Anthropocene Through the Eyes of Gabriele Basilico, Robert Smithson, and Gordon Matta-Clark

September 9, 2013

Essay by Enric Llorach.


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Le Tréport, France, 1985. © Gabriele Basilico.

In an article published in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, Mariano Marzo, Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Barcelona recalls the applicability and popularity of the term, the Anthropocene.1 The article was referring to the 2002 Nobel Laureate chemist, Paul Crutzen, who suggested that “the environmental impact of population growth and economic development would suggest that humanity has left behind the Holocene and is now entering a new geologic age termed the Anthropocene.”

The previous Holocene had emerged slowly over 12,000 years and is now undergoing major changes due to the impact of human activity on the ecosystems. Overpopulation of the planet and its repercussions have exponentially increased CO2 and methane levels, have decreased both terrestrial and marine biodiversity and have massively increased continental erosion with losses much higher than those seen in strictly natural processes. According to Marzo “it is reasonable to conclude that we have now entered a new phase in the evolution of the planet and there is sufficient evidence of biological, sedimentary and geochemical changes to meet the criteria required for the differentiation of a new stratigraphic epoch.”

This new term is re-examined here in the context of three artists: Gabriele Basilico (1944-2013), Robert Smithson (1938-1973), and Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978). Basilico’s photographs, categorized into three groups that reflect on the landscape, territory and the city, will serve as the backdrop for an analysis of the work of the two post-minimalist artists, Smithson and Matta-Clark.

Through Crutzen, Professor Marzo likens the force of man’s action2 to that of nature itself, and this is a central theme in Robert Smithson’s work. Way back in the early 70s, Smithson issued a warning which was later picked up by Gordon Matta-Clark and transformed into a post-industrial, but mostly post-late capitalist, vision of the city and territory. From Smithson to Matta-Clark, a line could be traced from one to the other as they alert us to the environmental issues of our time and the agony of a dying economic and cultural system.

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The blackness of space and Earth’s horizon form the backdrop for this view while Space Shuttle Discovery was docked to the International Space Station during the STS-114 mission. © NASA.


In 2001, Francesco Bonami published a book titled Gabriele Basilico3 which included 55 prints by the acclaimed Milanese photographer. Many of the photographs reflect on a rather specific issue relating to urban and landscape photography. Basilico often presented the city or territory as a point of convergence/divergence of man and nature. The time span of the book is extensive, but it can generally be divided into three thematic areas:

  1. Landscapes marked by the force of the industrialized world including images from the French towns of Le Tréport (1985), Ault (1985), Boulogne-surmer (1984), Dunkirk (1984), Dieppe (1984), and the Spanish city of Bilbao (1983). During the late industrialized period, now called the post-industrial period, man’s action on nature acquired such a force that it emerged as the dominator in the photograph. Albeit rather banal, this phenomenon is quite recent as it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the issue came to light. The pre-industrial age was, with its limited development and low demography, predominantly natural.
  2. Basilico’s second group of photographs include scenes from the historic cities of Rome (1997, 2000) and Naples (1982). They depict historical monuments, the ancient ruins, as if they were a piece of nature inserted into the urban setting, or as if the old ruins had metamorphosed into another “second nature” erected in a more natural environment. This aged, decontextualized, anachronistic architecture acquires echoes of a natural landscape but with the striking distinction that it is man-made.
  3. Basilico’s third group of photographs taken in Beirut (1991), Berlin (2000) and Palermo, Sicilia (1998) allude to a traumatic event associated with human activity that has transformed the landscape as if thousands of years had passed. This event, be it a war (Berlin and Beirut) or a chronic economic recession (Palermo), rapidly decontextualizes the status quo of the area, converting the landscape into “premature” ruins and abruptly ending the normal course of things.

Thus, industrialization, history and traumatic events are the forces that transform the landscape in Basilico’s photographs. These three forces take centre stage and are clearly visible on the terrain, all too often dominating it.


The work of Robert Smithson is categorized under Post-Minimalism, at a time when many questions relating to Minimalism were already being challenged. The main criticism, emanating from the artistic realms close to institutional critique, decried the complicity between minimalist art and the museum. This led to the seeking out of other physical spaces for art away from the museum or gallery.4 In taking his work outside, Smithson criticized the museum as an institution as well as expanding the spatial and temporal boundaries of this artistic thinking.

Smithson’s work presents a notion of time which goes beyond the limits of Modernity. There are two forces at play in his work; one could be described as the geological vector and the other the mythical. The geological space veers beyond the space reserved for Modernity, while the mythological relativizes modern culture within a much broader spectrum. These new reference points span thousands of years as opposed to a few hundred.

These new mythical or archaic spaces could also be defined as scientific if we consider entropy in the context of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy defines a final resting phase for any given system. Basically, it is understood as the vital instinct of all living beings to devote most of their efforts against this second law which will, however, ultimately determine their death, dissipating their energy and integrating it into a greater homogenous system.

In the human context, entropy would also herald the inevitable destruction of established systems. The blind faith of Modernity in progress, in the entire project of the Enlightenment, would thus appear to be challenged. The simple idea of permanent economic growth associated with capitalism (at a rate of 3%, below which the system enters into recession) is unsustainable under entropic parameters. Such growth would only be possible at the expense of other economies, asphyxiating them as they would have to enter into one crisis after another to allow other economies to continue in steady growth. This is, for example, how the economic inequalities of the different continents should be considered. While there is a high level of scientific knowledge and technological production in modern times, the geological vector of this author is directed towards the mythical and the archaic to discover premodern ways of thinking. Broadening the cultural framework is another way of challenging Modernity.

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Spiral Jetty, 2013. © Christa Lamb.

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Spiral Jetty, 2013. © Christa Lamb.

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Spiral Jetty, 2013. © Christa Lamb.

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Smithson most celebrated work is the Spiral Jetty which was constructed on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970. This spiral mound of earth and boulders stretches about 457 meters into the lake and is about 4.5 meters wide. The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic basin, a dead sea, where water is only lost through evaporation as there is no outflow.

Smithson also produced a video, recorded from a helicopter and also from the spiral itself, which shows how the spiral was constructed from mud and stones using a mechanical digger. The width of the spiral was defined by the amount of material that the digger was able to drag onto the shallow water. Upon completion, the machine had to reverse back the entire length of the spiral until it reached the shore.

Once constructed, the spiral was left to the mercy of the lake’s salt composition and seasonal weather variations. It is often submerged in water, only to be seen from the air or nearby unpaved road. During times of drought, the spiral emerges creating a blanket of white crystallized salt which forms as the water evaporates. The chemical composition and high salinity of the water plus the presence of sand oolites and calcium carbonate (hydrated lime) taints the spiral with unusual shades of orange, red and pink and purple and violet.

While the tool which facilitated the creation of spiral belongs to the industrialized world, the spiral itself becomes geological as it develops close intimacy with the lake and its characteristic composition and climate. But it is also mythical as its shape is resonant with the archaic: the symbol of the spiral has been represented in various ways in ancient civilizations. This is how the mythical and geological vectors expand the framework of the work, but for Smithson the origin always lies in a mere circumstantial element: the mechanical digger, a modern industrial tool.

Never before had artwork been so far removed from the museum and gallery and this can only be construed in the context of institutional critique. In this context of Post-Minimalism, questions of authorship are also raised. Who is the author when the work is produced by an industrial machine and a specialized operator?

Still, unlike some other works, the Spiral Jetty attains a certain beauty, and the environmental impact of its creation did not alter nature’s course. Rather, the jetty is embedded in the natural environment where it lays at its mercy, keeping it company.5


Although some years his junior, Matta-Clark knew Smithson and worked along similar lines albeit using different scenarios. Matta-Clark’s work could also be defined as post-minimalist but with a surrealist legacy inherited from his father, the Chilean painter, Roberto Matta.

Like Smithson, Matta-Clark (M-C) also abandons the museum to work in the city. As a trained architect, M-C offers a politicized vision of the urban space. He understood the city as the reification of the capitalist economy, and resorts to the centre of economic activity in New York City to produce his work. He would surreptitiously enter abandoned or about to be demolished buildings and alter their spatial configuration. Brandishing an electric chainsaw, with all the revolutionary echoes of such an image, he cut out pieces of architecture to transform the space and to highlight the dysfunctionality of the abandoned. All the functional attributes of constructed spaces become meaningless when the space is abandoned. By modifying these, M-C emphasizes the loss of social or residential purpose to highlight their belonging to the capitalist economy. This now dysfunctional city becomes the artist’s extended canvas just like Smithson’s post-industrial landscapes: the city assumes the form of nature, already marginalized from economic activity or from speculative expectations and is converted into M-C’s workplace.

Again like Smithson, there is subversive element to M-C’s work insofar as his “constructions” are created from the excision of material rather than the traditional accumulation. M-C subtracts instead of adds. This methodology constitutes a critique of all that is supposed to be evolutionary; of the positivist vision whereby advances are only made by surpassing that which preceded, and at the same time offering a critical view of the capitalist system.6

M-C work is also revolutionary as he yearns to change things that disturb him. Surrealism, including his father’s work, had delved into the world of dreams as an alternative to the bourgeois lifestyle, and into communism as a new collective system. M-C’s vision in the 70s was deeply engrossed in this individual-community system, and this called for aggressiveness in its materialization.

Despite the negative connotations of both destruction and subtraction, there is a delicate beauty to M-C’s work, wherein lies a most powerful metaphorical paradox. With his knowledge of architecture, M-C forges negative volumes out of abandoned architecture. These alien-like immaterial volumes transform dysfunctional spaces into emblematic ones. Carved out of thin air, embedded in existing building, these negative constructions shape the political and economic thinking of M-C.7

With Basilico’s holistic vision in the background, Smithson’s work is viewed as an expanded field that magnifies the devastating action of mankind on the planet. Through Matta-Clark we see how the globalized economic system -late capitalism- is unremittingly pushing the Holocene towards the Anthropocene and the principal culprits are human activity and its economic organization. Through the eyes of these three authors, Gabriele Basilico, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, artistic activity is converted into urban thinking and a future prediction. Through their work, the true and troubling implications of the new term coined by Crutzen are revealed.

1 Mariano Marzo, “El Antropoceno”, La Vanguardia, Financial Section, Environment pages, 24 March 2013, Barcelona, 12-13.
2 In this text, the term “man’s action” is used having failed to find a more appropriate less gender-biased term.
3 Francesco Bonami, Gabriele Basilico, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 2001, reprinted in new format 2005.
4 Part of the criticism was directed towards the presumed anti-representative nature of minimalist artwork. In other words, the non-representation of the minimalist object ends up being illusory, as there is always at least one context in which it occurs and which transcends the strictly phenomenological experiences of the spectator.
5 However, other pieces by Smithson impact the landscape in a more critical fashion which are briefly described here:Monuments of Passaic (1967) was created in Smithson’s home town of Passaic a few years prior to the Utah spiral. The work consists of a series of photographs depicting places which were modified by industrial activity and highlighting the destructive capacity at a level that could be viewed as geological or late modernity. Also, the monumentality granted to some unique elements in the photographs give them a totemic character. Again, geological time and ancient time determine the nature of the work and these are always presented in a problematic relationship with modern time: industrial activity and its effect on the landscape in this case. Created in Rome in 1969, Asphalt Rundown simulated the creation of geological strata by pouring liquid asphalt from a trailer down a small hillside. Its movement, like that of volcanic lava, stained the landscape through an unhindered process where over time it settles, dries and begins to disintegrate. A geological type process which once again depends on available industrial tools: on this occasion a dump truck loaded with molten asphalt. Between 1968 and 1969, Smithson produced numerous Nonsites: Bayonne and Franklin in New Jersey (1968); Oberhausen (1968) and Essen (1969) in Germany and Cinders, near Black Point (1968) in the USA. The Nonsites addressed the issue of representing the territory and how the specificity of the “site” represented is lost. The change of scale, adopting the codes necessary for communication, the necessary simplification and consequent loss of the existing as well as its inevitable decontextualization challenged how the territory could be represented as such. In a critical mode, this was returned to the gallery and the museum with all its associated problems. The Nonsite is thus presented as an unsolvable problem, as another encounter between scientific knowledge and its geological counterpart. Executed in Rozel Point (Utah) in 1970, Partially Buried Woodshed was quite an eloquent work compared to the bulk of Smithson discourse and it also pointed in the direction which his young friend Gordon Matta-Clark would take up. Twenty truckloads of earth were dumped on the roof of a wooden shed. The stress of the load eventually caused the structure to weaken, become deformed and collapse. Again, the industrial truck and digger simulated the geological processes that ended up burying the civilised object, the shed, under a ton of earth. Amarillo Ramp (Texas, 1973) was completed posthumously by Smithson’s wife Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi after the artist was killed in an unfortunate accident when out photographing the site on a light aircraft. It is very similar to the Spiral Jetty (1970). Note: The information on Smithson is taken primarily from Eugenie Tsai, Cornelia Butler (Ed.), Robert Smithson, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2004.
6 In this sense, Matta-Clark is the antithesis of Pop Art, with the disappearance of the ambiguity of Pop Art regarding the predominant economic system. Andy Warhol, its greatest exponent, confined his work to the only place that exists in the context of a late capitalist economy: the surface. Warhol resided in the surface at all levels, including the personal, where there is nothing that is not merely circumstantial. In true dramatic fashion, the unfortunate attack that Warhol suffered in June 1968 ruptured this liminal state upon which his artistic activity and biography lay. The bullet that struck Warhol broke through the surface injuring the artist.
7 In this context, we find some works in the seventies such as Bronx Floors (New York, 1972-73), Photoglyphs, Graffiti Truck (Mercer Street, New York, 1973), A W-Hole House: Roof Top Atrium and Datum Cut (Genoa, 1973), the very memorable Splitting (332 Humphrey Street, Englewood, New Jersey, 1974), Bingo (Niagara Falls, New York, 1974), Conical Intersect (27-29 Rue de Beaubourg, Paris, 1975), Day’s End (Hudson River, New York, 1975), Office Baroque (Antwerp, Belgium, 1977) and Circus – Caribbean Orange (Chicago 1978). The restaurant named Food inaugurated in June in 1971 by Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, Suzy Harris, Rachel Lew and Tina Girouard on the corner of Prince St and Wooster St in New York SoHo was a subversion of the capitalist business idea. It remained open for two years and was operated thanks to contributions from about 300 artists, who selflessly contributed to make it a meeting place. Also, Reality Properties Fake Estates (1973) involved the active participation in the capitalist flow by buying waste lots, which were unattractive and thus unable to entry the property or speculative market. At a cost of $25 dollars per lot, Matta-Clark became the owner of small lots in Queens and Staten Island, New York.