In Focus

Ritual Aesthetics: Salt Flat and Systems

John R. Blakinger

In the brief introduction to Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, his 1974 collection of essays that originally appeared in Artforum and Arts Magazine, the critic Jack Burnham makes an unusual comment. He describes art as ‘the philosopher’s SALT’, a vague allusion to the use of salt in alchemy as a chemical that transmutes base metals into gold by uniting opposites. Burnham continues: ‘Salt dissolves and purifies the false chemistry of current artistic ambition. It balances between chemical extremes and seeks to unite the polarities. Salt is the negation of all past “Anti-Art”’.1 In his remarks, Burnham bestows salt with mythical and mystical significance, understanding it as a chemical agent that synthesises inverse forces. In uniting opposites, salt negates ‘Anti-Art’ and thus affirms art’s status by re-enchanting art with aesthetic power. The cover of Great Western Salt Works illustrates his allegory by depicting salt as an alchemical force with the ability to unite opposites (fig.1). A photograph of Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty extending into Utah’s Great Salt Lake (a work that uses the accumulation and dispersal of crystalline salt on its surface as an essential aesthetic element) is printed in negative – white and black reversed – thus emphasising the dialectical relationships Burnham understood salt to represent.2

Cover of Jack Burnham’s Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, New York 1974, featuring Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty 1970

Cover of Jack Burnham’s Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, New York 1974, featuring Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty 1970

What do we make of this strange allegorical tale? How does alchemy – the pseudo-scientific transformation of materials – relate to the more conventional iterations of Burnham’s criticism, the version of his theory called ‘systems esthetics’ that he popularised in the 1960s?3 And how does alchemy relate to Dennis Oppenheim’s Salt Flat 1968 (Tate T01773)? Burnham’s early thought frames systems as rational – as ecological, social or even artistic – but his later work ends instead with an irrational embrace of the mysticism and magic of systems. What new theoretical issues emerge when we understand Oppenheim’s work not only through the logic of systems but also the illogic of systems, as presented here in Burnham’s later writings? This section considers how we might reconcile this late version of Burnham’s thought with the more familiar understanding of his criticism, specifically through Oppenheim’s Salt Flat.

From the logic of systems to mysticism and magic

With roots in interdisciplinary fields from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, systems thinking coalesced after the Second World War as two major discourses: Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general system theory. By the 1960s these two discourses had become a dominant intellectual trend with an impact across the human and social sciences. Both Wiener and Bertalanffy pioneered a set of methodologies that attempted to make sense of phenomena that transcended the single, isolated object and instead embraced a wider set of concerns that extended into the environment. Both understood these concerns as constituting a system that they could model and study.

Wiener’s work was the most influential. He invented cybernetics as the study of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’ (such was the subtitle of his pioneering 1948 book on the subject). He gave the field the name cybernetics, an adaptation from the Greek word for ‘governance’ (kybernetike), in order to refer to the regulation – or governance – necessary for maintaining order in a system.4 The premise of Wiener’s theory was that technical problems in engineering – and, in fact, in a much wider array of fields – can be understood through the relationships between the animate and inanimate objects that comprise larger systems; although specific elements in this system are distinct from one another, they are nonetheless connected through causal relations. These relationships allow the system to maintain overall order, principally through feedback; a servomechanism detects a change in the system and responds accordingly, mitigating the change by returning the system to its ordered state. Cybernetics explains, for example, how a thermostat maintains a consistent temperature by responding to environmental conditions (the air temperature in a room) through needed adjustments (warming air by turning on a heater) in order to keep a relatively stable temperature.

While cybernetics was technical and mathematical, the general system theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy was biological. It drew from precedents like the theory of homeostasis or self-regulation, a concept that explained the balance of equilibrium in natural systems, from single cells to complex organisms, with their surrounding environments. In his 1968 volume General System Theory, Bertalanffy – like Wiener before him – further attempted to formulate these ideas as universal principles that could be applied across fields.5 In this way, general system theory provided a methodology that was similar to that of cybernetics; the main distinction between these two discourses was one of origins. Cybernetics was fundamentally militaristic; Wiener developed it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through his wartime work on anti-aircraft guns, which he understood as complex systems that related the enemy pilot and enemy aircraft to the anti-aircraft gun on the ground.6 General system theory was not militaristic at all, but rather oriented to the natural world. The role of these differing origins, and how they might impact the application of cybernetic and systems ideas in other fields, remains an open question. This problem continues to structure the reception of these discourses.7

Both cybernetics and general system theory thus offered generalised interdisciplinary approaches – ways to understand phenomena in terms of causal relationships, self-regulation and concepts like feedback and homeostasis – that could explain any number of topics, from computer systems that guided rockets into outer space by adjusting the rocket’s trajectory and animals that evolved in response to changing ecological conditions, to the functioning of individuals in social groups. These ideas migrated from engineering and biology into fields as disparate as anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, economics and even the arts.

It was principally Burnham who attempted to use the lens of systems thinking, as put forth in cybernetics and general system theory, to understand the arts. Reacting against modernist and minimalist art criticism, and inspired in part by a conception of the complicated relationships that circle out from the isolated art object, Burnham transformed ideas like feedback and self-regulation into concepts that animated the work of art through a series of essays authored in the late 1960s. His first such essay, ‘Systems Esthetics’, appeared in Artforum in 1968 and identified the paradigm shift then underway from what he described as ‘an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture’.8 As explained in the first section of this In Focus project,9 this object-to-system transition also changes the ontology of the art object, such that it becomes merely one element in a larger aesthetic system – a system that includes relations between the work, its viewers and a broader environment filled with ‘people, ideas, messages, atmospheric conditions, power sources, etc’.10 This diffuse art system became a model of communication between its various elements. Burnham’s second key systems essay, titled ‘Real Time Systems’ and published in Artforum in 1969, extended this conception still further and posited that all aspects of art were informational; in the art system, ‘art data’ is created, collected, transferred and transformed. Both essays reflect the application and expansion of Wiener’s and Bertalanffy’s thinking into the arts, now codified as ‘systems esthetics’.11

But Burnham’s criticism following these two particular essays became increasingly obscure, combining concepts related to systems with esoteric ideas from fields that had nothing at all to do with Wiener’s or Bertalanffy’s ideas. Burnham’s criticism is most striking for this seemingly inexplicable shift from the rigour of systems, rooted in highly technical discourses, to the arcane mysticism of hermetic philosophy that influenced his later writing. (Burnham also developed systems aesthetics while a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the think-tank-like research institute established by György Kepes at MIT – an institutional affiliation that epitomises the technical nature of his early thought and makes this later change even more surprising.) As art historian Luke Skrebowski explains, ‘Burnham’s thought was uneven and mercurial, starting in scientific rationalism and ending in esoteric irrationalism.’ The esoteric irrationalism characterising Burnham’s later writings further ‘disqualifies it from conventional academic validity’, according to Skrebowski; for the most part, these writings are simply ‘passed over in quiet embarrassment’.12 Indeed, critics from Rosalind Krauss to Thierry de Duve have largely rejected Burnham’s criticism on the grounds that his early model of systems aesthetics was too rational – too technocratic, even technophilic – and that his later model was, conversely, too irrational, filled with mystical ramblings and arcane references.13 Melissa Ragain, who recently edited a landmark volume of Burnham’s selected writings, similarly identifies this dramatic change: ‘Within two years he had transformed the work of art into a Gnostic gospel, and systems aesthetics into a comforting form of endless explanation yielding only ever more obscurities.’14

But Burnham himself also acknowledged what seemed like an unusual conceptual leap. He writes, ‘Given the quasi-scientific rationalism implicit in the first few systems essays, the gradual transition toward high magic in cabalism and alchemy appears to be a complete inversion. Yet fundamentally the systems view of reality, with its theory of hierarchies and fusion of living and non-living structures, is not inconsistent with hermetic philosophy.’15 In other words, he suggests that the logical project rooted in a ‘theory of hierarchies’ that would fuse opposites – living and non-living structures – in systems aesthetics is also consistent with alchemical philosophy.

Both Skrebowski and Ragain also see continuity across these models. Skrebowski identifies the way in which Burnham’s rational approach and his irrational approach are of a piece; both are attempts to articulate a postformalist theory of art, one that dispenses with the concept of the medium and the aesthetic object and instead embraces systematic concerns. The turn to the occult was a response to an evident failure of systems aesthetics as first formulated to effectively elucidate such concerns. Skrebowski argues that only the ‘“system aesthetics” phase of Burnham’s work proves to be ongoingly productive’, but that even this ‘phase needs to be contextualized in light of the full development of his thought’.16 Similarly, Ragain emphasises the importance of assimilating Burnham’s later work into the art critical canon. ‘Comprehension also requires that historians no longer efface the mystical turn of Burnham’s later career.’17 Following this mandate, I want to explore both the rational and the irrational dimension of Burnham’s criticism, including not only the logical aspects of systems aesthetics but also the illogical – the affective and allegorical – elements of his later work.

The alchemy of salt

As we have seen, Salt Flat exemplifies the first version of Burnham’s thought. The work gains its significance through natural systems: through the accumulation of salt and its subsequent dispersal through wind and weather, but also through the salt’s chemical state changes (from solid blocks to granular crystals to a liquid solution) and the range of geographic and geological registers that Oppenheim activates (high desert, deep ocean, and their meeting point at relative sea level in Manhattan, as well as the temporal planes of past and future). These natural systems, drawn from ecological models, are paired with social systems: the visual, textual and cartographic registers of the work’s documentary information, and the various situational and institutional frames through which the work exists and circulates.

Diagram from Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works, New York 1974

Diagram from Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works, New York 1974

Burnham, however, continued to embrace Oppenheim wholeheartedly even after turning from early systems aesthetics to hermetic philosophy. Even into the 1970s, Oppenheim appears throughout Burnham’s texts as an embodiment of these new concerns. Salt, Oppenheim’s chosen material, was the crucial life force in this philosophy. In an essay included in Great Western Salt Works, just pages from ‘Systems Esthetics’ and ‘Real Time Systems’, Burnham explains that alchemy rests on ‘the relationships between the four primal elements: AIR, FIRE, WATER, and EARTH, with the fifth and quintessential element, AETHER, standing as the perfect fusion of the first four’. These four elements, and this rarefied ether, are further related by a set of ‘four contingent properties’: wet, hot, dry and cold.18 In a schematic diagram that is not unlike the Klein diagrams that both Burnham and Rosalind Krauss popularised in art criticism of the period, Burnham relates these elements and properties, with AETHER anchoring the centre of the rubric (fig.2).

It is actually quite possible to map Salt Flat onto this schematic. Oppenheim’s work engages hot and dry in the Great Salt Desert and cold and wet in the ocean off the coast of the Bahamas, and thus brings together the ‘contingent properties’ Burnham identifies as corollaries of his four ‘primal elements’. They meet on the asphalt parking lot in Manhattan.

Diagram from Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works, New York 1974

Diagram from Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works, New York 1974

Burnham continues with another schematic diagram that specifically maps the salt onto these concepts (fig.3). He explains the diagram as follows: ‘For the alchemist the triad above represents the wedding of the indestructible principles. Hence Sulphur, the fixed indrawing principle, utilizes FIRE and EARTH; Mercury, the volatile dispersing principle, unites WATER and AIR; while Salt is the necessary medium for conjoining Sulphur and Mercury.’ Burnham explains that this conjoining quality is inherent in the basic chemical structure of salt. The compound is itself composed of an acid and a base, a positive and a negative. But in alchemy, salt also stands in as a representation for the union of opposites – the chemical relationship that tied together a positive and negative is also imbued with symbolic power. Burnham maps this onto table salt, or sodium chloride. ‘Chlorine and sodium are both poisonous, and yet together they produce one of the chemical staples of all life. In alchemy Sol (sun) and Luna (moon) represent the King and Queen, those two polarities which spiritually merge in order to complete the alchemical process. This last process is facilitated by the use of the alchemical Salt.’19 In effect, salt forms a chemical synthesis that also symbolises a more profound allegorical synthesis.

Again, this schematic is appropriate for understanding Salt Flat. Oppenheim’s piece explicitly engages a set of dualities, synthesising them in the performance enacted in Manhattan. It connects the high plane of the desert and the low plane of the sea floor; it relates matter’s solid state to its liquidity; it brings together the distant past of salt production in the Bahamas and the immediate present of chemical testing in the Great Salt Desert. These dualities – across place, space, time and history – are united, maybe transformed, on the parking lot in Manhattan. Geographic, geological and temporal registers are fused and transmuted on the asphalt.

Still, we need not parse the meaning of Burnham’s alchemical criticism too closely. His terms are confusing and abstract, drawn from a dizzying range of elusive sources, none of which are clearly identified or presented in a historically vigorous way. As Burnham explains: ‘These traditions have their various roots in Gnosticism; in the occult religion of Egypt; the Orphic mysteries of Greece; the cabalistic studies of the Jews; the Masonic Orders; and, in the East, in the doctrines of Tantric Buddhism and the Golden Flower of Taoism.’20 Besides the impenetrability of his references – a set of sources that are remarkably distant from the norms of the art criticism in the 1960s and 1970s – the notion that specific works of art might simply map onto these traditions (Burnham uses Marcel Duchamp’s readymades as his example of choice) suggests an oddly reductive method; a procedure in which a set of vague categories (AIR, FIRE, WATER, EARTH) and generic notions around uniting opposites and dichotomies (Mercury and Sulphur) can be bent at will to accommodate any work of art. Could one map most land art onto these terms (much of it, after all, is specifically composed of natural elements)? Even if Salt Flat fits Burnham’s rubric, does the rubric really explain Oppenheim’s theory or practice?

Rituals: The systems artist as shaman

Yet these ideas do, in fact, help us to understand Salt Flat. Taking Burnham literally is not advisable. It would be a mistake to become overly fixated on his particular terminologies and peculiar diagrams. However, Burnham’s criticism is provocative for shifting a discussion of systems aesthetics from its theoretical origins in cybernetics, systems theory and information theory – the domain of data and analysis – into the realm of myth and magic. His late criticism was an attempt to animate aesthetic conditions that were not adequately explained in his earlier model. Burnham apparently decided that his original criticism was insufficient to the task of making sense of systems – that there was an excess of meaning that could not be explained in his descriptions of systems alone. The metaphor and meaning of these works, activated through their ability to connect disconnected phenomena, synthesise opposites and relate dualities, required a more suggestive conceptual framework.

Moreover, this shift also allowed Burnham to distance himself from the explicitly militaristic resonance of his early criticism – a crucial critical move in 1968. After all, his ‘Systems Esthetics’ essay opens with a citation to a text by mathematician Edward Schaumberg Quade on ‘Methods and Procedures’, from a volume titled Analysis for Military Decisions and published by the RAND Corporation, the infamous cold war think tank.21 His ‘Real Time Systems’ essay also famously cites examples of real-time computer processing in the military, namely SAGE, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, a system of mainframe computers and radar arrays that provided air defence across North America during the cold war.22 Contemplating these references, Burnham writes that ‘Emotionally most humanists share an instinctive antipathy for these immensely complex computer systems. Their Orwellian overtones far overshadow their conceivable use as artists’ tools.’23 While he here rejects such sentimental humanistic arguments, he would later embrace them in his esoteric turn; his shift away from the militaristic and towards the mystical thus makes sense as a purposeful renunciation of his prior involvements with technologies and techniques linked to warfare. In other words, he offers a corrective, one that rejects his recourse to science and technology while still maintaining his interest in systems.

Burnham brings these new concerns together when he introduces a new figure: the artist as a mythical actor in an aesthetic ritual. Oppenheim is his primary example. In an essay included in Great Western Salt Works and titled ‘The Artist as Shaman’, he writes:

In a number of ways, the methods of Oppenheim’s art draws nearer to the traditional techniques used by the shaman in so-called primitive societies. Because of his unique ability to bring about social harmony and heal the sick, the shaman is regarded within his group as an extremely powerful, if not magical, person.24

He is specific in connecting Oppenheim to the work of creative truth-telling – whatever that even is. ‘So it is left to the most original artists of our times, an artist like Dennis Oppenheim, to shamanize us into realizing our true condition.’25 Burnham’s reading is deeply problematic. It reveals a troubling appropriation of the so-called primitive (an issue of which he is perhaps aware, having also flagged his reference with the phrase ‘so-called’), which places the ‘uncivilized’ other against its supposedly ‘civilized’ counterpart. Moreover, Burnham creates a risky mythopoetic reading of the systems artist and of Oppenheim in particular, one that blurs into grandiosity and hagiographic cliché. Perhaps aware of such criticisms, Burnham hedges: ‘It would be a mistake to imply that Oppenheim has consciously pushed his work in any specific direction over the past five years, or that he is deliberately involved with shamanistic technique.’26

Yet the formulation is still intriguing, for it suggests that the systems artist is also the artist as shaman. It is through Oppenheim’s systems concerns – the ‘sensory substitution, translocation (the relation of events and spaces), and transmogrification (the shifting of shapes into different forms)’ in his works, as well their elicitation of the body – that he embodied Burnham’s new figure.27 For his part, Oppenheim concurred. In reference to Great Western Salt Works, Oppenheim states, ‘I felt a certain rapport with some of these things he was saying … I felt a rapport with that writing.’28

If we understand Oppenheim as shaman, then Salt Flat is the ritual he conjures. Layers of meaning accumulate at the sites of Salt Flat; time, space and scale collapse together; distant geographical locations, even distant geological epochs, meet at a single moment; the deep past and far future converge; salt as solid transforms into crystalline substance and liquid solution; a white rectangle appears on a black surface, only to blow away. These processes gain allegorical significance when read not only through interpretations of the work as a stable entity, an example of ecological, social and artistic systems, but also as ritual. Perhaps what makes Burnham’s criticism of continued interest is not just the logic and reason of systems aesthetics, but also its mysterious turn. Systems – like the strange actions that took place on an empty asphalt parking lot in Manhattan – contain a surfeit of meaning that cannot be explained away by reason and logic alone.