Contemporary conceptual artist Mario Garcia Torres, who lives and works in Mexico City, has built a career examining the works of artists past, incorporating their work and extending conversations that began decades ago. Most recently, he looked into the earthworks of Robert Smithson (1938-1973), in particular the projects Smithson envisioned for Texas.
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth owns many of Smithson’s drawings, and Garcia Torres mined this trove to construct his Focus exhibition at the Modern.
There was a large Smithson piece planned for Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, a series of 11 asphalt squares of increasing size placed between the airport runways, but it died during a series of contractual changes at the facility.
A semicircular earthwork, Amarillo Ramp, was built posthumously in 1973. The half-circle of mounded dirt that ascends 15 feet still exists, although it has been neglected and subjected to years of harsh weather conditions in the Texas Panhandle.
Garcia Torres created a film, Schlieren Plot, using both of Smithson’s Texas projects as a vehicle for his story line. The schlieren effect is a physical theory that explains why a transparent medium, such as a gas, can sometimes be visible when it collides with a material of a different density. A heat mirage is due to the schlieren effect.
It is an apt reference to Smithson’s works, as they are quite transient, their erosion begins almost upon completion, and it is their physical decomposition from order to disorder that is their legacy.
Garcia Torres begins his film at the Menil Collection in Houston, showing a gardener tending the plants and looking at the artworks through the humidity-streaked window glass. He is outside, as moist as the plant leaves; the art inside is almost hermetically sealed.
The gardener travels to Dallas and imagines the creation of the Smithson proposed earthwork for the airport. Garcia superimposes the drawings over film footage of taxiing planes. Smithson’s vision comes to a ghostly half-life.
The gardener travels across West Texas, at night, during a raging storm. The horizon is lit by random streaks of lightning as the windshield wipers fail to keep up with the pelting rain.
It is one of those wonderfully dramatic and frightening Texas travelogues that makes the body feel quite vulnerable to the elements.
Garcia Torres notes in his narration of the film that Texas is a stage for great dramas, and questions whether a vision like lightning can only be understood once they seem to have been extinguished. He posits that extreme heat deforms our perception of truth.
Desolation and tragedy
It is why Smithson chose the location he did for Amarillo Ramp. It is a desolate area of red, rocky earth, and the best view of the Ramp is from the air, the same space that Smithson was viewing it from when his helicopter crashed and he was killed.
The tragedy imbues the site with a great desolation.
Garcia Torres wrote a song for the soundtrack, and the chorus has the melancholy words, “Come, come, come entropy, come, come, closer to me.” The soundtrack was recorded and the resulting CDs are stacked in packing boxes in the gallery, replicating the simplicity of Smithson’s earthworks.
Nestled behind the stack is an LED thermometer recording the temperature outside the museum. He wanted a subtle yet potent reminder of the intense heat of Smithson’s locations. The chill, clean air of the museum was not Smithson’s preferred stage, but it is Garcia’s.
His reconstruction and assimilation of Smithson’s projects paired with his own storyboards and film bring a new conversation and awareness of Smithson’s 40-year-old work that would be almost physically impossible otherwise.
Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113