The images above are of an erosion control installation seen in a Portland park. Over a year earlier, heavy winter rains induced a structural collapse of the hillside, sending a landslide out into the adjacent street. The sand bags and black plastic tarps were set in place to stabilize the destabilized terrain – a strategy to decelerate landscape processes.
This ‘freezing’ of topography brought to mind Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown (1969) in which Smithson directed the pouring of a truck load of hot-mix asphalt down the denuded, eroding slope of an abandoned quarry near Rome, Italy. Smithson was attempting to solidify a mold of the dynamic terrain at the same time as he was replicating the downward, gravitation flow of the slope in the momentary action of the pour.
[Robert Smithson – Asphalt on Eroded Cliff. The fixing of the shifting dendritic pattern clearly revealed in Smithson’s sketch]
As Smithson stated: “My interest here [Asphalt Rundown] is to root it to the contour of the land, so that it is permanently there and subject to the weathering. I’m sort of curious to see what will happen to this…its not completely an ephemeral piece, so it should last for quite some time.”
Similarly, the plasticized hillside visually reads as if its flowing down the slope, both from afar and in the folded textures that have accumulated in the plastic surface. The contortions and tears index the forces that continue to act upon the terrain. Although lacking in the dialectic intent of the Smithson piece, the installation creates the same material and perceptual freezing of dynamic landforms in time… a readymade unintentionally on par with Smithson’s asphalt pour:
Both the tarp installation and Smithson’s Asphalt Pour attempt to decelerate extant forces of entropy. The former does so for pragmatic purposes, the latter as conceptual conjecture. Both interventions are more designs of time than they are of space, and both are illustrative of broader motivations for why we intervene in landscape processes: to affect the time frames and trajectories for how things occur. It seems that a majority of landscape interventions attempt to either accelerate landscapes or slow their velocity through a repertoire of jump-start armatures and status quo measures.
I’ve wondered what became of Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown. How long did it arrest the erosion of the tenuous slope upon which it was placed? When did the asphalt mold break apart and succumb to entropy? Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any long term documentation of the piece. The plasticized hillside, however, is already in the process of becoming something else via the limits of its own construction. The plastic mesh of the sandbags are photodegrading and spilling their contents. The micro-environments surrounding them provide shade and moisture, thus fostering the growth maple tree seedlings. Non native horsetail spires poke through tears in the plastic and Himalayan blackberry is creeping in from the edges.
(Robert Smithson quote pulled from Robert Smithson: the Collected Writings)