The Iconography of Desolation

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson (1938–1973), My House is a Decayed House, 1962. Photo-collage, pen, ink, gouache and watercolour on paper, 610 × 455 mm. DMC 2975.

‘We now discover an iconoscope that shall forgive the divorce of heaven and hell while it flashes before us for our selective graces – the bits and pieces of Divine Catastrophe. Such a scope has lost all division and order. One must pick over the scattered icons the way a bum picks over the dumps. The iconoscope will now be plugged in.

Here begins the canticle of Philomela, the screech owl. Itys. Itys. ‘Let the insects do the suffering for us!’ says the Word Dissected. Roll on! A pale man wanders off the stage and falls into a backfiring redemption fuming the germs of vice and virtue. Smashing down over the rocks goes the Virgin’s coffin into the foaming contentment surrounded by progressive Christendom. THE LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS! Mount Olive splits in every direction, producing blood-soaked worms for official inspection. Gangrene sets in, injecting St. Anthony’s Fire into veins and arteries. Pus glitters with Greek charm, drawing out the sensual parts for the last stigmata. A middle-classic sycophant infused with sentimental hatred of Indulgences smells out the droppings of ‘manners’ in the Goop Gallery, near a counter-reformation ‘camping’ on divine flotsam, regulating the Major Lumps. MUSH neatly wrapped in thrifty esoterics promotes itself into distinction. Void hooks onto the void in the caverns splashed with bat guano, the Master’s favourite medium. Keep on plodding… ever closer to the Mother of All Gods: Bu Bu. Not to be confused with Bee Bee. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Puff. Puff. Puff.

Lights! Camera! Action! Prepare for the Practical Martyrdom! A clever soul places the body into a deep-freeze on a bed of thorns, whereupon the soul proclaims, ‘You’ll forget ice-cream once you taste ice-blood.’ Cut. Print it! Listen to the sounding brass or the tinkling cymbal: take your pick. 1-2-3-4. Forward! Footage, more Footage! Dies irae, dies illa. Bring Icon-400 into the ultraviolet rays. No… wrong icon. Not the Behemoth. Let him be anathema! ‘God is gone up with a shout…’ (Ps. 47:5). Icons $5 and up. With or without blood. Let’s go on a crusade against R.K.O.! … against the museum of yourchoice. Spotlights crisscross over multitudes chased by hurricanes. Mass movements push dissipation into heated solitude near lunacy. All is shapeless delirium. Dizzy icons. Dizzy. Dizzy. Dizzy. Holy-Radio-Active-System… hold it! Flash bulbs pop. Controls are giving out… Release, angelic laughter: Ha. Ha. ‘Hush. Hush,’ says Whinne-the-Pooh in the cobwebs under rusty pipes. ‘Only the factual is actual, here in the U.S.A.’ Who can hear the wretched and the diseased shouting for deliverance? Havoc gives way to havoc. The way mucous gives way to snot. Reels of film project: a procession of Nazis dragging an aluminium hearse, armies carrying standards of black fiberglass monsters, workers driving multi-coloured automobiles, females dripping poly-unsaturates; all parade into the world’s largest submarine. Iconographic snapshot: Number One. Harpies swoop into a ‘twist’ palace and tear away bits of cosmic flesh. Iconographic snapshot: Number Two. Keepers of a reptile farm in Florida ‘milk’ rattlesnakes. Iconographic snapshot: Number Three. A fake Etruscan Charon leads souls over a pool of whipped cream into a supermarket. Projections zero-in on a hermaphrodite in a space station, chanting a dirge, nothing excessive to be sure. Upon the mounds of tutti-frutti, the False Prophet displays his five vile wounds. From stage right: Indians on Warparth gallop in and take many scalps. From stage left: In a fog, Valkyries swinging baffle axes demolish uncountable enemies. On side stage X-666: The lords of industry set up a skyscraper on the broken piles of ‘earthquake.’ Baroque.

Cut! Print it! SHARP FOCUS – mark. X. Minus zero. And now an advertisement. (A redeeming bath in Coca-Cola will heal all wounds, even the… wonderful Wounds in the little World … that Cotton Mather describes in The Nature and Reality of Witchcraft. So, friends, fill your bathtub tomorrow with that ever-lovin’ redemption: Coca-Cola.) Faustus has drowned in Coca-Cola, but every now and then his voice still bubbles up saying, ‘See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop will save my soul – half a drop! ash…’ Fade out. Empty-eyed Luciferians are stamped out by the Incredible Iconographer with assembly-line etherized gestures. An iconostasis is erected in record time on the Haceldama. Gravestones made of ‘polar-foam’ emblazoned with glamorous faces of lady heresiarches are backdrops for the Intelligentsia twiddling over the Bhagavad Gita and peyote. Gongs boom. Doooong… Bong. And intercontinental audience perceives… a curtain, upon which is written in demotic. (Boxes full. Stalls full. Gallery full. Pit full. Standing room only!) Refreshments are served in the Jungle Room. Cobalt violet deep, permanent bright green, and thalo red rose… Dot… Dot… Dot… Dash. Curtain going up! Iconomatic-Flashback: The Dark Ages in the desert of Chalcis, 374 A.D., writes St. Jerome: ‘Afterwards, however, sin broke out more violently, till the impiety of the Giants dragged after it the shipwreck of the whole world.’ Iconoclastic-Flash-forward: The Space Age in New York City, 1962 B.C, writes Tad Swule for the Times, ‘It is known that the Administration wishes to complete the tests as rapidly as possible.’ Applause. A collection is taken up for the War Against Mouth-Rot. A specter of Creeping Jesus is strontiumized in the Cedar Street Tavern through the eye of a safety pin. A peal of woes. A nameless augur pronounces the benediction: ‘Convert to Hoboken, and cry unto her!’ The unpainted vision departs… A wolf-man (geniuses know where he lives) howls on a fire escape in Chelsea. Fac me plagis vulnerari. Who can paint it steadily? In St. Patrick’s Cathedral a waz pope watches Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana in tones of crimson. The graphic needle pierces the Hairy-Heart – atrabilious acid squirts on canvas thin as a spider’s web. Says Cocteau under opium, ‘The esthetics of failure are alone durable.’ Are these the Leçons de Ténèbrae? Is this where the Cocytus and Acheron meet in the midnight grove at the cutting edge? GENERAL PARALYSIS. No! No! No! A 1000 times No! The last ‘no’ twitching like the severed chicken-heads in Robert Frank’s The Sin of Jesus. ‘I am pursued like a wolf out of the sheepfold,’ saif the prophetess Maximilla against her will. Air-waves… blow-out. The ‘drip’ is immolated! Blessed be the teen-queen who dashes her records against the Hi-fi. Hollywood officials sign her up. Vista-Scope captures the movement. Behold, on the wide screen Mother Nature turning herself inside out, exposing growing grey agony.

Cameras! Action! Darkness! Bullets rip through Mother Nature at supersonic speed, taking big hunks of grey-stuff with them. Print it. The landscape grown smaller, sucking itself in… deeper and deeper where the ridiculous artist paints nature’s dirty secret under the ‘dim religious light’ in a Manhattan loft. In such an atmosphere the artist might cry out with St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi, ‘O nothingness! how little art though known!’ Our gaze becomes full of cyclotrons and accelerates into a lead wall. ‘We want honest art criticism!’ demand the art-lovers. Alas, the extinguishment of the major spotlights is taking place. Before the Grand Wipe Out, Grandma Moses appears in the Burning Bush of Life Magazine, then dissolves into an unusually cheap pile of ashes… Such ashes recalling the words of Dionisie Vasques, the preacher admired by Pope Leo X: ‘Wretched and sceptical worldlings!’ That is our ration of grace for the time being. The iconoscope is drawing to the End. There are other things to do before starting again. Like understanding Cézanne.’

Excepted from ‘The Iconography of Desolation’ (c. 1962) in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writing (London: University of California Press, 1996), 320–327.

Text and image © Holt/Smithson Foundation.