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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

19/05/21 - Robert Smithson 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic'

Updated: May 20, 2021

30th September 1967 Robert Smithson takes us the reader on a brief tour around Passaic New Jersey. Equipped with a Kodak Instamatic and a copy of Brian Aldiss' science-fiction novel Earthworks we are transcended into another persons world.


I have two 'things' I will report on with this text

- The transcendence

- The concept for an outcome


The read is a journey of Smithson's, the descriptive narrative moves us forward word by word and therefore we share his experience of Passaic. We as the reader use our cognitive knowledge to imagine those qualities within the text, i:e the walking (we know how to walk), the pulling of the bus stop cable cord (we relate to the material touch), so from this there is a simplicity to how Smithson transcends us the viewer into the journey. I could state that there is a blurring of realities, we are in our reality (myself sat on the sofa reading this text via my laptop) but we are also within Smithson's reality. Smithson has managed to place us within his experience by using language in a way that is simple and understandable however, at times highly illustrative and expressive. With that copy of Brian Aldiss 1965 'Earthworks' novel what influence does this have on Smithson? I for one can admit that when I am engrossed within a piece of literature my mind tends to continue to be within that text some time after I have put the book down. Does 'Earthworks' flood into 'Monuments of passaic'? and is this intentional? With his illusive language the journey builds up a momentum of cynicism and with this, it appears to backbone of this journey.


The cynicism is delivered to the reader via small descriptive punctures throughout the text until we come to the climax at the end and our presumptions are proved to be correct when Smithson discuss' the greyness of the sandbox/landscape of Passaic 'Typical abyss'.


'When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.'


Although this description of the bridge is read early and we are unaware of the cynicism behind this text, we are given our first glimpses of it. The river described as a continuous blank.... nothing within the river (not literally) but metaphorically, we could stare at the river and see nothing, feel nothing, just an empty void. It could almost be an emotional connection we obtain with Smithson where we can question his mental state, his philosophical perspectives but also immerse ourselves within this slight openness we create with him, we are on his side in some transcendental way. Two things that are clear from this is we have not questioned post emotional state and connection to the place as his day began. Where was his mind at at this time? Was he prepared for this trip? Was it intentional? As (with a bit of digging/reading) we can find out that Smithson was raised in Passaic we find our deep-rooted connection to the place.


I believe that he has also given us an authentic and genuine connection to him with the way in which he places some humour on how we are as people. 'Yugoslav artist I have forgotten the name of'. '1899....No.... 1896....maybe'. Here with these lines we find the genuine human element of how we are as people. We do forget things and we sometimes struggle to read the text of something and that may involve squinting at it. I appreciate this authentic connection here and with that it almost takes away the cynicism of the text.



On the concept of the outcome I believe it to be a method of production that could be used within my own work. I have been thinking about new material ideas of communication and language has been one of them. If I am trying to give an audience a sensory experience of the Arctic could I not do it through an account of my experience or maybe not such mine literally but transcend them into that place which allows them to be the architect of that place but they can only use the tools and materials provided to them which is in the form of my descriptive language?



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