The troubling—and at the same time rewarding—thing about languages is that they possess huge jumbles of hardly noticeable ties that spill one idea into the next. These switchbacks are known simply as ‘metaphors’ [meta- ‘across’ + pherein ‘to bear’], of course. And, as a literary device, the playful transference from one image to another often affords the reader a novel and delightful channel between words. However, this raises a curious question: are such pathways always already there, or do authors invent them?
Although it is common knowledge that ‘all the world is a stage’ belongs to Shakespeare, very few people—if any—know who came up with the even more banal metaphor of ‘time is money’. Instead of looking for this lost wordsmith—some say it was Benjamin Franklin—isn’t it of greater interest to find the implicit ideology that comes pre-packed in this little comparison?
Time, normatively speaking, is not exchanged for goods or services—that is without a contract or other negations equating the two. In any case, both are spent in ways that are considered good and bad. Possibly due to this association, time can be wasted or misused, considered as a resource to be banked on or stolen, and can even be capitalized on as an investment. The thing is, time doesn’t really belong to anyone; the sun rises and sets as we go along witnessing such events in a process called aging. Nevertheless, people view themselves as living on their ‘own’ time, and as such, try to formulate an economy of living by managing this finite property—just imagine if you could actually gain time!—by making room for vacation days, personal projects, ‘alone time’, and so on. Instead of just letting things happen, by circumstance or otherwise—if there is such a thing as personal time, could there even be a ‘public’ or shared time? —, these moments become precious, while their antagonists, office work for example, can quickly be vilified. Instead of revisiting a chicken or egg paradox, let’s just agree that the time is money metaphor holds not only literary significance, but also holds visceral value in that our lives are organized around it as an axiom.
Art, of course is no stranger to metaphors and symbolic associations, and in fact, often marshals them to its purpose. While this is good fun, it might be wise to trace how these derivations slip into ways of being.
Enter Robert Smithson. No stranger to conceptual jests, Smithson even quipped that language could be just a ‘heap’ with his famous drawing that turned hand written words into a volumetric image of a mound sitting on a page. Not limited to concrete poetry alone, Smithson’s pen also took to the task of theory—most notably by questioning the context, or lack there of, of the gallery and museum space through his idea of a ‘non-site’.
Coyly, the artist summed up this entire discourse through a description of his working method; “Instead of putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into a work of art”. To advance this dictum, Smithson did just what he suggested in such pieces as Rock Salt & Mirrors, an artwork in which gravel from a rock salt mine was dumped, in a gallery, in front of a series of slender standing mirrors. But why the mirrors, are these the ‘art’ into which the land was dumped?
For quite sometime before Smithson, artistic practice in the west had been on a drive toward growing abstraction. Primarily this ‘abstraction’ meant non-representational, or non-mimetic art; however, as the style developed, the formal properties of color, shape, material and its application, and so on, were studied and codified into a kind of bracketed, or medium specific vocabulary. With this new language, artists and critics supposedly were now able to speak not only about shaping matter, but also about fundamental precepts, conditions, and potentials, and so on of form ‘as such’. This process, which distilled symbolic concepts from objects and observable phenomenon, is itself called ‘abstraction’, both philosophically and linguistically speaking. Before we dip back into our discussion of metaphors and language twists, let’s do keep in mind that Rock Salt & Mirrors does host a sliding signifier as it puns this history of non-objective art, by presenting ‘abstraction’ not solely as noun, but also as a verb.
To abstract something is also to draw or pull something out, just as a dentist can abstract a tooth, or as a miner can abstract some land from the Earth—to ultimately be used by an artist and placed somewhere else. And, in quite a blunt sense, Smithson’s rock salt evinces the simple fact that this land was moved; however, the rocks’ migratory transit—and their current location as well—is basically non-disclosed. This silence speaks not only of the rocks actual removal, but also refers to their lost history. In a word, they are displaced not once, but twice, both physically and conceptually, as they lack any proper ‘sense of place’. In any case, this land should now be placed within some art—or at least next to some mirrors.
Although looking into a mirror can imply vanity, mirrors, and their properties of reflection, can also allude to the act of thinking about something. And while a spectator might spy his or her own image by looking at Rock Salt & Mirrors, two other realities are also on display: the frontal view of the actual rocks themselves, and the mirror reflection of the back of those very same objects. This of course is an atypical view of things, as it is generally not possible to see the front and back of something at the same time. As such, the viewer now experiences a kind of displacement as the work mediates a completely supernatural sighting. With such pooled devices, both the rocks and the spectator are decontextualized from their everyday habituations. Although we know that the proper history of the rocks is replaced, we do not know yet where the viewer shall land.
Textually speaking, Rock Salt & Mirrors, and the viewer, seem to be migrating between two formal systems with one being denotative—that is a meditation on the literal meaning of things—and the other being connotative—that is thinking about the associative social or emotional meaning of these very same objects. The former schema is actually quite easy to categorize and understand; after all, it is even mapped by Smithson’s literal and almost taxonomist representation of things and affairs. And yet, the latter system, the one in which cultural associations lay, is much harder to pin down. On the one hand, by layering the two approaches together, Smithson may be hinting that these twin systems build on and off each other as metaphors are abstracted from a primary root or source. The rub though is that once metaphors are formalized, they can become structuring principles in their own right regardless of what their root was. Like the ‘time is money’ conceit, a ‘sense of place’ is often tied to a static idea of a land, or more over, to a fixed notion of a set territory or property—and less so to more fluid, yet equally foundational notions such as time, affinity, or what have you. Whether or not Smithson thought that the current ‘code’ for belonging is made problematic by an image of ownership is hard to say, but it is of note that the author said this theory “could be abandoned at anytime”.