The Sixties in the Mirror, Part II

Sam Durant, Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock), 1998.

dirt & mirrors made from rock.

History is representational, while time is abstract; both of these artifices may be found in museums, where they span everybody’s own vacancy. The museum undermines one’s confidence in sense-data and erodes the impression of textures upon which our sensations exist. Memories of ‘excitement’ seem to promise something, but nothing is always the result. Those with exhausted memories will know the astonishment.” – Robert Smithson

…the information tends to obliterate itself so that there is obviously information there, but the information is so overwhelming in terms of its physicality that it tends to lose itself. – Robert Smithson

…you have essentially a gathering taking place out of the scattering.…I’m consolidating the scattering and heightening the loss of focus. – Robert Smithson

The sites are receding into the nonesites and the nonesites are receding back to the sites. – Robert Smithson

In Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock), Sam Durant borrows directly from Robert Smithson’s famous Yucatan Mirror Displacements and Partially Buried Woodshed to explore the meaning of the 1960s counterculture.

Two mirrors on the floor are covered, partially, in piles of dirt. Two audio speakers below each mirror amplify looping recordings: in one channel, Mick Jagger pleads with the audience at the violent Altamont concert to be cool and not push each other around; in the other, Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney) announces in a chipper voice that he and his Hog Farm will serve breakfast in bed for 400,000 at Woodstock.

On one level, the art is an elaboration of “Smithsonian” theme of entropy. The mirrors, which Smithson photographed in various natural landscapes in the Yucatan and elsewhere, suggest the ways that the counterculture remains with us, albeit refracted from the past (one crucial difference in the use of mirrors is that Smithson photographed his, then obliterated them, whereas Durant preserves them for us in a museum). But the dirt proposes that this reflective memory continues to grow only more murky with time. The memory of the counterculture is covered with debris, time, rot. It is composting, partially buried (though partially visible as well), and, most of all, obstructed.

Standing before Durant’s piece, however, the references to Smithson began to fade into the visual background. It was the sound of Jagger and Gravy’s voices, in a kind of relentless duet, that took over.

One would think that the two voices, their tones rising and sinking, blending and diverging, would create a sense of infinite regress, countercultural despair and hope so conflated that they became entropic, at least according to Smithson’s notion of the term.

But instead, something else quite unexpected happened. Rather than spiraling into a jetty of confusion and chaos, the two voices looped into tighter and tighter counterpoint. They did not grow senseless, but rather made increasing sense. A listener began to understand that the counterculture, at least in memory, is poised forever between these two events (in reality, as historian Michael Frisch has explained, they were less dichotomous than we think).

Innocence and guilt, sustenance and panic, heaven and disaster, communality and duplicity—hearing Jagger and Gravy’s repeating voices, these binaries became arpeggios of climbing and falling tones, scales of suspended judgment, two limits in a span across divides, two speakers swirling together, ascending and descending, under the mirror and dirt, but still yet over the speakers.

Contrary to Smithson’s critical opinion of the museum, I left the installation full of sense-data, texture, and memory, even excitement. Instead of partially buried or revealed images, I had voices in my head.

The past, sonically, was not scattered and lost, but consolidated and reverberating. Utopia became not no-place; dystopia was not its opposite, but rather both became suspended in this-place. It wasn’t entropic so much as elastic: bands echoing, entwined, plucked from the air.

Durant’s sculpture created a kind of countercultural memory music. The mirrors and dirt were both made from rock.


See: The Sixties in the Mirror, Part I.

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