The Half Life of an Idea – Ohio, USA

Kent, Ohio’s main attraction is its State University, with its bucolic fields, modern buildings, fountains, and memorials to the tragic shooting of students protesting the bombing of Cambodia in 1970. A less-known feature of the campus, but one that is well worth searching out, is Partially Buried Woodshed, a work by the famous land artist Robert Smithson.

Smithson was a veteran of the 1960's New York art scene; conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp were a major influence on him. His work is somewhat similar to that of Christo, the Bulgarian assemblage artist who is known for wrapping landmarks like islands and buildings in plastic. One important difference is that Smithson, unlike Christo, worked almost exclusively with natural or cast-off materials that were available on the sites he chose. Smithson is best known for his magnum opus, Spiral Jetty, an actual jetty built out of rock and gravel on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and for Amarillo Ramp in northern Texas, another land work that was his last major project (he died in a plane crash while surveying its site in 1973). Both of those sites are remote; Partially Buried Woodshed gives a traveler who is curious about modern or conceptual art, or about Smithson specifically, an opportunity to see one of his works in a much less remote setting.

Smithson first conceived of the piece in early 1970, while he was a resident artist at the college. The art faculty asked him to produce a work of land art on campus. He obliged. He found an unused woodshed, made of lumber, stucco and siding with a concrete foundation, in a forested corner of the campus near a science building. He then hired a bulldozer operator to cover it with dirt, causing its roof to partially collapse. The piece had no connection to the Kent State shootings, which actually happened several months later, but a connection Smithson did not intend was made when someone painted “MAY 4 KENT 1970" on a cross beam of the damaged woodshed.

Like Spiral Jetty, Partially Buried Woodshed is generally interpreted as a demonstration of the power of nature to gradually wear away and destroy everything in its path. Ironically however, Spiral Jetty has survived largely intact; it has variously been under water and invisible and (in times of drought), above water, easy to see. On the other hand, only traces of Partially Buried Woodshed remain. The work was vandalized in the 1970's. Years later, in the 1980's, campus authorities removed the remaining woodshed beams and planted trees and bushes on Smithson’s pile of dirt, against the protestations of Smithson’s widow, Nancy Holt. The result is an intriguing sight – a small thicket of trees in which a careful and observant visitor can find the rectangular concrete foundations of the woodshed, hidden away in a clearing like a ruin from some long-lost civilization. There is also a metal plaque that commemorates the creation of the artwork, set alongside the street that passes the clump of trees. The plaque reads:

“On this site Robert Smithson (1938-1973), at the invitation of the students and faculty of the School of Art, began Partially Buried Woodshed/January, 1970.”

One could argue that since the main construction of the woodshed is not there, the artwork is no longer there (and some wags might suggest that the work be renamed Totally Buried Woodshed). I personally think that Smithson would disagree, since he would say that even the woodshed remnants (namely, the foundation and the mound) constitute the last embers of the work, and continue to show and exemplify the degeneration-through-nature theme that he was getting at all along. The process is, in a sense, continuing to this day. That said, it is ironic that human activity, in the form of the vandalism and the authorities removing the woodshed, helped the process along.

The site is worth visiting on several levels, especially for anyone curious about modern or “land” art. For one thing, it is still an intriguing place. I got a certain sense of adventure exploring the woods looking for the remnants of this well-known work of modern art. On another level, it’s simply a peaceful, wooded place to rest not far from busy urban areas. On a third level, it’s a significant site in art history. It could be said that if Spiral Jetty represents a long process of entropy and erosion, Partially Buried Woodshed is an example of a quicker process and a more final result, hastened by human social activity. Who knows how many years the remains of the eccentric project will hide in the woods, attracting the curious and the imaginative?

Tony Porco lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb with his wife and son. His writings have appeared on the BootsnAll and Democratic Underground websites, along with the newsletter of the National Aquarium in Washington. His editorials are in the street newspaper Street Sense. He has studied travel writing with the author C. M. Mayo.

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