‘Incidents of Mirror Travel in The Yucatan’ by Robert Smithson

In the rear-view mirror appeared Tezcatlipoca – demiurge of the ‘smoking mirror.’ ‘All those guidebooks are of no use,’ said Tezcatlipoca. ‘You must travel at random, like the first Mayans; you risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art.’

Is this an essay, a travelogue, an artwork or a story? Does the distinction even matter?

Robert Smithson is known as one of the most important American artists of the post-war period, a pioneer of Minimalism, Conceptual and Land Art. But he was also a brilliant critic, theorist and writer. Smithson’s best writing is hallucinatory, speculative and obsessive. ‘Incidents of Mirror-Travel in The Yucatan’ describes a journey during which the artist stops to make a series of artworks by placing mirrors in the landscape so that reality is reflected, fractured, and time is distorted or erased. Originally published in Artforum, the text was illustrated with Smithson’s photographs of these ’mirror displacements.’ Narrative progress is frustrated by digression after digression, as multiple reference points pile up and collapse in upon one another. Along the way, Smithson muses on the camera as a “portable tomb”, the properties of enantiomorphs, and space as “the remains, or corpse, of time”, amongst many other things. It is disorientating and intoxicating.

Smithson had books by both Borges and Ballard in his library. As an aside, for the artist Tacita Dean’s fascinating insight into the relationship between Ballard and Smithson, see here.

First published in Artforum, Sept 1969, and available to read here. Collected in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996

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