Thursday, August 17, 2023 at 7:30pm
Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque

361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn

Introduced by Ann Reynolds

Hotel Palenque, Robert Smithson, slide projection of thirty-one 35mm color slides (126 format) and audio recording of a lecture by the artist at the University of Utah, 1972, 43 mins

On January 24th, 1972, Robert Smithson delivered a slide lecture at the University of Utah in conjunction with a Visiting Professor of Architecture position he had been offered—and eventually declined. The topic of this lecture was Palenque, which Smithson had visited with Nancy Holt and Virginia Dwan on their 1969 trip to Mexico. When the lights went down and the first slide appeared on the screen, it was immediately apparent that Smithson had a particular set of Palenque ruins in mind. This first image depicted a seemingly unfinished or under-construction two-story cinder-block structure topped with a sign of uniform red letters that spelled out the name of the hotel where he, Holt, and Dwan had stayed while visiting the nearby ancient Mayan site. About a half dozen slides into his lecture, Smithson finally directly addressed what was probably the audience’s confusion and increasingly audible amusement by providing an image of the Hotel Palenque’s architectural framing of the surrounding landscape and remarking: “This window is actually looking out over the things we went there to see, but you won’t see any of those temples in this lecture. That’s something that you have to go there to see for yourself. And I hope that you go to the Hotel Palenque so that you learn something about how the Mayans are still building. And it has that same—the structure has all of the convolution and terror in that sense that you would find in a typical Mayan temple.... So that to me, this window, seemingly useless window, really called forth all sorts of truths about the Mexican temperament.”

The thirty-one slides, an audio cassette recording of most of this event, and Smithson’s handwritten, somewhat elaborated transcription of about half of his presentation remain. The slides and audio, digitally synched and shown since 1993 as an artwork entitled Hotel Palenque, along with a drawing Smithson made of the hotel’s floorplan and his 1969 Artforum essay “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” have inspired many to visit the site, and they continue to provide a point of departure for contemporary artists. Yet an experience of Smithson’s lecture through its initial medium of slide projection, along with the discrete, rather imperfect audio capture, which includes the audience Q&A, offers a perspective that more recent iterations of the event as a work of art cannot by signaling its original context through ambient sound—both the projector’s and the movements and reactions of a live audience—and by provoking the uneasy experience of reconciling image and explanation in real time, even if in a different time than when audiences first experienced it.

Roughly 250 students, faculty, and staff heard this approximately 42-minute lecture in the University of Utah’s Fine Arts Auditorium. Smithson delivered it from the stage, fortified by a glass of Scotch. The tone and tempo of Smithson’s recorded voice might suggest that he was casually improvising, but as in most of his writings, he is often elaborating on the stories and conceptual approaches of others: books he had read about the Maya and Mexico and the sensational myth-making monologues of their local tour guide, who traveled with Smithson, Holt, and Dwan to several ancient Mayan sites. Smithson’s frequent references to violence lurking in the landscape or to a country caught up in its Pre-Colombian past suggest his awareness of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City and Octavio Paz’s recently translated book of prose poetry Eagle or Sun?, which Smithson owned. Smithson, Holt, and Dwan were US tourists with no Spanish or Indigenous language skills visiting Palenque at a fortuitous moment, when passable roads to the ancient site were relatively new, and tourism was just beginning to develop. In 1973, one year after Smithson’s lecture, the first Mesa Redonda de Palenque was held. Attendees included the art historian George Kubler and a young Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, who together unlocked the individual life stories behind the names of Palenque’s six dynastic rulers through their careful glyph-deciphering efforts, rendering many of the books that Smithson had consulted out of date. Revisiting this analogue experience now can suggest, if obliquely, one of Smithson’s favored tropes: “the ruin in reverse.”

- AR

Ann Reynolds teaches art history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently completing a book entitled Imagining an Altogether, a history of intergenerational relationships among New York artists and writers that were shaped by shared, if heterogeneous, commitments to surrealism and its legacy, primarily through a love of film. She is also the author of Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere.

Tickets - Pay what you can ($10 suggested donation), available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm. No entry 10 minutes after start of show.

Above: Robert Smithson, Map of the Hotel Palenque, 1969