in Vancouver when he met up with Wheeler,” remembers Dikeakos: “They immediately bonded, and stayed up many days and nights discussing poetry, literature, geology and art. [Wheeler] had direct connections and deep interests in the Vancouver literary and poetry scene. The Vancouver writers were also well connected to major American poets. Smithson was well aware and knowledgeable in contemporary literature, poetry and philosophy as well. Unfortunately, and to our dismay, I and a few of my close UBC friends were not invited to those intensely private Wheeler-Smithson discourses.”

One of several tragic ironies in this tale is Wheeler’s untimely death from leukemia in 1977. BAXTER& recalls that “it was like a shooting star that just went out.” Lunden, another associate of BAXTER&’s, a participant in Glue Pour and the sometime-collaborator of Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, would likewise drop from the art scene not long after Smithson’s Vancouver trips.

Other parallels can be drawn between the modest piece that Smithson installed on the property of Vancouver architect Ian Davidson, Glass Strata with Mulch and Soil (1970), and the bantam earthworks produced by NETCO at a time when the genre was dominated by the monumental projects of Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer. Like Smithson’s intervention on Davidson’s property, NETCO’s ecology projects were sometimes improvised on the suburban premises of its headquarters and family home, the punningly dubbed Seymour (pronounced See More) Plant. In contrast to the intrusive scale and environmentally disruptive materials of Island of Broken Glass—which would have seen 100 tons of shattered industrial glass deposited on Miami Islet, located off the coast of Vancouver Island—Glass Strata with Mulch and Soil was, like NETCO’s projects, a comparatively non-invasive gesture whose parallel sheets of glass were intended to be gradually reclaimed by the elements.

Alongside these parallels in contemporary practice were deeper intellectual correspondences with Vancouver’s Modernist past, suggestive of Smithson’s own multi-layered understanding of history as a quarry shot through with concealed veins of significance. As Smithson authored “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1969)—a delirious Mexican travelogue-cum–Artforum photo-essay—it now seems incredible that he was introduced to Malcolm Lowry’s iconic stream-of-consciousness journey through ancient and modern Mesoamerica, Under the Volcano, only in Vancouver (the city that Lowry himself called home while revising his manuscript). Yet according to VAG curator Grant Arnold, it was Davidson’s literary recommendation that convinced the American sculptor to accept his commission for Glass Strata with Mulch and Soil.

Smithson’s Vancouver travels imply something of a subterranean Canadianism animating his practice. Artist Dan Graham has recalled that Wyndham Lewis was Smithson’s favourite author. Born in Nova Scotia, Lewis was part of a cadre of Anglo-American Modernists, including T.S. Eliot and Smithson’s New Jersey pediatrician, William Carlos Williams, who had a sustaining influence on the artist’s practice. One cannot ignore the resemblance between the “vortex”—whose crystalline stasis Lewis opposed to the fashionable flux of time philosophies in the 1920s—and the figure of the spiral in Smithson’s signature Spiral Jetty (1970), a work that evolved out of the artist’s Vancouver peregrinations. Beyond this shared interest in crystallography and geometric vocabulary, Lewis also provided Smithson with the model of being an artist-author. The proto-postmodern self-reflexivity of Lewis’s travel writings, in particular, suggests an overlooked prototype for Smithson’s photoconceptual essays. In this abbreviated intellectual itinerary Vancouver emerges not as an exotic “other” to New York, but as something closer to an unexpected home away from home—as much mirror-reflection as scenic detour.

The affinities activated by Smithson’s presence in Vancouver find another counterpart in Lucy Lippard’s sprawling exhibition of Conceptual art, “955,000,” mounted at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the winter of 1970. It was the other attraction responsible for bringing Smithson to the city. Lippard’s show (titled after the population of Vancouver) was one of the first comprehensive presentations of the Conceptual movement in North America, but for Smithson it also signalled something of a premature retrospective, a portent of Conceptual art’s imminent memorialization as just another “ism.” (It was Wheeler who captured this premonition best in one of his interviews with Smithson: “It’s kind of amazing how quick the Conceptual Art faded, even more so than Pop Art.”).

Glue Pour was envisaged as an off-site contribution to “955,000,” to be represented in the exhibition space of UBC’s Student Union Gallery by photo-documentation shot by Dikeakos and others. Smithson also produced additional photographs of the Britannia copper mine north of Vancouver (a prelude to his unrealized Cinema Cavern of 1971) that he delivered to the VAG. But, in a strange twist consistent with the repeated false starts and eerie doublings of Smithson’s Vancouver expeditions, those photographs disappeared after the artist was told that he could not be represented by two works in the show.

Lippard recalls that she and Smithson “argued a lot.” She remembers the artist’s widow, earthwork artist Nancy Holt, joking that, “if you’d been nicer to Bob, you would have gotten a piece, and you’d be rich by now.” In light of her ongoing work on art and ecology, Lippard admits, notwithstanding their disagreements, that she finds herself, “turning back to write about things that I didn’t agree with at the time.” Lippard was one of the first to seize upon the ecological potential of Smithson’s later proposals for earthworks that would have seen former industrial sites, including mines and quarries, transformed into monumental public artworks. In keeping with her hands-on role in the installation (and, in some cases, even manufacture) of works for “955,000,” Lippard was present for the gooey proceedings of Glue Pour and, according to Dikeakos, participated in its documentation.

Likely, this foreknowledge that Lippard’s show would bring him to Vancouver is what led Smithson to accept an invitation to visit the city from Douglas Christmas, the enterprising young director of Douglas Gallery, and now owner of Ace Gallery in southern California. Smithson presented Christmas with a working proposal for the unrealized Island of Broken Glass. Christmas opened shop—the first space dedicated to contemporary international art in Vancouver, and one that would bring such figures as Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt to the city—aged just 17. BAXTER& recalls Christmas as “a kind of wunderkind on the American scene.” The dealer’s diplomatic finesse was instrumental in securing possession of Miami Islet, Smithson’s preferred locale for his intervention. But the protests of local residents angered by the potential ecological impact and perceived American imperialism of Smithson’s project ensured that the beach of pulverized glass that the sculptor envisioned as the eventual residue of his installation was not to be—nor a last-minute alternative scheme proposing the construction of concrete shelters to house and protect the islet’s animal denizens, offered in a palpably tongue-in-cheek tone.

BAXTER&’s take on Smithson’s Non-Sites reprises the public attitudes that thwarted the American sculptor’s ambitions for Island of Broken Glass. “They don’t feel very organic,” he notes, “I of course liked the Miami Islet piece as a concept, but I see the whole ecology side where it’s not really fun for animals.” Despite, or perhaps because of, their differences, BAXTER&, however, recalls the two artists hitting it off during a visit to NETCO’s North Vancouver headquarters, accompanied by Wheeler. In contrast to the high-octane verbiage of the photo-essays, BAXTER& found Smithson a down-to-earth figure: “When you go to write it’s different than talking. He was a good guy to just hang out and share ideas with.” Dikeakos recollects a “diffident” and “laconic” Smithson—a study in contrast with other visiting American artists of the period such as Andre, with whom he consumed bottles of retsina at a local bouzouki cabaret.

The interrupted narrative of Island of Broken Glass is shorthand for the mostly thwarted legacies of Smithson’s Vancouver interlude. Bracketed between the period of multi-sensory group exploration that gave rise to the Intermedia Society and the subsequent emergence of the theoretically savvy Vancouver School, Smithson’s Vancouver visit highlights hybrid possibilities that live on today in the practices of Dikeakos and BAXTER&, but represent something of a subterranean lineage within subsequent larger narratives of Vancouver art and economies.

The most concrete and enduring artifact of Smithson’s time in the city was Spiral Jetty. The imposing intervention created on the coast of Utah’s Great Salt Lake was an indirect issue of the artist’s thwarted plans for Island of Broken Glass. Smithson’s stratified model of history also suggests a compelling analogue for the sometimes disavowed intricacies of Vancouver’s art histories. Dikeakos sees affinities between Smithson’s methodology and early photoconceptualism. “It involves thinking of Smithson, especially in regards to his early industrial ruination pictures and texts.” The splintered narratives that Smithson mined may prove a useful model for mapping the multi-layered terrain of Vancouver art.

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