This article focuses on an important aspect of aesthetics in the context of the Anthropocene: the situatedness of aesthetic techniques and operations within earth’s (changing) materiality. Aesthetics is not only a way of making sensible but also contributes ontologically to the world it makes sensible. In this view aesthetics does not rely on a subject’s capacity to apprehend the world as a perceptually objectifiable entity. Focusing on works by Jason deCaires Taylor (Anthropocene and La Gardinera de la Esperanza) and Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), the authors interrogate how artistic engagements with anthropocenic materiality and temporality have the potential to articulate a double bind between aesthetics and ontology. Both artists not only allow recipients to be confronted with complex earthly entanglements but also have a material and aesthetic impact on their respective sites. Discussing deCaires Taylor’s and Smithson’s works, the authors argue that the artists’ aesthetics is not only a way of granting experiential access to an earth that resists objectification but also a manifestation of the processes through which earth’s materiality transforms throughout time.
Since it was first proposed in 2000 the Anthropocene concept has triggered widespread and ongoing debates beyond the scope of the disciplinary fields it originated from—that is, earth system sciences and geology. By attributing to humankind the capacity to collectively (and unconsciously) operate as a “major geological force,”1 and thus to be efficacious at the scale of geologic and planetary processes, Anthropocene science—quite literally—brings into view that the ontological dualisms between nature and culture, humans and nonhumans have no efficiency at planetary scale. Many scholars of the environmental humanities have therefore engaged with the Anthropocene in search for more relational ontologies that account for the manifold entanglements between humans and earthly processes. But inasmuch as it offers new ways to reflect on such entanglements, the Anthropocene concept is also a particular way of putting them into visual perspective.
Genealogically traceable to the development of earth system science2 the Anthropocene concept favors a macroscale, extended “bird’s eye” point of view to observe, analyze, and grant perceptual access to the large-scale impact of anthropogenic activity. The epistemic techniques of knowing about the earth as a highly complex system should be understood as aesthetic techniques of depicting, visualizing, and mediating complex, abstract processes in a particular way—a way that is not necessarily about “seeing more,” but rather about “seeing differently.”3 This “dominant visual apparatus of the Anthropocene”4 has been criticized by many scholars of the (environmental) humanities for marginalizing particularity and detail for the benefit of context and extensive overview on broader systemic interdependencies and feedback loops. However, the usage of such a point of view from above is a methodological necessity for studying processes whose nonlinear behavior emerges at the spatiotemporal extent of earth systems. But while it allows to know about, for instance, a “technosphere” that operates beyond human purposefulness and scope,5 the extended bird’s-eye view itself appears beyond human reach. For instance, Stacy Alaimo considers it to be a manifestation of what Donna Haraway has termed the “god trick of seeing everything from nowhere”6 in the sense that it exteriorizes the epistemic position of the (human) subject; instantiates a dichotomy between her/his gaze and the earth as an objectifiable, intelligible, assimilated entity; and allows her/him to enjoy a transcendent and “comfortable position outside the systems depicted.”7 Clearly this epistemic exteriority is an illusion. Although a side effect of the scientific-aesthetical inquiry into earth systems, according to many scholars, it runs the risk of reaffirming an anthropocentric bias because it reinforces an undifferentiated image of Anthropos.8
The manifold earth system scientific data visualizations, models, simulations, diagrams, calculations, and images that draw on an apparently detached macroscale perspective are deeply embedded within the materiality of the earth. They rely on remote sensing technologies, satellite imagery, computer hardware and devices, algorithms and computation, massive server farms and data infrastructures, communication networks, institutions, and companies. They all rely on energy and material resources shaped by geologic processes through deep temporal durations, and thus, they are part of the material and ontological condition whose mediation they ensure.9 Hence the material conditions of knowing and of perceiving the earth as a system are ontological conditions of its planetary-scale transformations.10 Efforts have been made to theoretically overcome an Anthropocene aesthetics that is solely based on an abstract, somewhat holistic and all-encompassing point of view in favor of more embedded, immersed, locally situated aesthetical articulations of the Anthropocene. While such approaches might seem contradictory in terms of the scale they apply (local vs. planetary, immanent vs. transcendent), both sides have in common that their efforts at generating an aesthetic experience are simultaneously material conditions of the Anthropocene. The obstacle of “top-down” aesthetics of earth system simulations and so on is that they do not mediate their own contribution to the ontology of the Anthropocene. Their detachment does not lie in how they visualize or make sensible large-scale anthropocenic earth systems, but in how they do not necessarily reflect on the materiality of their own operationality. On the other hand more local aesthetic approaches are often immersive precisely because they are direct engagements with geologic materiality. As a result, they are suitable approaches for not only mediating planetary effects but also how they materially contribute to their causation.
Hence, in this article we show that aesthetics in the Anthropocene not only concerns the question of which scale can most suitably mediate the Anthropocene to sensory experience but also of how the (artistic or scientific) means of generating aesthetic experiences can relate to their own situatedness within earth’s materiality. In this perspective a suitable way of articulating the complexities of the Anthropocene would be one that reflects on the ontological consequences of its aesthetic endeavor. The first section develops a theoretical fundament for our view on aesthetics, showing that the Anthropocene, beyond its obvious implications for the disciplines of geology and earth system sciences, can also be understood as an aesthetic condition. Interrogating Kantian aesthetic theory as well as some aesthetic discourse on the Anthropocene we investigate the assumption that this condition is characterized by a gap between phenomenal experience and an incommensurability of anthropocenic processes. In section two we then focus on selected works by artist Jason deCaires Taylor (Anthropocene and The Gardiner of Hope), which would clearly be considered more immersive than the infamous view from above. We show that deCaires Taylor’s artworks not only allow recipients to experience how anthropomorphic sculptures are folded into the temporal becoming of submarine ecologies but also can be understood as effects of a human-induced impact on ecosystems themselves. However, as we critically assess, his work does not explicitly reflect on this paradox. In section three we discuss Robert Smithson’s most iconic work, the Spiral Jetty. Similar to deCaires Taylor’s approach, Smithson’s artistic engagement with geological processes relies on an anthropogenic transformation of the landscape. However, as we will show, Smithson’s work allows to investigate the complex interdependencies between world-depicting and world-making,11 between aesthetics and materiality, by documenting the transformations of the landscape, making them an intrinsic part of the actual artwork. Robert Smithson, in this regard, can be considered an avant la lettre artist-thinker of what we consider of how aesthetic techniques and operations in the Anthropocene interact with material processes of world-making. This article therefore asks how the Anthropocene condition can be understood through the lens of aesthetic practices engaging with the materiality of earthly processes.
The Anthropocene as an Aesthetic Phenomenon
The Anthropocene concept acknowledges that humans are embedded within an Earth System that has been radically altered by humans.12 However, the possibility to know about the relatedness of human and nonhuman processes and forms of mattering at the multiple interwoven, but “disjunctive”13 scales suggested by the Anthropocene concept apparently stands in contrast to their phenomenological inaccessibility. Chakrabarty, for instance, reminds his readers that it is not possible to experience oneself as part of a species14—neither do phenomena like climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, or species extinction directly unfold before our eyes. At large scales they can only be perceived when they are constituted as scientific objects constructed on the basis of “physics, chemistry and big data; measurements, simulations and statistics.”15
Philosopher Timothy Morton sees a general interstice between sensory perception and knowledge as a part of the Anthropocene condition. Morton’s book Hyperobjects (2013) reinvokes the “Kantian gap between phenomenon and thing,” stating that climate, as a hyperobject “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” can indeed be thought and computed, but not directly seen or touched.16 Following this line of thought, on the one hand we can immediately witness dramatic environmental degradation phenomena with our senses—for example, an increase of temperature extremes, of plastic waste washed up on the beaches, of large-scale forest fires, droughts and floods, or of a visible decline of flight insects. But on the other hand, we only know and experience through (media-) technologies how such local manifestations correlate with planetary-scale phenomena. Morton’s proposition of a certain gap between perception and techno-scientific reason implies a dichotomy between a general commensurability of the phenomenal world and an incommensurability of anthropocenic processes.
From an aesthetic point of view, it is the growing amount of collected data and knowledge about entanglements at planetary scale that leads to the realization “we can never truly know them,”17 enabling the emergence of the sensation of “being overtaken by processes that are unmaking the world that any of us ever knew.”18 This sensation, following Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, can be understood as “aesthetic,” in which the Anthropocene is the “sensorial phenomenon” of experiencing life “in an increasingly diminished and toxic world.”19 Regarded as an aesthetic phenomenon the Anthropocene may put an end to a distinctly Western, modern concept of world by unfolding its “future-perfect-continuous” tense,20 allowing for the strange and nonobjectifiable experience of “being born into a world that no longer exists.”21
This suggests an idea of an anthropocenic aesthetics that differs from the Kantian notion of a subject-object structure of aesthetic judgment. For Immanuel Kant an aesthetic judgment “cannot be other than subjective,” meaning that the aesthetic is not an a priori quality of the world and its entities, but an attribution made by a subject.22 Beauty, for instance, “is not a property of the flower itself,” but the flower’s beauty is an effect of “that characteristic in which it adapts itself to the way we apprehend it.”23 Such an attribution, however, is not an active decision made by the subject on the beauty of an object, but a response to its particular appeal, which, through aesthetic judgment, “adapts itself to the way we apprehend it.” An aesthetic judgment in the Kantian tradition of philosophical aesthetics assumes the form of a relationship between subject and object, which lies in the world’s capacity to affect us. Yet the stability and outcome of this relationship depends on the subject’s capacity to apprehend it.
In the Anthropocene however, we learn and sense that the earth is—or has always been—entangled with us in a way that not only exceeds our categories of judgment in terms of complexity and spatiotemporal proportions but also shapes and reconstitutes our sensual relationship with it. To understand the Anthropocene in its aesthetic dimension means to acknowledge that the earth’s resistance to aesthetic judgment is an effect of a priori aesthetic-epistemological and (media-) technological operations of translating data into images, models, diagrams, and simulations. The apparent phenomenological incommensurability of the Anthropocene condition has not been always already there—but is an effect of operations and techniques that visualize and render intelligible, that is, make knowable and perceivable, phenomena such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and so on.24 The apparent scalar gap suggested by Morton is, in this view, an effect of the dominance of techno-scientific modes of representation that facilitate depictions of large-scale earth systemic interdependencies. Their (nonlinear) interaction with local and embedded forms of agency is, however, neglected on the level of visuality. As a result they produce a commensurable phenomenal world as their necessary other.
According to Jacques Rancière “aesthetics can be understood . . . as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise.”25 Entities can be defined as aesthetic when they contribute to the system of conditions under which the world can subsequently become sensible for human perception. Embedded entities, we argue, have the potential to deliver an alternative way to sense and reflect on the Anthropocene condition. They do this by avoiding production of an incommensurable planetary-scale dimension of the Anthropocene as its dichotomous counterpart. They are visible as material and ontological parts of the world they depict. As a result such approaches, as we will show in the next sections, have the potential not only to reflect (critically) on their own materiality but also shape and constitute experiences of how local manifestations feedback into planetary-scale processes, destabilizing the scalar opposition between the local and global.
Jason deCaires Taylor’s Submarine Sculptures
One of the most extensive and considerable artistic engagements with the submerged side of the Anthropocene can be found in the work of British-Guyanese artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who is mostly known for his large-scale submarine sculptural parks—among them, The Subaquatic Museum in Cancún, Mexico, with more than 400 sculptures in 2009; the Museo Atlántico opened in 2017 in Lanzarote with around 300 sculptures; the first underwater contemporary art museum in Europe, and the Museum of Underwater Art in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, which opened to the public in December 2019. Since the sculptures always depict human figures at the place, the submarine installations have a strong symbolic and referential link to the local communities. Vicissitudes (2007), for example, consists of a ring of twenty-six sculptures of children modeled from local children with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Crossing the Rubicon (2017), the centerpiece of the Lanzarote museum, is a monumental sculpture with thirty-five human figures entering a single rectangular doorway in a thirty-meter long, four-meter high wall as an immediate image of separation, which implicitly points to questions of inclusion and exclusion invoking issues of transnational social and economic inequality.26 DeCaires Taylor’s installations display how human inscription into land- and seascapes not only shapes the environment, but that vice versa, the temporal becoming of human culture is also affected by environmental forces and processes—an effect that becomes strongly amplified by the biochemical composition of submarine ecosystems. The massive, larger than life-sized human sculptures, weighing one to two tons each, are made of a strong, marine-grade, pH neutral cement with a rough texture being attractive to corals, sponges, barnacles, tunicates, and other reef dwellers, and thus provides the possibility for building a new artificial reef.27
The mutual affection of human and nonhuman forces, their dependence on each other, is very explicitly, but also ambivalently linked with issues of the Anthropocene, as a closer look at two sculptures illustrates. The sculpture The Anthropocene from 2011 belongs to MUSA, the Subaquatic Museum of Arts in the Caribbean Sea. The artwork shows a life-size replica of an old-style Volkswagen Beetle, an icon of Mexican everyday life, which lies eight meters underwater. The sculpture critically reflects the difficult relationship of humans and the marine environment. On the one hand the car at the seabed raises the question of industrial waste in the ocean and, more generally, the problem of waste disposal. The Beetle raises issues of social injustice and may give “attention on how power relations affect environmental decision making and practices at multiple scales, from domestic to the global.”28 On the other hand the unnaturally crouching human figure on the Beetle’s front panel appears as a displaced person or postapocalyptical stranded person that is unable to face the impending disaster. So the threatening consequences of the Anthropocene are visualized through a single figure as pars pro toto. Instead of a vehicle of civilization and progress technology becomes the leftover of a sunken culture, of a kind of modern Atlantis in which humans do not sit behind the steering wheel anymore but are marginalized, abandoned without shelter—a sign of a self-inflicted transcendental homelessness. The sculpture is a critical commentary on the hubris, the new “homocentrism,”29 which lies in the ambivalence of the Anthropocene as geological epoch in which humankind has its fate in its own hands while it is, at the same time, challenged to accept its interdependency with the nonhuman world. Thus the sculpture sheds a dark light on the new epoch and its failures to mitigate environmental degradation. It emphasizes the disastrous outcomes of human activity and technological progress and fundamentally questions the possibility to overcome anthropocentrism and the “myopia of the future.”30 Thus the sculpture’s title clearly points to the “disaster narrative” of the Anthropocene,31 which emphasizes environmental depletion at global scale.
The second example, La gardinera de la esperanza (“The Gardener of Hope”) articulates a counternarrative that is a rather optimistic, open-minded point of view on the Anthropocene. A young female figure—“la gardinera”—is situated on a rectangular base with a two-parted edge, lined with flowerpots and a watering can made of cement. Corals are growing from the pots, algae and plankton spread all over the sculpture; the gardener—resting on her elbows—seems to contemplate these continuous alterations with disinterested pleasure. The artwork displays and, at the same time, materializes the close relationship of human and nature—it seems as if the gardener would simultaneously contemplate the growing of the maritime flowers and herself gradually becoming part of the underwater world.
Both The Anthropocene and La gardinera de la esperanza draw on a temporal approach toward artistically displaying the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene as a destructive force can be seen as “slow violence” and “as contest not only over space, or bodies, or labor, or resources but also over time.”32 While the sculpture The Anthropocene shows this form of slow violence, The Gardener of Hope envisions a kind of planetary, nonhuman becoming that is indifferent to the (non-)existence of the human species.
In both cases nature and humans are not ontologically separate. DeCaires Taylor’s human-shape sculptures are intended to become parts of networks of mutual exchange and quasi-interactivity between a multiplicity of biological agents. They not only represent forms of mutual interspecies-becoming but also are themselves interconnected with other species in the sense that their outer appearance continuously changes through bacteria, algae, and coral “transformed by salt, currents, pressure, and the rapid occupation by multispecies ecologies.”33 Concerning the ocean as a medium of arts, Elizabeth DeLoughrey speaks of sea ontologies as a “new paradigm” in difference to environmental or earth art because everything flows, everything is interconnected and “forces us to ‘unfocus.’”34 Crucial in this context is the experience of diving, submerging ourselves—as recipients—into an alien aquatic environment, where humans may experience “surprising affinities” with sea creatures.35 The experience of diving and submerging is crucial to deCaires Taylor’s approach, as he reports:
For many years I’ve had incredible dreams about being underwater. My first instructor once told me how he’d go to these spectacular caves in Turkey. He would turn off his torch and feel his way out. He said it felt like being back in his mother’s womb. I can relate. You have a much more detached consciousness underwater—like a form of meditation. . . . I think it’s got something to do with the history of time and how we place ourselves in the evolutionary scale. Many of us can’t help but wonder why we are here. Underwater you are dealing with a completely different notion of time and it’s confusing but fascinating; even for me when I return after a month and the work looks completely different.36
This quote, firstly, points to the “much more detached consciousness underwater” reflecting not only the human ontogenesis but also the feeling of interdependency and attachment that the artist describes as “a form of meditation.” Secondly the underwater experience is related to a different experience of time because the multispecies assemblages are dynamic and ever changing and contextualize humans in an evolutionary scale. In the course of time the human sculptures “will be totally assimilated by marine life, transformed to another state—a challenging metaphor for the future of our own species.”37 Hence deCaires Taylor creates visual, “living” metaphors of the entanglement of humans in complex networks of interspecies relations and, furthermore, beyond their representational function, they are emergent multispecies assemblages in themselves.
However, although the massive sculpture parks reflect on the impact of anthropogenic activity, they are themselves an effect of large-scale interventions into the oceanic landscapes and can be regarded as alien installations in the ocean. In the microcontext of the artificial reefs of the sculpture parks of Grenada and Mexico surprising developments have already been observed—for example, brown and other algae are supplanting the colorful corals, sponges, and organisms, and grow even faster after attempts to remove them. In the artistic context of the sculpture gardens this experience might be read as a practical metaphor for the shortcomings of a management approach to the Anthropocene at global scale. But despite their metaphorical, intellectual implications, the marine sculpture gardens embody an inherent management perspective themselves. The underwater locations have to be constantly managed, for example, to channel flows of visitors through the sites. They might also lead to an intensification of such civilizational processes they seek to critically reflect on; we can, for instance, assume that the sculptural parks have a certain impact on at least diving tourism, so that they might ultimately contribute to an increase of CO2 emissions and thus to the material conditions of the rise of the Anthropocene.
On a conceptual level the sculptures manage to create the sensation of being confronted with human culture and art being overtaken by nonhuman processes and entities. However, their very possibility to become with other agents is essentially implied to be a result of human interventions. The central characteristics of the artist’s approach, which works essentially because it is situated in the subaquatic space of the oceans, is to make visible the impact of the human on ecosystems by being an impact themselves. The sculptures do not only provide an exteriorized, “comfortable” point of view on the Anthropocene but also form a part of the very world whose nature they intend to critically make visible.
Keeping in mind the argument that the ocean can be regarded as a “counterspace” of the geocentric Anthropocene concept, it might seem paradoxical that the conception of the future implied in deCaires Taylor’s sculptures is in line with the way scientific approaches tend to narrate the present-future-relationship. In this light these artworks do not so much bring into view the contingency of the “aparallel evolution” of humans and world,38 but rather provide a specific aesthetic actualization of it that loosely corresponds with popular scientific accounts on the Anthropocene.39 Although deCaires Taylor manages to develop an artistic, sculptural language for the “immanent,” “intimate” and postanthropocentric40 side of the Anthropocene, his sculptures do not explicitly include an aesthetic reflection on how their production process as well as the conditions of their reception depends on energy-consumptive and fossil-fuel driven techniques that reaffirm “nature” as resource. While it is characteristic for aesthetic practices engaged with the Anthropocene to partake—to some degree—in the ontological changes they bring into view, we argue that a self-reflexive and responsible form of aesthetics can be identified in approaches that articulate precisely this double bind between aesthetics and ontology. As we would like to stress such self-reflexivity is by no means dependent on explicit knowledge about the Anthropocene concept. On the contrary if we consider the Anthropocene not only as geological epoch or as earth system scientific hypothesis but also as a particular aesthetic condition, then as the latter, it would be characterized by the fact that our perceptual/experiential access to the earth has become graspable as being deeply entwined with earth’s materiality—to an extent at which the earth resists objectification, eludes aesthetic judgment, and thus also disturbs processes of human subjectification. Hence we suggest that grasping the Anthropocene condition through the lens of aesthetics means acknowledging the role of materiality and of how it constitutes, and is also constituted by, our modes, practices and techniques of seeing, hearing, and feeling the earth. The next section turns to an artist which we consider an avant-la-lettre articulator of Anthropocene aesthetics.
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)
Although the artist and essayist Robert Smithson had no direct reference to and knowledge about the Anthropocene debate, several scholars of the humanities include either passages of Smithson’s essayistic writing or situate his art works in an Anthropocene context.41 One reason for this can be found in Smithson’s interest in and essayistic reflections on geology, and in his ‘environmental,’ time-based approach toward art. Smithson is considered the spokesperson and central organ of the Earthworks Movement, a primarily US-American artist movement which has emerged primarily in New York City in the late 1960s, but also includes UK-based artists such as Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Hamish Fulton, or Chris Drury.42 The driving idea of this movement, which brought together artists with heterogeneous approaches, among them Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenhein, Richard Long, Walter de Maria, and Nancy Holt, was a critical reflection of ideas of art’s timelessness, which they assumed to be a characteristics of conventional modes of exhibiting and displaying art in art galleries and museums.43 Smithson’s own artistic approach, as a result, is based on the premise that art works should not be conceived as eternally lasting ‘containers’ of representations counteracting the processuality of matter, but as immanent parts of the earth or the earth’s forces. While this focus on temporal becoming and earthly matter already implies an affinity with (posthumanist) notions of the Anthropocene, an even more explicit reason can be found in an interview on Smithson’s probably most famous work, The Spiral Jetty (1970), in which he explains the central idea behind the art work’s realization, namely to “take on the persona of a geologic agent.”44 In doing so, the artist unknowingly sets a direct link to the Anthropocene’s central idea of anthropos as a collective biogeological force, while the major difference of Smithson’s approach suggests an intentional form of acting on (and with) the geologic matter.
Similar to deCaires Taylor’s sculptures, Spiral Jetty is an effect of a human-technologically induced intervention into nature.45 Smithson’s “sculpture” is a 460 meters long, about 4 meters wide spiral object built from approximately 6,500 tons of basalt rock, mud, and salt crystals into the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Documented by Smithson himself as a result of intense technological transformations of the geologic site of the Great Salt Lake, the Spiral Jetty itself can be considered as an anthropocenic imprint on the earth. Its causality, however, follows a logic that differs from deCaires Taylor’s sculptures and allows, as we argue, for a different sensory engagement with the Anthropocene. This is because the Spiral Jetty can be understood as an aftereffect of the material conditions of the site and of the way in which Smithson has conceived it. The artist has described his impressions of the site of the Great Salt Lake as a particular natural phenomenon:
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty.46
The choice of the site, as opposed to fixed concepts and ideas about how the art work has to appear, brings about the emergence of the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. The interplay of site and matter causes its final appearance. On the one hand, the art work could only be constructed from the materials available at the site, on the other hand, it had to fulfill certain requirements in terms of statics. The owner of the machines which were used to build the Spiral Jetty, Bob Phillips, was instructed to calculate how the location as well as the size of rocks and other matters would affect the production process of actual sculpture. Phillips explains that the site required the art work to be “eight feet wide at the top and [ . . . ] sloped enough to hold rock on the sides to prevent wave damage. We need to know how deep the water will be to size the rock large enough to withstand wave action.”47
In this sense, the Spiral Jetty is the result of an anthropogenic impact on the site. Nonetheless, the specific process of building was not entirely determined by Smithson himself as the artist-subject, but was also strongly affected by the geologic composition of the shore area of the Great Salt Lake. Media scholar Fernando Domínguez Rubio remarks,
the Spiral Jetty’s form emerged through the complex interaction between different actors and materials. In other words, they reveal that the construction of the jetty was not a simple and direct mechanical instantiation of an abstract idea dwelling in the artist’s mind, but a complex material practice unfolding through the attention to a developing set of practical problems.48
Whereas the becoming-nonhuman of deCaires Taylor’s sculptures originate from the artist’s autonomous decision and have still an anthropomorphic appearance, Smithson’s approach implies the possibilities of an anthropocenic and technologically produced art whose becoming is affected by complex interactions and interdependencies between site and artist. Smithson’s aim was not to simply place a sculpture in the environment but he wanted his artwork “to become an active variable in the environment, reconfiguring and reordering the landscape, and partaking in processes of sedimentation, crystallization and erosion.”49
The most crucial conceptual implication of Smithson’s work is its evocation of temporal scale. The Spiral Jetty’s “deep time” frame, i.e. its aesthetic function of serving as a material-semiotic interface between the present and the potentiality of a future to come, challenges the recipient’s sense of time.50 Smithson himself evokes his interest in the timescale of the Earth in his important essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), where he compares the “strata of the Earth” with “a jumbled museum” and argues that “[a text is] [e]mbedded in the sediment.”51 Thus, the Spiral Jetty can also be interpreted as a material-semiotic inscription into Earth history, or more precisely, into the prehistoric past of the Great Salt Lake that is itself a remnant of a far more vast, prehistoric sea, which in turn was a remnant of an even vaster ocean.
In the same way in which this prehistoric ocean has disappeared in the course of millions of years of geologic change, the Spiral Jetty will cease to be visible in the future as a result of processes of erosion and sedimentation. Significantly, the Spiral Jetty had temporarily sunken under the lake’s surface as early as two years after it had been built, only to reappear in the year 2002 as the result of a long-term drought. A central aspect of the Spiral Jetty, and of a larger part of Smithson’s work, is its entropic character.52 Kathryn Yusoff and Jennifer Gabrys explain that “[e]ven the most inert objects [of Smithson’s art work] are made up of the spin of microscopic particles, which will eventually split, decay and transform. From steel to rust, from machine to grit, Smithson mobilizes matter toward collapse.”53 Hence, the Spiral Jetty, understood as a human imprint on the geology of the site, does not obstruct processes of geologic becoming, rather it is subjected to them and is steering toward its own future unmaking.
Regarded as an inscription, the sculpture leads to the question whether future recipients would hypothetically interpret the Spiral Jetty as a record of the Anthropocene. This, again, stands in close conceptual proximity to deCaires Taylor’s sculptures, but with a clear difference. First of all, the Spiral Jetty as a human-induced transformation of the landscape does not have its visual correlate in the sculpture’s appearance. In contrast to the sculptures of deCaires Taylor, the isomorphic shape of the Jetty is, in itself, recognizable as a form of interference with the landscape, but not as a distinctly anthropomorphic form of inscription. Secondly, while deCaires Taylor’s sculptures serve the function of leaving behind a trace, a material record of the Anthropocene to make visible and materialize human impact in the ocean, the Spiral Jetty is directed toward its future undermining by geologic forces, i.e. also toward an overwriting of the human and technological causes of its existence. The Spiral Jetty can thus also be considered as an art work whose temporal becoming is indifferent to and partially independent from human agency, but, contrary to deCaires Taylor, this indifference and independence is not conceptually revoked by the idea of a future recipient who extrapolates from her/his contemplation of the potential ruins of the art work a former time of human significance. In this light, the Spiral Jetty sheds light on the contingency of future reading operations, which will, if they will ever take place, eventually be based on entirely different, nonhuman premises and practices. Smithson therefore conceptualizes the future as a spatiotemporal configuration indifferent to and unaffected by human enquiry of an anthropocenic present.
However, it is important to acknowledge that the Spiral Jetty does not only imply a future indifferent to potential future recipients. It more generally stands in contradiction to theoretical approaches that consider the aesthetic experience of immersion and immanence as a form of more immediate interaction between an aesthetic object and the recipient/subject. Instead of functioning as a local aesthetic retreat for direct interaction, the actual Spiral Jetty, as a material sculpture, seems to resist immediate forms of reception in various ways. Not only has it disappeared from the lake’s surface for decades, but already its location at the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake is not readily accessible. Texts about the Spiral Jetty mention that considerable planning is required to reach the distant location,54 and also that it would be contra-intuitive to assume the existence of an iconic art work in an area which is marked by deserted oil drilling facilities, trailers, cars, and other ruinous archives of a more lively past. The aesthetic experience of the Spiral Jetty is highly mediated: without cartographic devices such as road signs and road maps, and without a functioning and reliable car engine (which runs on earth resources), it would simply remain inaccessible to direct interaction. Hence, the means of getting to experience the Spiral Jetty are an intrinsic part of the actual aesthetic experience—the challenging journey, which in most cases starts in Salt Lake City, appears to be an integral part of Smithson’s aesthetic concept. Contrary to Smithson himself, whose foot walk to the center of the Spiral Jetty has been well documented by a video camera filming from the aerial point of view of a helicopter in the same-titled film Spiral Jetty, most human beings will not have the chance to experience the material site. Instead, they experience the Jetty through the vast amount of photographic images widely available on the Internet. In most cases, such images are shot from an aerial perspective to grasp the sculpure’s scale, suggesting that the experienceability of the Jetty is irreducible to a small-scale, intimate sphere of direct interaction with the actual sculpture. Such modes of reception do not appear to stand in conflict with Smithson’s intentions, the essay, the photographic documentation and the film form an intrinsic part of the actual artwork. To be more precise: the processes of documenting the production process as well as the finalized Spiral Jetty are by no means secondary to the actual sculpture, rather they are, for most recipients, the primary way to be granted experiential access to it. The aesthetics of the Spiral Jetty is an always already mediated one, and part of this mediated experience is an insight into the massive transformations of the landscape required to build the sculpture. Smithson invites recipients to participate in how an aesthetic articulation of geologic becoming can quite literally leave a material impact on the earth itself. In this respect, the Jetty also allows reflection on the materiality of mediation in general. The Spiral Jetty might be indifferent to future recipients, but the technological means of seeing it in its mediated form—photography, satellite imagery, servers, and so on—in one way or another might continue to leave their mark on how geologic and earth systemic processes evolve throughout deep times beyond human reach.
In the introduction to this article, we suggested that the scope of understanding the Anthropocene in its aesthetic dimension requires taking into account the sensation of being affected by a rapidly changing world. The temporal becoming of entanglements at planetary scale entails the potentiality of a future indifferent to humanity’s existence and therefore brings into view the fragility of the subject-object structure of aesthetic judgment. We have shown that the Anthropocene primarily confronts humans with sensations of the vast scale of human impact on the planet through an array of aesthetic and epistemic techniques—which often draw on a seemingly transcendent, yet in reality deeply grounded, point of view “from above.” Instead of rejecting such a point of view we have argued that a focus on more “embedded” aesthetic articulations might show that any engagement with aesthetics in the context of the Anthropocene should not focus on asking which scale is more (or less) adequate in depicting forms of earthly becoming, but in acknowledging how any aesthetic operation is simultaneously a material and ontological contribution to the causation of the Anthropocene. While images that depict the earth from a distant viewpoint usually do not reflect on this form of causation, we have shown that more grounded approaches have the potential to exhibit how their efforts of bringing earthly processes into sensory experience leave their mark in the materiality of the earth.
DeCaires Taylor’s sculptures allow for the sensation of being confronted with a future in which humans are continuously overtaken by and submerged into nonhuman assemblages, while at the same time affirming anthropogenic activity as the condition of such a development. Nevertheless, the strategy of making visible human impact on the subaquatic space as a cause of a process of multispecies becoming leads to the conceptual and aesthetic problem that the future at stake is one that ultimately reaffirms the human imprint of the process on a visual level and therefore vaguely suggests a continuity between human significance in the present and the readibility of this significance in the future. Even more importantly we argued that deCaires Taylor’s anthropomorphic sculptures are an impact in themselves—an impact, however, which is not made explicit for recipients. The artist’s approach shows a deep contradiction between aesthetics and ontology that could only be solved by the becoming-immaterial of aesthetic techniques. This is undoubtedly a challenge in a world in which the supposed immateriality of clouds, networks, and data is known to be physically traceable to hardware. Depicting and articulating posthuman forms of mutual entanglement that defy any anthropocentric relationship with earth stands in stark contrast to the fact that aesthetics is always embedded within the very same materiality whose complex and processual nature it reveals. The critical objection here is not that aesthetic practices should avoid having an impact on the situation they depict. Clearly every act of visualization, projection, depiction, and so on, as was mentioned in the beginning, is to a certain degree dependent on energy and matter. But aesthetic practices—be they scientific or artistic—should be aware of their own embeddedness within, and responsibility for, the earth’s materiality. This responsibility finds itself articulated in the work of Robert Smithson, an avant-la-lettre artist-thinker of the Anthropocene. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty unfolds a geoaesthetics that confronts recipients with a form of becoming whose possible outcome allows for a rather critical and—compared to deCaires Taylor—postanthropocentric view of the Anthropocene. Although an essential characteristic of both artist’s work is the necessity to actively transform the natural site Smithson allows recipients to reflect more critically on how aesthetics is folded into earth’s materiality. While deCaires Taylor’s sculptures make visible human impact by materializing it in an anthropomorphic shape, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty materializes the process of making invisible and of undoing human impact that has—starting from the production process—“always already” been dissolved into complex relationships between artist and site, matter and technologies, calculations and concepts. The Spiral Jetty starts from an anthropogenic intervention, but at the same time rejects the temporal continuity of human significance by conceding the Spiral Jetty to be entirely taken over by and subjected to geologic processes. And at the same time, the aspect of mediation is of crucial importance—the Spiral Jetty, as we have shown, is far more than a sculpture. It is precisely the opportunity to sense, think, and reflect on the human subject as a condition for the coupling of geology and aesthetics, and simultaneously as a condition of being always already folded into nonhuman assemblages. This is achieved through the means of mediation that bring recipients to experience not only the Jetty itself but also as the ontological and material effects its production process had on the site. A form of aesthetic responsibility toward the complexities of the Anthropocene is found in this explicit and strategic reflection of how aesthetics interacts with ontology and materiality.
We wish to thank Peter H. Feindt for his insightful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. This article draws on results from the research project “Narratives of the Anthropocene in Science and Literature,” which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) under grant number DU 320/8–1.
On the materiality of media technologies as well as on their own “footprint,” see Parikka, Geology of Media.
Despite the dominance of its earth systemic scientific implications, the Anthropocene concept appears to a larger nonscientific audience as an epistemic turn toward social and cultural, i.e., human processes, entities, and systems. See Dürbeck and Hüpkes, The Anthropocenic Turn.
Morton, Hyberobjects, 1, 11, and 12.
See, e.g., Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us.
For a broader artistic approach to the environment and land art, see for instance the works of Agnes Denes, Ana Mendieta, Betty Beaumont, or Betsy Damon.
For a detailed engagement with the site-nonsite fragmentational logic of the Spiral Jetty, see the second chapter of Boetzkes, The Ethics of Earth Art.
On the sense of scale and size that the Spiral Jetty evokes, see the first chapter of Hogan, The Spiral Jetta.
Cf. Turpin, “Robert Smithson’s Abstract Geology,” 178. On the role of entropy in Robert Smithson’s work, see also Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and John Johnston, “Gravity’s Rainbow and the Spiral Jetty,” 69.