Digging into Aldiss’s Earthworks and Smithson’s “Earthworks”

The death last year of Brian Aldiss, the well-known British science fiction author, undoubtedly provoked a spike in sales to aficionados of dystopian weirdness.1 But to his crossover art world fans, and even more so, to Robert Smithson’s, Aldiss’s departure revives the ambiguities of the relation of the title of his Earthworks novel to the name and associations of first generation land art, Earthworks. Our global almanac, Wikipedia, cites Gilles Tiberghien’s Land Art (1995) as its source of the conventional story: “In 1967, the artist Robert Smithson took a copy of Earthworks with him on a trip” to Passaic, New Jersey, and “reused the title to describe some of his works, based on natural materials like earth and rocks, and infused with his ideas about entropy.”2 Yes. But also, no. Wikipedia provides a cleanly logical account, but like any simplified summary, omits the fascinating rhythms and illuminating details.

Smithson provided his own version of initiating his relation to Aldiss’s Earthworks when he recounted that he “bought a copy . . . of the Signet paperback” at the Port Authority Building before embarking on a bus to what three months later in Artforum, December 1967, became his essay “A Tour of The Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.”3 Aldiss’s story of the earth’s continents as largely uninhabitable deserts is set in the twenty-second century, a projection that now appears optimistic. Most of the remaining earth dwellers live bleak lives above dunes on platform cities dominated by authoritarian automatons. It is narrated by Knowle Noland, a man who knows no land, sentenced to endlessly crossing seas on a tanker gathering sand from abandoned “dumps like the Skeleton Coast” and transporting it to remaining civilized ports (Aldiss mentions Liverpool, the then-hip birthplace of the Beatles). There the sand will be turned into arable soil “good enough at least to raise vegetables fit to feed beef animals on,” a desperate act countering ecological devastation.4

But six months before Smithson’s published account of purchasing Aldiss’s Earthworks at the bus terminal, he himself had used the title’s term in “Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site,” in the June 1967 Artforum: “The boring, like other ‘earth works’ is becoming more and more important to artists: Pavements, holes, trenches, mounds, heaps, paths, ditches, roads, terraces, etc., all have an esthetic potential.”5 As his account of his Saturday afternoon excursion to Passaic initially appears documentary, the attentive reader of Smithson might wonder why he didn’t express surprise at the coincidence between the title of that science fiction novel he apparently encountered on a rack of cheap paperbacks and his own prior use of the nomenclature in Artforum when declaring that the activity of making “earth works” was “becoming more and more important to artists.” This lacuna is one of several signs that Smithson’s essay is not the strictly factual chronicle that so many who have written of it or used it to follow his footsteps in Passaic have taken it as, but a hybrid realist/fantastical narrative.

In my history, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (2002), I wrote, “The nonchalance with which Smithson mentioned Aldiss’ Earthworks, with its title being identical to the term he had used for a new form of art (“earth works”) in his article published four months earlier, gives this away as a studied, artificial, casualness . . . [The repetition] serves implicitly to reinforce in perceptive readers the association of ‘Smithson’ with ‘earth works.'”6 But now I want to suggest reasons I only speculated at then, and with information from Aldiss’s obituary, propose that Smithson’s affinities with Aldiss’s novel’s subject matter and mood were born of biographical conflicts that neither was aware they both experienced.

Aldiss’s Earthworks appeared from Faber & Faber in Great Britain in 1965; in the United States, its first clothbound edition was published in Doubleday in March 1966. Within a few months, Smithson had a reason to work in the earth himself: in July 1966, he was hired as a consultant by the engineering firm of Tippetts, Abbett, McCarthy & Stratton (TAMS) to help assist on the creative side with their proposal development for the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. He came up with the idea of earthbound constructions (“earth works”) between the runways to be viewed from the air—”aerial art.” When TAMS did not get the airport contract, Smithson turned to New Jersey, and his independently wealthy dealer/patron Virginia Dwan, to buy undeveloped rural acreage in the Garden State as sites for artistic production. None was available. Until they leased land at the Great Salt Lake for the Spiral Jetty in March 1970, he made “Nonsites” for gallery exhibitions, linking them structurally and geographically to different “sites.”

Doubleday cloth edition, 1966.

When Smithson described “earth works” in his June 1967 “Air Terminal” essay, he could have known of the novel Earthworks published fifteen months earlier. In addition to its title, he may have been attracted to its book jacket illustration (which Tiberghien mistakenly identified as the cover of the paperback Smithson subsequently purchased). A tightly cropped, gray-toned photograph of a close-up of a man’s face looks down at us. He’s made of hardened, cracked sand and his lowered eyelids above unfocused pupils evoke a daze. The gloomy disposition would have appealed to Smithson, who characteristically remarked to an interviewer, “Wreckage is more interesting than structure.”7 The affinity in moods between jacket image and Smithson’s dark temperament encourages the belief that he knew of and was attracted to Aldiss’s book before supposedly encountering it at the bus terminal.

The Signet Paperback was published in July 1967. By claiming in his next Artforum essay, December 1967, to have purchased Earthworks, Smithson acknowledged Aldiss. He also displayed his taste for a genre of literature then thought of as outré: science fiction. His 1962 Castellane Gallery show of mixed-media constructions, Bio-Icons Specimens Chemical Diagrams, had featured his fictions of science. Peter Hutchinson, Brian O’Doherty, and John Weber all recalled regularly viewing science fiction films with Smithson at the seedy movie theaters then chock-a-block on West 42nd Street.8

Smithson had affiliated his writing with that of a British science fiction novelist before: the title of his first article published in a periodical, “The Crystal Land” in Harper’s Bazaar May 1966—an account of a jaunt with Donald Judd and their “wives” to a quarry in New Jersey, apparently to appeal to fashionista rock hounds—mirrored that of the J.G. Ballard’s novel published that year, The Crystal World. But it’s notable that those are the only sci-fi writers Smithson referenced, prompting one to speculate whether it was their subject matter he was drawn to or the melancholy tones in which they voiced it. Both Aldiss and Ballard feature situations of privation expressed in resonances of mourning. Ballard, who had suffered the loss of his home as child in China and more recently the death of his wife, was drawn to “auroral gloom” and “mournful wrecks.”9 Aldiss’s, we’ll come to. And Smithson was given to statements such as “Books entomb words in a synthetic rigor mortis, perhaps that is why ‘print’ is thought to have entered obsolescence. The mind of this death, however, is unrelentingly awake.”10

Signet paperback, 1967.

But again, beyond the Earthworks’ title, the cover of that paperback suggests other sorts of appeals for Smithson. Its composition—a phantom woman atop high sand dunes and in the sea above her a large ship—bears an uncanny similarity to Smithson’s own prior photostat photo-collage, Untitled [SF Landscape] (1966), with small men in outer-space uniforms in the middle near a sea and a tanker in the upper right corner. But also in Aldiss’s cover image a muscular blond male wearing a fitted uniform and carrying a spear-gun runs down the side of the dunes. He’s virtually a brother of the hunky dudes, nude, that in the early 1960s Smithson himself drew (not exhibited in his lifetime). Embedded in Earthworks’ dunes are several oversized red-lipsticked mouths—baring teeth, aggressively sexual earth sirens. Mixing sexes, sexuality and menace, they are akin to the mashups of polymorphous sexiness decoratively frolicking around a rectangular abstract pattern in what Smithson termed his “cartouche” drawings.

Robert Smithson, Proposal for a Monument at Antarctica [formerly known as “S.F. Landscape”], 1966. Photostat, 7 11/16 x 11 in. Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2001. Courtesy James Cohan, New York. Art © Holt/Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

With the prominent group show Earthworks in October 1968 at the Dwan Gallery at 29 West 57th Street, the place of “earthworks” in the vocabulary of the history of art was assured. Smithson’s association of himself with Aldiss’s apocalyptic tale of moving sand was echoed in Grace Glueck’s titling of her informative article on the Dwan Earthworks show “Moving Mother Earth.” Her linking of earthworks to the archaic trope of earth-as-mother was clever, and it may have gained Smithson and others traction among readers concerned with environmental degradation. But Glueck’s inclusion of a quotation of a remark by Smithson undermined that connection and demonstrated ecology’s irrelevance to the artists’ intentions, while also publishing a statement that could serve as the quasi-movement “earthworks’” succinct aim: “’We hope to get away from the formalism of studio art,’ says Robert Smithson, one of the show’s prime movers, ‘to give the viewer more of a confrontation with the physicality of things outside.’”11

“Things outside?” As in cars and grocery stores? That generality hardly bespeaks of an ardent earth (mother) lover, evincing what the earthworkers were not. In a few months, Smithson stated, “I think we all see the landscape as coextensive with the gallery. I don’t think we’re dealing with matter in terms of a back to nature movement. For me the world is a museum.”12

Earthworks exhibition announcement, Dwan Gallery, New York, NY, 1968. Courtesy Virginia Dwan.

Yet there are other significant connections between Smithson and Aldiss. After announcing in the first sentence of “Monuments of Passaic” that he had purchased Earthworks, three paragraphs later he returned to the book to quote its first sentence, “The dead man drifted along in the breeze.” In the novel, levitating just above the water by an anti-gravity device, the corpse came alongside the Trieste Star. The merchant ship was presumably registered in Trieste, Italy, but within the undercurrent of loss throughout Earthworks the name also calls up a stellar vessel of triste, sadness. Similarly, for his final “monument” in Passaic—a place described by Smithson as “a cheap copy of The City of Immortals” (Rome) —he connects sand with death as did Aldiss with his desiccated dystopia. “Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon,” Smithson’s playground “sand box or model desert . . . became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. . .Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor. . .the sandbox somehow doubled as an open grave – a grave that children cheerfully play in.”13

Earlier, Smithson’s reference to Aldiss’s “dead man drifted along” came just after noting that the bus left the highway to turn into the town of Rutherford on its way to Passaic. Those places were not just archetypes of ordinary Jersey “slurbs.” For him, Passaic was extraordinary, not only as his own place of birth and residence the first year or so of his life, but also that of his brother, his parents’ prior only child. It was that predecessor’s death at the age of nine that had prompted Smithson’s conception and assumption of the position of his parents’ only child, a son. Smithson’s bracketing of his pseudo travelogue to his home town with parallel references—at the beginning, with the teaser quotation of Earthworks’ first sentence to the dead man drifting alongside the sad ship and at the conclusion his own elaboration on sand and death—indicates that he wanted receptive readers to know of his concern with mortality.

The unusual circumstance of Smithson’s birth was also experienced by Aldiss. The novelist considered it influential enough to his life story that he recounted in interviews how he had been born after the death of an “idolized older sister” to whom he resented being “constantly compared.”14 Aldiss’s novel’s first sentence’s description of a mobile corpse and subject matter of environmental death, and Smithson’s essays’ myriad metaphors of mortality, each display the enduring presence of the ghost of the child whose identity theirs was entwined with and who, from the disconsolate references in their work and interviews, appeared to continue to “drift along” with them. When Smithson wrote “Has Passaic replaced Rome as The Eternal City?” he is not just disdaining the European Old World as was so characteristic of post-World War II culture. More personally he himself, becoming an art historical “monument” from Passaic, sought to finally replace in his family’s memories the “eternal” “immortal” presence of their first son.

Of course, the term “earthworks” did not originate with either man: it is used in engineering, the military, and most pertinently is the generic description for the ancient megaliths found on the hillsides of Dorset in southern England on the English Channel. Yet digging into the morbid ideations in Aldiss’ Earthworks fiction and Smithson’s essays finds a shared emotional bedrock. From those traumas each upturned cultural associations of earth—the prima Materia of Mater Naturae—as a source of harmonious abundance into allegorical landscapes of mortality, in which each lives on.

Suzaan Boettger is a scholar/critic of environmental and environmentalist art, and professor at Bergen Community College, New Jersey. Forthcoming in September 2018 is “Mirror of Our Nature: Edward Burtynsky’s Images of the Anthropocene” in Edward Burtynsky, Anthropocene (Steidl Verlag). In process is Robert Smithson, Landscapes of Loss.

  1. Brian Aldiss, OBE, born August 18, 1925 in Dereham, Norfolk, England, died one day after his 92nd birthday, on August 19, 2017 in Oxford, England.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthworks_(novel), accessed August 19, 2017. Wikipedia footnotes “Tiberghien, Gilles (1995). Land Art. Princeton Architectural Press. 19.” Too bad before using that as their source, no member of the collective authorship of Wikipedia read my review of Tiberghien’s melange of misinformation in my omnibus review, “Language of the Soil,” Art Journal (Summer 1996): 95–98.
  3. Robert Smithson, “A Tour of The Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 68–74.
  4. Brian Aldiss, Earthworks (New York: Signet, 1967): 12.
  5. Robert Smithson, “Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site,” in Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 56.
  6. Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 61.
  7. Robert Smithson, in Gregoire Muller interview, “. . . The Earth, Subject to Cataclysms, is a Cruel Master,” in Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 257. The interview was originally published in Arts Magazine in September 1971.
  8. Author’s conversations with Hutchinson, Weber, and O’Doherty, various dates 1995–present.
  9. J.G. Ballard, Crystal World (New Yorl: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966): 3, 60.
  10. Robert Smithson, press release for Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read, 1967 Dwan Gallery exhibition, in Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 61.
  11. Grace Glueck, “Moving Mother Earth,” New York Times, October 6, 1968.
  12. Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp, “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” in Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 246.
  13. Smithson, “Monuments,” 73, 74.
  14. Sam Roberts, “Brian Aldiss, Prolific Author of Sci-Fi and More, Dies at 92,” New York Times, August 27, 2017.