Robert Smithson 1938-1973
Hotel Palenque (bootleg) [1969]
(Bootleg film / documentation / artwork by Alex Hubbard)

Yucatan Is Elsewhere
On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque
By Neville Wakefield

In 1969 Robert Smithson, His Wife Nancy Holt, And Art Dealer Friend Virginia Dwan Left The New York College Of Cartography-Better Known As The Art-World-For The "Western Deserts" And Lush Jungles Of Mexico. There, Within The Abstracted Dilapidation Of The Hotel Palenque, And Some Mirror Fragments Placed Around The Northern

Yucatan, Smithson Unearthed The Shards Of A Map, Surviving Remnants Of A Golden Age. Combed From The Further Shores Of A Logos Already Weathered And Worn, Their Crumbled Metaphysic Took On The Aspect Of An Archeological Ruin. Lurking Within The Tattered Vestiges Of Western Thought, He Found Not Beasts Or Beggars, But Hypothetical Continents And Fierce Avatars Of The Mexican Gods - Tezcatlipoca, Demiurge Of The "Smoking Mirror," Coatlicue, Serpent Lady Of The Mayans-Guardians And Inquisitors Of A System So Utterly Decayed As To Have Itself Become A New Sort Of Territory.

Three Years On, In 1972, The Allegorical Form Of This New Territory Took Shape In A Presentation To The Architectural Faculty Of The University Of Utah. More Stoned Than Stentorian In Form, Delivery And Content, It Appears Navigationally Errant And Subject To Drift. Cheating Gravity, Smithson Gently Mocks The Flat-Earth School Of Exegesis. The Architectural Mass Of The Ancient Mayan Ruins For Which Palenque Is Famous Is All But Ignored: Its Pull Just Another Weak Signal From A Past Already Muffled By The Alluvion Of Time. Instead We Are Led Into Back-Waters And Fringe Areas; The Emptied Pool, Evacuated Dance-Hall And Mean-Ingless Passage That Together Made Up The Hotel Where Smithson, His Wife And Friend Stayed. The Guide Books Are Of No Use, Says Tezcatlipoca, "You Must Travel At Random, Like The First Mayans, You Risk Getting Lost In The Thickets, But That Is The Only Way To Make Art."1) The Ancient Ruins Are Not To Be Found Out There In The Jungle, But Here In The Hotel Palenque, Crumbled, Instamatic And Nondescript.

Connected To The Early Mayan Site By The Shared Lineage Of Ruination And Restoration, Hotel Palenque Takes The Form Of A Nonsite, A Discursive And Ramshackle Web Of Imagery, Conjecture, Analysis And Recollection, Which-Like The Hotel Itself-Lacks Either Focus Or Direction. Perambulatory And Meandering, The Horizon Lines Of Thought Unfold As A Series Of Impossible Boundaries, Elusive Limits That Recede As They Are Approached. Anecdotes, Like Hotel Passages, Lead Nowhere. Spatial And Architectural Certainties Are Left To Dissolve In The Heat Of The Afternoon Sun. Temporal And Historical Boundaries, Denied The Assurances Of Geometry, Slump. "So," As Smithson Remarks, "You Get This Kind Of Really Sensuous Sense Of Something Extending Both In And Out Of Time, Something That Doesn't Belong To The Earth And Really Something That Is Rooted Very Much In The Earth." 2) And So We Too Might Surmise That The Mortar Of Some Unbuilt Future Is Also The Dust Of An Equally Distant Past, But In The End, And Perhaps Most Satisfyingly, It Is Just A Pile Of Cement-There To Be Dug For Its Cementness.

Almost Exactly A Year Prior To The Trip To Mexico. Smithson Made One Of The First Of A Series Of Sculptural Non-Sites. A Visit In June 1968 To The Slate Quarries Of Bangor-Pen Argyle In Pennsylvania Had Left Smithson Impressed By The Oceanic And De-Differentiated Nature Of A Site Within Which All Nations Of Gestalt Seemed To Have Collapsed. Drawn To The Slate Of Mind-Slate Being The Metamorphic Or Ossified Form Of Gytta, A Dark And Sedimented Sludge-And To The Fact That The Form Of The Site Had Been Determined By Extraction Rather Than Addition, Chips Of Material Picked Up From The Quarry Were Returned To The Gallery And Dumped Haphazardly In A Trapezoidal Bin Placed On The Floor. Accompanied By Cartographic And Geological Information In The Form Of Texts, Maps Or Photographs, The "Nonsite," As It Became Known, Relayed What Was To Become A Skewed An Incomplete Dialectic-Between Inside And Outside, Visible And Invisible, Form And Formlessness, Determinacy And Indeterminacy, Centre And Periphery-Between Site And Nonsite. "A Course Of Hazards, Double Path Maps That Belong To Both Sides Of The Dialectic At Once," 3) The Nonsite Dissolves The Sculptural Logic Of The Discrete Object Within The Now Unstable Vectors Of Space And Time.

Like The Fragmented Map Of The Empire, The Nonsites Confound The Synthetic Resolutions Of Dialectical Thought. Extracted As Well As Abstracted From The Material Substance Of The Site, They Refer To It At The Cost Of Altering It, And What Is Represented By The Nonsite Is Not The Site Itself, But Rather Its Condition Of Depletion. This Is Heisenberg's Principle Of Sculptural Uncertainly: It Is The Irony Of Protons Fleeing The Instruments Of The Physicist And So Confounding His Aim; It Is The Fact That The Nonsite Leads Nowhere, Except The Place From Which It Came, A Place Now Irrevocably Changed. The Dialectics Of Presence And Absence, Forced To Face Itself Within This Carefully Constructed Hall Of Mirrors, Is Like Medusa Facing Perseus's Shield, Slowly Turned To Stone. Thus Petrified It Becomes Geology, Another Stratum In The Pre-History Of Thought. Physical Substance And Representational Logic Collapse Into A Single Rubble. In Place Of The Old Axes Of Spatial Cartography We Find A Metaphorical Geography Inhabited By Beasts And Beggars, Abandoned Hopes And Discarded Systems. "Between The Site And The Nonsite One May Lapse Into Places Of Little Organization And No Direction."4) Clearly Such A Place Was To Be Found In The Hotle Palenque, A Contemporary Ruin That Mirrored The Architecture Of Thought In Its Rise To Ruination. Caught Between The Equilibrial Forces Of Reconstruction And Decay, The Hotel Also Allegorizes Another Collapse, That Of Vision. "If You Visit The Sites (A Doubtful Probability)." Smithson Said Of The Mirror Displacements Made During The Same Trip, "You Find Nothing But Memory Trace... The Fictive Voices Of The Totems Have Exhausted Their Arguments. Yucatan Is Elsewhere."5) And So Its Becomes Apparent That The Site/Nonsite Relationship Is Also That Of Its Punned Double, Of Vision And Its Counterpart, Blindness. The Mayan Ruins For Which Palenque Is Famous Are Recorded Only As The Distant Possibility Of A View From One Of The Hotel Windows, Now Permanently Obscured By The Smoke Screen Of Time And Defoliation. The Wonders Of The Observatories And Temples Built By The Mayans Remain Shrouded, Hazy And Outshone By The Archeology Of The Present Located In The Hotel. The Past, Which, Like Astronomical Bodies, Occurs Long Before Crossing The Horizon Of Appearances, Belongs Not To The Pre-Spanish Indian Monuments But To The "Geologic Man-Made Wonder" Of The Hotel. Here Smithson Finds A More Compelling And Indeterminate Horizon Where The Impress Of The Future Is Received By The Past, Where Meaninglessness And Disintegration Cohabitat With The Old Mayan Necessities Of Convolution And Terror.

Wryly Scrutinizing These Strange Intersections, Where Architectures Of Mind And Hotel Meet, Smithson Mines Them For Their Aesthetic And Narcotic Ore. This, After Is The Place Where Nothing Happens, The Zero Panorama Of The Present, A Serpentine Entropy Where The Passage Of Ruined Signifiers Only Serves To Suck Us Further Into The Centripetal Vortex, An Immobile Cyclone. Here The Present Becomes The Conjugation Of Near Future And Distant Past, The Actuality Described By Kubler As The "Instance Between The Ticks Of The Watchá The Interchronic Pause When Nothing Is Happening. It Is The Void Between Events."6) Skewered On The Torpor Of Those Long Mexican Afternoons. Smithson's Reflections On The De-Architecturalising Spirit Of The Hotel Begin To Collapse Entropically Upon Themselves. As The Old Horizons Of Time And Space Subside, New Diagonals Of Meaning Appear: Fluid Atlases Made Up Of Unlocatable Points And Indeterminate Meanings.

And So The Joke Perhaps Is On Us. The Yucatan We Should Remember Was Never Here But Somewhere Else-A Somewhere Captured Forever In 1517 By The Spaniards Landing On The Peninsula, Misapprehending The Words Uttered By The Mayana Mac'ubah Than (We Do Not Understand) And Deciding That This Was The Name Of The Province.7) The Ruins Of Palenque Become, Like The Protracted Pauses That Laconically Punctuate Each Call For The Next Slide, Fault-Lines In The Continent Of Thought. Here The Glacial Drift Of Perception And Cognition Causes Ideas To Buckle Or Be Pulled To Extremes Of Uselessness, The Space Of Sculpture Of Alternately Compressed By Attenuated. In The Hotel Palenque The Traction Of Empirical Truths And Steadfast Geographies Is Lost. Taken In By The Rock Hound's Promise Of Scientism And The Traveler's Claims To Passage It Is Easy To Forget That It Is The Journey That Describes A Space In Itself, A Domain Of Pure Metaphor, A Surd Area - "A Region Where Logic Is Suspended - An Irrational Area" - Where The Avatars Of Past And Future Chew On The Wreckage Of Our Imagination.

1) "Incident Of Mirror-Travel In The Yucatan," Reprinted In Holt, Ed., The Writings Of Roberi Smithson, 94-95.

2) Ibid., "The Spiral Jetty," 115.

3) Quoted From Text Accompanying Non-Site (Palisades, Edgewater, New Jersey), 1968, Reprinted In Hobbs, Ed., Robert Smithson; Sculpture (Ithaca, Ny: Cornell University Press, 1981), 110.

4) See Robert Smithson, "Entropy And The New Monuments," First Published In Art-Forum, June 1966, Reprinted In The Writings Of Robert, Smithson, 9.

5) "Incidents Of Mirror-Travel In The Yucatan," 103.

6) George Kubler, The Shape Of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 17.

7) "Four Conversations Between Dennis Wheeler And Robert Smithson, 1969-70," In Eugenie Tsai, Robert Smithson: Unearthed (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 97.

Text Of Hotel Palenque [34 mb, PDF]
Robert Smithson in Ubuweb Historical