The works of Michel Foucault and Robert Smithson each illustrate the paradoxical relationships between reality and representation.  Their works describe history and construction of the present through a productive process of unmaking in diagrammatic form.  This essay seeks to demonstrate the continuity in thought between these two figures as manifest in their works beyond the confines of modern philosophy.  In diagrammatic procedures their works align demonstrating distrust in the modern structures of objectivity and ideal truths.  As Gilles Deleuze states in Foucault, “A New Cartographer,” “[Foucault’s understanding of the] diagram is intersocial, and constantly evolving.  It never functions in order to represent a persisting world but produces a new kind of reality, a new model of truth.  It makes history by unmaking preceding realities and significations, constituting hundreds of points of emergence or creativity, unexpected conjunctions or improbable continuums.  It doubles history with a sense of continual evolution.”[1]  Similarly, Robert Smithson’s work creates displacements and entropic processes that construct the perception of the present through a reevaluation of perception, or “where the prehistoric meets the posthistoric.”[2]  The diagrammatic processes inherent in Smithson’s works evolve through an entropic process of fragmentation and proliferation beyond the confines of Cartesian limits of perception.

Both Foucault and Smithson privilege the use of the mirror.  The mirror becomes a tool for displacing, unmaking, and complicating perception between inside and outside.  A mirror can be defined as a reflective surface that renders a reversed “virtual image” of the observer from the light that is reflected directly back into the eyes. This image is "virtual" because it does not actually exist (it does not reflect light itself, but is reflected) and due to human cognition appears to be behind the plane of the mirror the same distance as the actual object is in front of the mirror.  The mirror itself is a virtual space, it never contains anything, rather it only reflects what occurs in its fore.

The panopticon can be read as a one-way mirror diagrammatically.  Yes, the warden has views of the inmates, and the inmates do not have a view of the warden, but the power function is not this simplistic.  The panopticon provides a model which encapsulates the characteristics of a society founded on discipline.  Surveillance plays a crucial role where knowledge is inseparably bound to power.  In Space, Knowledge, and Power Foucault stresses that architecture itself cannot act as a force of liberation or oppression.  He states, “I think it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom.  The guarantee of freedom is freedom.”[3]  The one-way mirror is not within the form of the panopticon itself controlling behavior, but it is within the power differential between warden and inmates.  The one-way mirror function is a diagrammatic function that is not limited ‘to seeing without being seen.’  The abstract formula of Panopticism is no longer to see without being seen but to impose a particular conduct on a particular human multiplicity.[4]  The one-way mirror function exists in the diagrammatic power structure the architectural form supports.

For Foucault a normal mirror is a heterotopia par excellence – a place of continuous passage.  According to Foucault the mirror is a place outside of all places, even though it may be possible to locate its position in reality, it is a heterotopia.  In contrast to a static utopia where every detail is controlled, as in the space of the plague, the heterotopia contains a mixed, joint experience - a characteristic embodied in the mirror as a surface.  The mirror is a utopia, a placeless space where one sees themselves, but is not – their image is present in an unreal, virtual space that opens up somewhere behind the surface of the mirror.  In its normal state theis also a heterotopia, in that it makes the place that one occupies absolutely real, connected with all that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.[5]  For Foucault the space of the mirror becomes the space of displacement. 

This notion of displacement is carried further in The Archaeology of Human Knowledge.  Foucault, like Heidegger before him, is attacking spatial and scientific Cartesianism.  In The Archeology of Human Knowledge Foucault creates a parodic repetition of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, 1637. [6]  Foucault parodies the text but does so in such a way that his strict ‘method’ with its rigorous definitions actually becomes infinitely elastic.  The book creates an indeterminate version of its determinate predecessor.  For all its scientific method, the work is an attack on science, and the whole idea of objective knowing.  Foucault collapses Descartes’ Cartesian grid into the spatially metaphoric: a flat plane with no fixed points.[7]  Discourse, archaeology, and history are able to proliferate indefinitely on this vast surface in interrelated nonlinear paths of connection and disjunction.

Robert Smithson attacks Cartesian notions that adopt the earth as whole.  Rather, Smithson demonstrates the world as radically fragmentary, marked by incomplete processes both natural and culturally constructed.[8]  In A Nonsite, 1968 he actually works within Foucault’s heterotopic spaces of displacement by directly creating a double displacement (Fig. 1).  He first identifies the land as sculptural, and second, takes the land and inserts it into the artwork.  As with the mirror work the site is caught within multiple representations.  The material and topographic contours become difficult to determine and the earth itself becomes a site of information.[9]  In  A Nonsite (The Palisades) Edgewater New Jersey, 1968 he writes:

Instead of putting art a work of art on some land, some land is put into the work of art.  Between the site and the Nonsite one may lapse into places of little organization and no direction.

In A Sedimentation of the Mind he discusses the container itself:

The container is in a sense a fragment of itself, something that could be called a three dimensional map.  Without appeal to ‘gestalts’ or ‘antiform,’ it actually exists as a fragment of a greater fragmentation.  It is a three dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment.  There are no mysteries in these vestiges, no traces of an end or beginning.

In the Nonsite projects the polarity between inside and outside is broken down, creating the possibility of a third term that could contain both.[10]  In Smithson’s Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965 he creates a space with multiple, unsynthesizable vanishing points, displacing the viewer indefinitely (Fig. 2, 3).  Rosalind Krauss states that it is this entropic, simulacral move – floating the field of seeing in the absence of a subject, erasing the first person triggers a formless condition (Bois, Kraus).[11]  The work is a critique of the perfect God’s eye view of the world.  In Pointless Vanishing Points he begins with the observation that we have two eyes, not one, yet perspectivism supposes a kind of Cyclopean vision in which there is a single center of sight.  The two Enantomorphic Chambers, correspond to our two eyes.[12]  Smithson writes:

In this work the vanishing point is split, or the center of convergence is excluded, and the two chambers face each other at oblique angles, which in turn causes a set of three reflections in each of the two obliquely placed mirrors.  A symmetrical division into two equal parts is what makes it enantiomorphic; this division exists also in certain crystal structures….  The two separate “pictures” that are usually placed in a stereoscope have been replaced by two separate mirrors in my Enantiomorphic Chambers – thus excluding any fused image.  This negates any fused vanishing point, and takes one physically to the other side of the double mirrors.  It is as though one were being imprisoned by the actual structure of two alien eyes.  It is an illusion without an illusion.

Binocular vision, in which two eyes fuse together one image of the perspectival model, has been differentiated or deconstructed into stereometric vision.  We are not allowed to forget that we see with two eyes, and that nothing guarantees the production of the imperial gaze fetishized by Renaissance painting and Cartesian philosophy.[13]  The project itself becomes a critique of these assumed modes of power manifest in perception.  As Foucault described with the panopticon, the architecture of this space can reinforce or subvert these power relationships as Smithson’s  Enantiomorphic Chambers demonstrates and A Nonsite conflates by displacing inside and outside. 

In Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), 1969 Smithson’s mirror displacements reflect and refract the surrounding environment, displacing the solidity of the landscape by shattering its forms (Fig. 4).   As part earthwork and part image, the displacements contemplate temporality; while the mirror records the passage of time, its photograph suspends time.[14]  Smithson writes:

To reconstruct what the eyes see in words in an ‘ideal language,’ is vain exploit.  Why not reconstruct one’s inability to see?  Let us give passing shape to the unconsolidated views that surround a work of art, and develop a type of ‘anti-vision’ or negative seeing.[15]

In both of these mirror projects, Enantiomorphic Chambers and Yucatan Mirror Displacements, Smithson has undermined and reversed what is both the most familiar to our sensory ties to the world and the presupposition of the visual arts.[16] 

In Smithson’s Untitled Mirror Construction, 1964-1965 he constructs the work of art only from mirrors (Fig. 5).  In this work a number of mirrors are set up at oblique angles to one another, creating obscured multiple reflections.  As Gary Shapiro states, he is “both adopting and displacing Plato’s conception as a work of art.”  It is as if Smithson is saying to Plato, “you want a mirror, I’ll give you a mirror, and it will reflect nothing but other mirrors, or it will be an object complete unto itself.”[17]  The external function of the mirror breaks down and one is left with an autonomous object whose outside has become interchangeable with its inside.  These multiple displacements eradicate all fixed points within a given space.  Here, Foucault’s flat plane is without fixable points and one is caught within an infinitely repeating heterotopic zone.  This zone of space is constructed outside the space of the work itself, displaced and in three dimensions.

In painting, the mirror has been used to suggest a self-referential dimension that has qualified the Platonic understanding of art as a means of reflection or window to another realm.  Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas, 1656 has often been used as a paradigmatic example (Fig. 6).  Foucault’s reading of Las Meninas finds the painting introduces unrecognized uncertainties into the classical mode of representation prevalent in 17th Century Europe.  The summary of Foucault’s reading and diagrams that follow illustrates these uncertainties diagrammatically, further critiquing modern objective order.

Foucault begins by demonstrating the instability of Las Meninas beginning with the gaze of the painter himself.  No gaze is stable, since we can only see the back of the canvas, we are unclear as to our role in viewing the painting – are we seeing or being seen?  As viewers we are effectively displaced.  A virtual triangle is constructed between the painter’s gaze out of the picture, but not at us or anything directly, the invisible place occupied by the model, and what is on the canvas.  The mirror itself provides a metathesis of visibility.  In the painting it has three roles.  First, it displays and reverses what is on the canvas itself.  Second, the mirror violently jumps out of the canvas displaying this hidden information, but neglecting everything else within the frame of reflection.  It only shows what is hidden.  Third, it stands next to an open doorway where a figure stands in a hidden corridor, unnoticed by the people in the scene, not even the light from the corridor washes into the room – he is not a reflection as in the mirror but an interruption from the outside.  What is happening in front of the picture parallel to this exterior corridor creates an oscillation between interior and exterior.[18]  We ourselves as viewers in this scene are further displaced by the mirror, even though we are seeing into the picture a greater depth.  We see what is seen by those on the inside in reverse, yet we cannot tell if we are inside or outside the scene - participating or observing in secret like the figure in the corridor.  Soon, Foucault observes a spiral presenting us with a cycles of representation, beginning with the painter’s brush, the canvas of innocent signs (the material tools of representation), the paintings, the real man in the corridor (the completed representation, but freed from illusion or truth due to his relationship to the scene).  Once we see this cycle it closes and dissolves, only to be reopened by the light appearing to come from the crack of the painting’s frame.  This creates a second spiral of light glancing across the painter and figures in the painting opening the closed spiral with another spiral of light.  Within this simultaneous grouping and spreading of the two spirals is an essential void, and a disappearance of the painting’s foundation – the subject (the king in the mirror) who does not exist in the scene and the person seeing the king in the mirror are avoided (Fig. 7).

For Foucault, the painting once understood, leaves representation in its pure form.[19] The painting evokes a reciprocity of looking: we can look at the painting and in effect the painting looks back at us.  Or are we standing in the place of the King and Queen behind us, reflected on the mirror on the opposite wall?  For Foucault, the painting is a very early critique of the supposed power of representation to confirm an objective order visually.[20]  This objective order is conflated by the two interlocking spirals that threaten to unravel the painting with light just as soon as it has been constructed, this cycle then flips back again between the characters.  All of this is reinforced by the ambiguous location of our own bodies as viewers.  Illusion and reality become confused; each one is just as convincing as the other.[21]  Are we inside the scene or are we outside looking in? 

Through the ambiguity in perception achieved in Foucault’s reading of Las Meninas his critique of modern objectivity becomes manifest.  From this example he is able to see history as a construct of back constant back and forth motion through fragmentation, rejecting the modernist tendency toward ‘progress.’   The painting itself is always referencing something beyond the frame, some other system in motion, past or present.  For Foucault, history can only be understood according to discourses of the past.  Only through a ‘genealogical’ analysis of the past, can one gain some knowledge into the way the present has been produced.  The painting also establishes a framework that is simultaneously self referential and interconnected to other systems of reference, this fragmentation reinforces Foucault’s distrust in essential orders and meanings behind things through dense systems of interconnectivity.  For Foucault everything is to be judged according to a framework of knowledge that is forever changing.[22]  Through his reading of Las Meninas numerous events, self referential or interconnected, occur through fragmentation that influence and outside, but not necessarily one another.

For Robert Smithson, events are constructed and distorted through entropic processes over time.  Closed systems break down in efforts to reach equilibrium, in their fragmentation they create other systems that break down in such a way that they cannot be pieced back together to create a whole again.  For Smithson it’s a condition that is irreversible.  For Smithson there is a tendency to treat closed systems that inevitably are searching for a state of equilibrium.  In “Entropy Made Visible,” he cites the shattering of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923 and his attempt to put all the pieces back together again as an example (Fig. 8).  The system [painting] experiences an event that causes deterioration, and there’s no way you can actually reassemble them in order to overcome entropy.[23]  Smithson’s concept of entropy drives his critiques of ‘progress’ and final solutions that embrace cyclical motions of interconnected fragmentation over the determinate.

The time cycle in Smithson’s work evolved from his interest in other artists practicing at the time.  In his writings Smithson emphasized Donald Judd’s projects because the work has no beginning or end; they always formed a potentially infinite series with minor variations. Despite a frequent graphic and geometric autonomy, his work never ends in closed figures, or events frozen in time and space. Smithson’s projects are open ended, they lack closure, a module may repeat but they are arrayed in such a manner that they could continue indefinitely, as exemplified in Gyrostasis, 1968 (Fig. 9).  Where everything is repeated no organization can prevail - there is an entropic effect recalling Freud’s idea that all life and activity tend toward the condition of death.[24]  Smithson described the earth as a “jumbled museum,” leaving museums as storehouses filled with the miscellaneous leavings of the past.  He wanted his works themselves to show the effects of time, decay, natural, and human change.  In his proposals for strip mining sites he never wanted to conceal the past, but add a new layer to the strata of the place.  Each work would form, in effect, an archaeological site.[25]   In Smithson’s first published essay, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” he cites science fiction writer Eric Bell’s Time Stream for its conception of time as a cycle of eternal reoccurrence.  For Smithson there are two conceptions of time: that of eternal reoccurrence and the theory of entropy.

Smithson’s work actually demonstrates Foucault’s understanding of history and discovery of the present.  This continual marking, enveloping, emerging, reemerging, is exemplified in The Spiral Jetty, 1970 (Fig. 10).  The Jetty is always in a changing state as informed by its evolving context.  Factors of change influence its use and understanding, from the salinity of the water, to color changes from brown to red, even the water level, changes radically over periods of time - temporarily erasing the work and experience of the Jetty altogether.  Thirty years later it still remains far from human development, one can imagine how its sitting will change once development finally encroaches after many years from now.  The work is still in progress, continually being shaped by external factors.  It becomes a demonstration on historic process that can only be understood over time and movement by forces of nature, culture, and cycle.  Smithson even projected an Island of Broken Glass in which a small island in Vancouver harbor was to be covered with broken glass, until over time it would be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.  Eventually, centuries later, the glass would return to its displaced natural form: sand.  The event created over time is cyclical, but the object never returns to its original state.

For Smithson, history is a construction - a manifestation of the mind through events of reoccurrence and transformation, as formed by modes of perception.  Systematically attacking these modes of perception, his work asks one to construct their own fictions through representation.  In 1977 an interviewer evoked the following response from Foucault:

I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions.  I do not mean to go so far as to say fictions are beyond truth.  It seems possible to make fiction work inside of truth, to induce truthful effects with a fictional discourse, and to operate in such a manner that the discourse of truth gives rise to, “manufactures,” something that does not yet exist, that is, “fictions” it.[26]

Foucault’s histories and archaeologies are fictions.  They are explicitly not representations of the literal truth concerning the past.  They have a myth making function.  According to Alan Megill, “Useful myths, for Foucault, are myths that will disorder order, those that will break up what is extant, those that will turn the present into a past.”[27]  In Foucault’s essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” of 1971 he articulates the notion of historiography that “disturbs what was previously considered immobile;… fragments what was thought unified;… shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself.”  In so doing he confirms knowledge as perspective, aiming not at objective truth but a particular impact on readers.[28]  History becomes effective when “it introduces discontinuity into our very being,” when it “deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature.”  Such a history is in all respects against the extant order, it is parodic, directed against reality, dissociative, directed against identity,… sacrificial directed against truth. [29]  Deleuze describes Foucault’s diagrams as a different kind of machine, closer to theater than the factory, each diagram is unstable and fluid, continually churning up matter and functions to create change.  They are neither the subject of history, nor the survey of history.[30]

The works of Foucault and Smithson deconstruct the modernist and Cartesian structures of Descartes and Hegel, producing not a postmodern world view, but one that rejects categorizations in favor of a discontinuous series of fiction and representations.  As Deleuze states, “Diagrammatic multiplicity and the differential forces [of perception] can be integrated only by taking diverging paths, splitting into dualisms, and following lines of differentiation without which everything would remain in the dispersion of an unrealized cause….  Between the visible and the articulable gap or disjunction opens up, but this disjunction of forms is the place – or ‘non place’, as Foucault [or Smithson] would agree – where the informal diagram is swallowed up and becomes embodied instead in two different directions that a re necessarily divergent and irreducible.  The concrete assemblages are therefore opened up by a crack that determines how the abstract machine performs.”[31]  The projects of Foucault and Smithson form mirror images of each other in diagrammatic form.  Foucault’s illustrative fictions create new models of engagement that allow one to construct their own diagrammatic power relationships within.  They are demonstrations, and are meant to provoke further action.  As a mirrored counterpart to the philosophy of Foucault, Robert Smithson’s projects create gaps in perception, displacements, non-sites, or negative ways of seeing in physical form.  Through his gaps one is allowed to question the forces of power that construct the physical and perceptual world.  His intentions are specific critiques - they suggest we create our own modes of perception, even our own fictions - outside of what has been constructing our understanding of the real.

Michael Kokora

[1] Deleuze, Gilles.  “A New Cartographer.”  Foucault.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. P. 35.

[2] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. P. 4.

[3] Leach, Neil.  Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory.  London: Routledge, 1997.  P. 348.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles.  “A New Cartographer.”  Foucault.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.  P. 34.

[5] Foucault, Michel.  “Of Other Spaces.”  Diacritics.  Spring 1996. P. 24

[6] Megill, Allan. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.  P. 228.

[7] Ibid.  P. 232. 

[8] Joselit, David.  American Art Since 1945.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003.  P.142. 

[9]Ibid.  P.141.

[10] Spector, Nancy.  “Yucatan Mirror Displacements.”  Guggenheim Museum.

[11] Bois, Yves Alain.  Kraus, Rosalind.  Formless: A User’s Guide.  MIT Press: 2000. 

[12] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. P. 67.

[13] Ibid. P. 68. 

[14] Spector, Nancy.  “Yucatan Mirror Displacements.”  Guggenheim Museum.

[15] Holt, Nancy.  The Writings of Robert Smithson.  New York University Press, 1979.

[16] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. P. 67.

[17] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. P. 62.

[18] Foucault, Michel.  The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.  Random House, 1970.  P. 11. 

[19] Ibid.  P. 16. 

[20] Whitmore, Brent.  “Las Meninas.”

[21] Yang, Jiaying.  “Triangle within a Triangle.”

[22] Leach, Neil.  Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory.  London: Routledge, 1997.  P. 348.

[23] Holt, Nancy.  The Writings of Robert Smithson.  New York University Press, 1979.  P. 189.

[24] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 

[25] Shapiro, Gary.  Earthwards.  Robert Smithson and Art after Babel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.  P. 48.

[26] Foucault, Michel.  “The History of Sexuality”  Finas Interview.  P/K.  P.193.

[27] Megill, Allan. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.  P. 234.

[28] Ibid.  P. 235.

[29] Ibid.  P. 236.

[30] Deleuze, Gilles.  “A New Cartographer.”  Foucault.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.  P. 35.

[31] Ibid.  P. 38.