Analysis of Robert Smithson's "Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island"

General / 26 October 2018

As art moves beyond traditionally defined media, its identification and classification as art pose challenges, and along with these are the complexities to document, and preserve each as a physical entity.  The creative use of new media in art expand the opportunities for artists to express unique perspectives, but there are many who question its viability as a work of art for various reasons, including its media, method and venue of presentation, and capacity to be documented.  Subsequently, the way it is preserved and exhibited in the future opens up a new set of challenges, namely for those works of art dependent on space, location, or some sort of transient variable.  This is exemplified in artist Robert Smithson's Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island, which was exhibited for only a single week in September 2005 and along with his other work with landscapes and earthen materials, traverses "across orders of time and space."[1] 

Link to image of referenced artwork:

Steve Dietz, Artistic Director of Zero1: The Art and Technology Network, notes that "new-media art remains an evolving reference with no permanent definition."[2]  So even though the definition of new media art continues in recent discussions, it also relies on a connection to precedents that can help frame the unknown with that which is known.  The intent of creating an experience for the viewer is still an evident focal point for the art of new media just as it is for those clearly categorized within past art movements.  The experience of seeing Smithson's Floating Island with landscape elements being dragged around the paradoxical urban Manhattan environment likely drew attention of sightseers and reflected a likeness to the "artificial model of Central Park."[3] As an installation art, it conveys an intent and creates an experience for the viewer, but based solely on its media and form, is it more aligned with landscape, architecture, or simply an industrial barge hauling earthen materials?
Such questions showcase the challenges of solely using the physical attributes of the new media as a way to identify and classify its artistic value rather than with a more comprehensive approach, such as through art historian Michael Archer's reference to "the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art."[4] The all-inclusive intent of Floating Island clearly aimed to convey an experience.  Another potential resolution to these challenges is by a sort of process of elimination, or as art historian Rosalind Krauss cleverly articulated, "the combination of exclusions."[5] Landscapes and architecture can be interpreted as stationary and permanent, so on the basis of its media, Floating Island distinguishes itself from these exclusions. 

Traditionally defined media has long since had a well-defined method for its exhibition, documentation, and preservation, but installation art since the late 1960s have set precedents that "'broke' the frame and challenged the strictures of modernist art exhibit conventions."[6] These initiatives to explore unconventional media go beyond the traditional media exhibited in museums and many lead to unique locations, spatial requirements, and time constraints.  Floating Island embodied each of these additional traits and the only evidence that remains now of its realization are the photograph and video documentation preserved by the viewers present at the event.  The ephemeral nature of many installation art work like this prompted the use of photography for both archival documentation and exhibition, but it also impacted "the viewer's presence in and direct experience of the space" as defined by the art in situ.[7]  Some might see Floating Island as having been only truly experienced by those standing on the banks and looking at the barge pass by, with the documentation as just a record of the event.  However to others, the documentation may be more than a simple account of the exhibit; it becomes a portal for a new experience to envision its intent.  Ultimately, the questions and challenges posed by art that explore nontraditional media will continue to be a topic of conversation and debate, particularly as new media emerges in the future.


[1] Yusoff Kathryn & Jennifer Gabrys, "Time Lapses: Robert Smithson's Mobile Landscapes," Cultural Geographies 13, no. 3 (July 2006): 444.

[2] Steve Dietz, "Collecting New-Media Art: Just Like Anything Else, Only Different," in Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art, ed. Bruce Altshuler (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 86-89.

[3] Catherine Slessor, "Delight," Architectural Review 219, no. 1312 (June 2006): 98.

[4] Michael Archer, "Towards Installation" in Installation Art, ed. Nicolas De Oliveria, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 14.

[5] Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," October 8 (Spring 1979): 36.

[6] Monica E. McTighe, Framed Spaces: Photography and Memory in Contemporary Installation Art (New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2012), 23.

[7] McTighe, Framed Spaces, 94.