A Eulogy for Robert Smithson: The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Tour of the Meadowlands
08.12.2012, 10:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Saturday night FOP had the pleasure of attending a public talk by Matt Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), at Studio-X.  There, Matt announced CLUI’s latest project on New Jersey’s Meadowlands.  Free copies of CLUI’s interpretive Meadowlands maps were distributed at the talk, and they can be downloaded free from the project webpage.

CLUI describes the Meadowlands as, “the closest open landscape to the architectural mass of Manhattan, just two miles away. Covering around 35 square miles, the Meadowlands are similar in size, and orientation, to their urban doppelganger. Unlike the highly designed and managed space of the city however, the modern Meadowlands formed more by incident, accident, and happenstance.”

Matt’s presentation at Studio-X last night took on a new cadence and tenor compared to previous CLUI presentations we’ve attended.  In the 90 minute slide show, Matt intoned a mesmerizing litany of roads and buildings, illustrated by images that glided past our eyes in a smooth and regular succession. It seemed as if the string of urban, suburban and industrial landscape photos, some aerial, some from ground level, could unfurl forever. Matt’s voice offered a calm, evenly pitched recitation of what he described as “personal” expeditions into the Meadowlands over the past couple of years, requiring countless of hours of driving and resulting in piles of research.

the van

Today, in the light of a new day, we had the opportunity to take to the road and traverse the Meadowlands landscape in CLUI’s 15-person rental van. Matt’s voice provided the day’s soundtrack, fed through the van’s speaker system via a hands-free head-set. Not unlike the presentation the night before, today’s tour was swamp-like in form, possibly modeled after the landscape we toured. Spontaneously we became urban archaeologists seeking disappeared buildings and traces of the past that have been absorbed into the muck of the Meadowlands.  The entire day had the feel of a blurry meditation, one continuous transit without any specific destination. We couldn’t really track where we were from inside the van. There were streams of indecipherable exit ramps, clover-leaf loops, fenced off zones, dead ends, and banal industrial strips. It seems you can’t really “arrive” at the Meadowlands. It’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. Many of the buildings and views were eclipsed by window glares and truncated by our constant movement—past guard rails, traffic, trees and waving grasses of invasive species. The sheer quantity of buildings and sites (more than 75) noted on the newly released map makes it impossible to take in the Meadowlands-according-to-CLUI’s “points of interest” in one drive through.  Empty industrial and infrastructural megastructures, sprawling parking lots, and abandoned shopping malls populated the horizon.

As the day wore on, we sunk deeper into the swampy geologic and biologic realities of the subsiding landscape, to the tune of a cascade of closed diners, big box stores, data parks, superfund sites, power plants, junk mail dispatch centers, and outdated garbage technologies. Garbage, waste, and trash are literally embedded within the soil of the Meadowlands—and the ever-growing human-made hills of trash have become tall enough to obscure the views between here and there, New Jersey and Manhattan. A nine-minute ride from Penn Station, the Meadowlands is a world apart that runs parallel to New York City, and is materially bound to it, primarily through refuse.

Mid-way through the day, we found ourselves at an unremarkable cemetery on the West Side of the Meadowlands. Here, we stepped out of the van and stood before the grave of Robert Smithson, one of the most significant artists in the Land Art movement of the 1970s. His gravestone is humble and remarkably devoid of any feature that might invoke his obsession with the particularities of the geologic. Smithson’s work is a mighty precursor to so much of the contemporary art being made today, a direct catalyst for Land Use Interpretation—as well as for the geologic interests of FOP.

In 1967, Smithson wrote, in “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey:”

“That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”

This insight continues to ring true today in complicated ways, as the types and varieties of ruins have only proliferated.  Smithson gave us eyes to see them as ruins at all.

By the end of the day we were struck with a feeling that, taken together, Matt’s Studio-X ruminations, the day-long interpretive tour, and CLUI’s investment and time in this place compose a eulogy of sorts, for Robert Smithson and for the remarkable unremarkableness of this “overlooked” place.

a mound of garbage become hill in the Meadowlands

a wishful sighting of a possible remnant of the old Penn Station, in the swamps of the Meadowlands

Manhattan’s skyline, never far from view

the quarried Laurel Hill, the largest natural hill in the Meadowlands

view from NJ Transit, to the Meadowlands

*all images this page FOP 2012

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