Chapter 06: Entropy, Robert Smithson and Matta-Clark

Entropy, Robert Smithson and Matta-Clark

I should now like to prove the irreversibility of eternity by using a jejeune experiment for proving entropy. Picture in your mind’s eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be the restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy. Of course, if we filmed such an experiment we could prove the reversibility of eternity by showing the film backwards, but then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility.

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson, The Monuments of Passaic, Artforum 7, no: 4:48-51, Dec 1967; also Nancy Holt (ed), The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York University Press, New York 1979, pp.52-57; reprinted in Robert Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture, Cornell University Press, New York 1981, pp.90-94

Robert Smithson, Partially Buried Woodshed (8 years after creation)

Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque

There lies in the work of Matta-Clark a parallel with the work of Robert Smithson. Smithson worked with the strategies of pouring, of scattering, of working into the corners, rather than into the centre. There is a tension that exists in the work of Matta-Clark and Smithson; the tension between the structure and its disintegration, between form and its decomposition, between totality and the fragment, and between the idea of the centre and the edge or the limit.

Smithson was the entropologist par excellence. He inscribed all his work with a sense of an irreversibility of the dissolution of things, and yet at the same time worked against that, to a certain extent, to provide images and ideas which encapsulated a different sense of time.

Thermodynamics is the branch of Physics dealing with heat and temperature. The second law of thermodynamics expresses the irreversibility of processes. A mathematically equivalent form of the second law is that entropy always increases in any closed system not in equilibrium, and remains constant for a system which is in equilibrium. Alan Bullock, Oliver Stallybrass, Stephen Trombley (eds), The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, Fontana Press, London 1988, p.275 Entropy can be interpreted as the measure of disorder among the atoms which make up the system, since an initially ordered state is virtually certain to randomize as time proceeds.

The quantity of entropy in a system such as the universe thus always increases. This can be translated as disorder always arises out of order. Taking Smithson’s analogy of the boy in the sand box, the amount of entropy increases as the black and white sand particles become increasingly mixed. The order of the black and white sand divided in the sand box can easily become disordered by the boy running around. But this ordered state is almost impossible to re-achieve. For a further explanation of entropy, see Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London 1988, or John D. Barrow, Theories of Everything, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991

Such an idea of entropy was encapsulated in the work Partially Buried Woodshed. Smithson was offered a shed on the edge of a University campus in Kent State, Ohio, in 1970, just before the Ohio shootings. The work was constituted by him ordering a bulldozer, and burying the woodshed with mounds of earth, until the moment when the central beam of the shed had cracked. This can be regarded as the point at which the structure had disintegrated, which was the defining moment when the work was complete. Smithson, in writing about the work, provided a definition of entropy;

there’s no way you can really piece it back together again.

Robert Smithson, Entropy Made Visible, in Nancy Holt, op. cit., p.189

Another entropological work by Smithson was a slide/lecture show given to architectural students at the University of Utah, about the Hotel Palenque, Yucatan, Mexico. Smithson had been invited to Yucatan perhaps with the expectation that he would make a work about the mine ruins there, since his interest in the ruins was well documented. But he actually made his work about the Hotel Palenque, the hotel where he was staying, which fascinated him because it seemed to him the embodiment of entropy. The hotel was still being built at one end, and yet was already dissolving, being encroached by nature, and crumbling at the other end; a perfect juxtaposition of construction and deconstruction, or of form and decomposition.

Matta-Clark’s work was infused with an understanding of the processes resulting in the increase of entropy. His cuttings stopped just short of realizing the potential entropy contained within a building; the cuts explored and displayed the structure, but did not allow the structure to pass beyond the point of irreversibility. This is similar to Wigley’s assertion that the flaws, or contamination by the Deconstructivist ‘alien’, do not lead to the collapse of the structure.

The structure is shaken, but does not collapse. It is just pushed to the point where it becomes unsettling.

Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, in Andreas Papadakis (ed), Deconstruction; Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.134

However, the impurity in Deconstructivism is exposed by a ‘combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture. …But this violence…is not a fracturing, or slicing, or fragmentation, or piercing.’ ibid., p.133 The contamination within Deconstructivism is therefore not the result of an entropological process, thus differentiating Deconstructivism from Matta-Clark’s de-composition.


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