Broken Circle &/ Spiral Hill?: Smithson’s spirals, pataphysics, syzygy and survival | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 11, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 1477-965X
  • E-ISSN: 1758-9533



The copious literature on the work of artist Robert Smithson has made very little of the many parallels between the inventor of earthworks and the nineteenth-century author of pataphysics, despite the established fact that the artist read and made notes from Alfred Jarry’s Dr. Faustroll (1898) while working on the Spiral Jetty in 1970, which undoubtedly influenced the subsequent Broken Circle &/ Spiral Hill (1971, Emmen). Given the insightful literature reassessing Jarry’s influence on twentieth-century artists including Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Rodney Graham, a consideration of Smithson’s spiral earthworks in connection with Jarry is long overdue. In contrast to prevailing art research practices today, Smithson’s work is much more aligned with the pataphysical pursuit of ‘imaginary solutions’ that examine ‘the laws governing exceptions’ and describe ‘a universe which can be – and perhaps should be – envisaged in place of the traditional one’. Art historian Jack Burnham’s interprets Smithson’s earthworks as a ‘time-bound web of man-nature interactions … didactic exercises … [that] show a desperate need for environmental sensibility’. In this respect, the work of both Jarry and Smithson can provide a useful corrective to an overly rationalistic approach to art research, offering the field – and contemporary art in general – potentially valuable tools for forms of practice that challenge rather than adopt conventional academic models and epistemological constructs.


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