Entropy and poetic vulnerability

Paper presented at the Drawing International Brisbane Symposium 2015

by Ambrose Reisch

On a recent visit to the Spiral Jetty in Utah, I was struck how similar the experience of the Jetty was to the calligrams by Guillaume Apollinaire. The exposure over time had left the Jetty vulnerable and endearing. It did not present itself as a monument rather as a poetic inflection. In this context, it raised a dialogue between visual and poetic experience, between the objective manifestation of the whole and the subjective reading of the parts.  

    “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” (Chesterton 1911, 70) Chesterton wrote thisin response to his observations that the subject of cheese is neglected in European literature. He refers to his experience of having stayed at four different inns, during a lecture tour in England. He found that the taste of cheese in each case was purposefully subjective and peculiar to that place. He suggests cheese should inspire elevated discourse for that very reason. The value of subjectivity, seems to be the concern here.  It seems absurd at first but on reflection it seems quite compelling as a proposition.  Here he makes use of what can only be considered as absurd, namely the association of cheese with literature. But he does that purposefully to present it as a catalyst to broaden the field of observation and debate.
Drawing is such a catalyst as it is equipped to venture into the absurd and is able to navigate intuitively.  I propose to navigate intuitively to draw a connection between my experience at the Spiral Jetty in Utah, the Calligrams of Apollinaire and the drawings in my notation books. They transcend different times and places, they taste different and are physically different. Though their external differences are noted, it is their subjective underbelly that shares a common poetic vulnerability. This is a subjective landscape of indecision, of remoteness and intuitive actions.  This vulnerability and subjectivity that parallels experience is the underlying thread to this paper. “Much of the mystery of drawing lies in its inherently subjective nature. Drawn marks provide parallels with experience” (Lambert 1981, 3). 
In this context, I propose that the mechanics of drawings is the means by which we make or record a mark or series of marks across a surface, or scope a space, for the purpose of communicating an idea. Making that mark for the intention of drawing or writing are ‘Markings’ that take on a spatial existence on the page (Tisseron 1994 29).  

 Fig 1:    Flight 580  Book 55 2005 

 Fig 2:   Arkaroola   Book 76 2014


 At the core of my drawing practice are my notation books. The drawings in one’s drawing books are by nature remote from the public eye. It is within these pages that ideas and observations are directly connected to time and real life experiences (Figures 1,2). One engages this process well below the radar of artistic expectations and public oration. The conditions and the process that inform what is drawn or written into these books, are invariably random and diverse, as opportunity and changing conditions prevail. 
As a consequence the pages are littered with such dialectics as, drawing, writing, recording and commenting—words and images all in the same mix. The subjectivity of the entries on these pages represents an archive for all my ponderous indulgences. They also provide a foundation and catalyst for future work, and though they are not necessarily essential they are always relevant. 
In November last year, Miriam and I flew to Utah for the purpose of visiting the Spiral Jetty. I was then unaware what effect the experience of visiting the Spiral would have for me. Created by Robert Smithson in 1970 it is one of the most seminal Land artworks in the 20th century. It is known to most of us primarily as an image, a motif and symbol of land Art because of a series of photographs taken by Gianfranco Gorgoni in 1970. In addition, Smithson with the film maker, Bob Fiore, shot a film of the making of the spiral with a tenacious rambling ‘voice over’ that gives the thirty-four minute film an endearing ‘B grade’ movie rating. He was very aware of the power of documentation and saw the film as an integral part of the overall Spiral project. ‘’It became known, primarily through secondary means, that is, those ubiquitous photographs, as well as Smithson’s own film and essay, rather than through direct experience’’ (Cooke 2005  53). 

Fig 3a - Miriam and Ambrose en-route to the Jetty NOV 21 2014 

The location of the site is remote and difficult to access. For me it was this remoteness and isolation that was a contributing factor in its allure. It is located at Rozel Pt. on the Great Salt Lake approx. 2.5 hours’ drive north of Salt Lake City. 
In preparation I researched the location and the conditions of the roadway and the terrain. It was 10am when we set out, up the interstate and turned off at Corrine towards the Golden Spike National Park. It is here once you passed the Golden Spike that the pilgrimage went into a lower gear. The road is quietly awake. It narrows and faithfully follows the landscape, intuitively over and around the rise and fall, like a drawn pencil line. A continuous soft grey pencil line. This vast and unique landscape became more apparent as we drove. Even Smithson comments on “the uncanny immensity unlike the other landscapes we had seen”  (Smithson 1972 8). It was like going back to 1970. We were in a state of heightened awareness, seduced by the sound of the car wheels on the gravel road in a repetitive chant.  

Fig.3  'on the road'   Nov. 21 2014  (a 3 min. video of driving to the Spiral.)

The idea of the Spiral was as a drawing, a very large drawing, a poetic gesture, with dump trucks and rocks, drawn out onto the salt lake. It was never a spectacle. In this way I imagined it as a vulnerable entity that, though it was complicit with scientific concerns, it was poetic in its realization. Since its creation in 1970 it suffered on occasion a diminished reputation, as it lay for nearly thirty years immersed in the lake. Reviews and reports that I had read were ambivalent and at times derogatory. The journal, American Scientist, wrote a disparaging report suggesting it was ‘’essentially pointless’’ (Chianese 2013, 20) and others express their disappointment as to the scale and consequently the impact. “I looked around, still overwhelmed by the works non-monumentality’’ (Hogan 2008, 20).  How can something so unique be considered, so diminished? 

Figure 4 Spiral Jetty Rozel Pt.  Nov.21 2014 

Figure 5 Spiral Jetty (detail)  Nov.21 2014 

On seeing the jetty for the first time it was a thrill (Figure 3, 4). The sight of it impressed itself far beyond my expectations. Being there, it at once seeps into your space like the words from a poet, profoundly and indiscriminately. The exposure over time had made the Spiral vulnerable and endearing in its fragility. It did not present itself as a monument to ego or greatness rather as a profound poetic inflection. Smithson was particularly sensitive to the natural criteria of this site, as he didn’t want to ‘’impose the work onto the site but rather expose it’’ (Cooke 2005).  
With little or no human intervention since its creation, the Spiral had undergone a massive natural metamorphosis (Figure 5). As a natural laboratory the salt lake and weather cycles have impacted and redefined the work as was expected. The soil that had been carted there by dump trucks in 1970 had been washed away. What was left were the basalt rocks, exposed and encrusted in salt crystals in-situ on the dry salt lake bed. Smithson makes reference to the rocks during an interview with Moira Bath, just before his untimely death. ‘”Spiral Jetty was strong enough to take care of itself, adding, because it is 80 percent rock, it won’t erode completely’’ (Sanford 2004).  
The Spiral as a Motif is not dissimilar to the Calligrammes by Apollinaire. In a calligram the typeface and spatial arrangement of the words on a page plays just as much of a role in the meaning of each poem as the words themselves. Here at the site of the Spiral, one is immediately aware of a human drawing on the landscape. This did not suggest itself until I visited the site. The Spiral motif is drawn out into the disparate salt lake just as Apollinaire’s words are drawn out onto the empty page (Figure 6). 

Figure 6  Jetty with Calligrams  Nov.21 2014

This in its most superficial sense acts as a visual bridge between the two. But the more profound connection is not the spiral as a motif but the physicality of the parts that underpins this connection. Being onsite makes you privy to the indecisions and hesitations that inform its extrinsic properties, how it falls together and interfaces with the site.  The basalt rocks in the Spiral are like words, both nouns and verbs are inseparable, arranged in the author’s desired configurations. During the construction, in the words of Bob Phillips, the contractor that built the Spiral, ‘Smithson was known to ... raise each rock up and roll it around, then he would move this one, change that one until it looked exactly right’ (Sanford 2004).   For both the Spiral and the calligrams the words and the basalt rocks break with conventional formation and are laid-out, organised to take on a contrived spatial existence (Figure 7). 

Figure 7  Il Pleut  Guillaume Apollinaire

The result of the Spiral having undergone extreme exposure over forty-five years, being submerged for large periods, the rocks caked in salt crystals and overall diminished by erosion stands as a testament to Smithson’s interest in entropy.  
This endorsement in the diminution of the object and consequential vulnerability raises a dialogue between visual and poetic experience. Between the objective manifestations of the whole, in this case, the Spiral as Motif, and the subjective reading of the parts, Smithson’s chant in his narration during his film, East, (south, west, north), mud, salt, crystals, rocks, water, has never seemed more apt (Smithson 1970 video).  His awareness and commitment to the elemental parts of the work is in every way parallel to the poet’s concern for his/her words, selecting them and moving them about to form the desired syntax. 
The 2nd law of Thermodynamics has been about since the mid-18th century. Though it is a theory developed within the scientific community it is not unusual for the arts’ community to embrace such a theory. 
It has not gone unnoticed amongst the artist and writers and thinkers of the past century (Figure 8). Cambon explains. ‘’Historical entropy, so well-known to writers like Spengler, Huizinga or Heidegger, was midwife at our poets birth. Ungaretti, after a Parisian start which acquainted him with Guillaume Apollinaire and with the direct heritage of Baudelaire and Mallarme was initiated to the mysteries of carnage in the Carso trenches….’’(Cambon1960 231-238). This awareness and exposure to the idea of irreversible degeneration that entropy suggests, across the full spectrum of human arts and sciences, runs parallel with human spiritual survival. The poet champions this, working at the coalface of entropy describing and negotiating the detritus of war, the fragility of love and the inevitability of death. This is even more poignant a comparison with the vulnerability of the poet’s disposition, his verse encrusted and empathetic, not with salt crystals but with the inconsolable reality of experience. 

Figure 8  Ceur couronne et mir   Guillaume Apollinaire

Figure 9  'artists against sedition law'  Book 57 2005 

Figure 10  Boxing Day  Book 74 2013 

The experience at the Spiral Jetty, and making these connections with Apollinaire’s calligrams, has reinforced the value of the subjective experience and in turn has given substance to 'the act of drawing' which happens at the coalface of experience (Figures 9,10). Here the connection between the spiral Jetty, the calligrams and the notation books is underpinned by their individual experiences, actions and intentions. 'Drawing', as a means by which we frame our thoughts, brings together the poet’s typeface, as in Apollinaire's calligrams,  with the physicality of rocks of the Spiral Jetty, and the musing of everyday trivial things as recorded in the notation books. With each there is a symbiosis with experience. It is here at this subjective level that drawing as an extension of thinking, gives us a platform to participate in the larger dialogue. This is where the poet draws and the artist writes and those basalt rocks at Rozel Pt. take us back into a paleolithic history.

References: Apollinaire, Guillaume. 1918. Calligrammes, Poems of Peace and War 19131916. Mercure de France Paris. Cambon, Glauca. 1960. “Ungaretti, Montale and lady Entropy”.  Italica vol 37 no.4 American Association of Teachers of Italian. Chesterton, G.K. 1911. Alarms and Discursions. Methuen & Co. London. Chianese, Robert Louis. 2013 Jan.-Feb. ‘Changeable, perhaps even erasable, by time, how permanent should Earth Art be?’.  American Scientist vol.101 number 1. Cooke, Lynne 2005, ‘A position of elsewhere.’ Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty.  DIA Art Foundation/ University of California Press. Hogan, Erin  2008.  Spiral Jetta. University of Chicago Press.  Lambert, Susan. 1981. Drawing Technique & Purpose. Victoria and Albert Museum England. Smithson, Robert. 1970 The Spiral Jetty (Video). Electronic Arts Intermix. Smithson, Robert. 1972. Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty.  DIA Art Foundation/ University of California Press. Sandford, Melissa. 2004 ‘The Salt of the Earth’. Salt Lake City Tribune, Robert Smithson.com/essays/Sanford.htm. Tisseron, Serge. 1994. ‘All writing is drawing: The spatial development of the Manuscript’. Yale French Studies, No. 84, Boundaries: Writing & Drawing (1994) Yale Uni. Press.   

Image List:
Figure 1 Ambrose Reisch Flight 580  Drawing book 55 2005 (felt pen 21x 14.8cm).   Figure 2 Ambrose Reisch Arkaroola Drawing Book 76  2014 (pen, w/c 21x 14.8cm).Fig 3a - Miriam and Ambrose en-route to the Jetty Nov. 21 2014   Figure 3 Ambrose Reisch 'on the road' Nov. 21  2014 Video (3minutes)  Figure 4 Ambrose Reisch Rozel Pt. Spiral Jetty Nov.21  2014  (Digital photograph). Figure 5 Spiral Jetty(detail)  Nov.21  2014  (Digital photograph). Figure 6 Ambrose Reisch Spiral Jetty with Calligrams Nov. 21  2014  (Digital photograph).  Figure 7 Il pleut  Guillaume Apollinaire. Figure 8 Ceur couronne et mirior  Guillaume Apollinaire.  Figure 9 Ambrose Reisch 'artists against sedition' … Drawing Book 57 2005 (pen, w/c 21x 14.8cm).  Figure 10 Ambrose Reisch Boxing Day Drawing book 74  2013 (pen, w/c 21x 14.8cm).