In 1967, Robert Smithson made an excursion that he later recounted in a travelogue and a series of photographs. One September Saturday that year, he took a bus from New York City’s midtown Port Authority bus terminal. He took with him a copy of the New York Times, Brian Aldiss’ science fiction novel Earthworks and a Kodak instamatic. His destination was Passaic, the little town in New Jersey where he had been born. Along the banks of the Passaic River, the former industrial town was now decaying.
To choose your birth town for an afternoon of sightseeing seems strange, particularly if the place lacks anything worth seeing, but Smithson believed that the New Jersey urban landscape embodied a certain truth of the time that was worth capturing. He took pictures of a sandbox, sewage pipes, a parking lot and highway ramps, items which, with tongue-in-cheek, he characterized as “monuments.” The essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic” was published in Artforum in December that same year. In his wry account of the trip, Smithson exclaims: “Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?” He is alluding to the Grand Tour, the educational pilgrimage that wealthy young men were expected to make in order to view the cultural heritage of European civilization. Smithson travels to New Jersey in the same quest, a longing to learn about one’s own past and future. Where do we come from and where do we go, he seems to ask, and concludes: “I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past.”
Text: Andrea Kroksnes
From "Highlights. Art from 1945 to the Present", Nasjonalmuseet 2016, ISBN 978-82-8154-116-0