Decelerated Landscapes

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)


  1. I was wondering how you chose to distinguish between freezing and slowing down dynamics by using the term deceleration to describe the former instead of the latter?

  2. I’m using the term only in the sense of movement. I placed freezing in single quotes to imply the visual impression of frozen that Robert Smithson was trying to achieve within a piece of intentional art. Rather than a physical actuality of stopped time or process, the work appears frozen because it has been slowed down in comparison to what is around it, but it never really stops. We can observe different time scales of change, but no freezing. I think deceleration and acceleration are more accurate terms to describe these landscape processes because both imply that freezing is impossible. By definition, if you actually stop, you are no longer decelerating. Deceleration implies a gradient of moment without including the actual stop – like slow, more slow, slower, etc. The same is true with acceleration and for landscapes, I think.

  3. Thank you for this lovely response. What confused me initially was the following from your text:

    material and perceptual freezing of dynamic landforms in time

    I thought you were somehow distinguishing between freezing (arresting) and slowing down dynamics, when in fact both are deceleration. Understood as an asymptote, deceleration indeed never reaches the moment of zero velocity value, but it can be achieved (if we look at that asymptote under a magnifying glass) by introducing a series of actual stops. And it is by identifying one such moment of zero velocity in Asphalt Rundown, I think, that Smithson suggests, as you said, the impossibility of freezing.

    What is interesting here is a possible correlation between landscapes and built environment. Being a result of the unsustainable dynamics of social processes, built environment can only accelerate (it’s growing exponentially). I wonder if there is a way to introduce deceleration to it, so the dynamics (a reverse process) can become more stable?

    Thanks again. Great post!

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