All rights reserved.
Perhaps unremarkably, Ho Chi Minh, at the height of the Vietnam War, and during the last year of his life, enters the US simply by attaching himself to a Mongolian trade delegation under a false passport. In Las Vegas he rents a car and heads north with his driver, translator and bodyguard, Yulia—a young female comrade, his frequent aide on trips abroad. He arrives at a desolate stretch of the Great Salt Lake at dawn. Robert Smithson is there waiting for him.
Smithson is attracted to the willowy Ukrainian, absurdly so—at this moment he could throw it all away for one night with Yulia. But he also understands that he’s projecting his emotional confusion onto this tall remote blonde. Smithson is deeply moved in the presence of the president and feels an intuitive, almost familial bond with the frail old soldier-philosopher.
Smithson is dressed in jeans, cowboy shirt and leather jacket. He stubs a cigarette out in the dust with his work boots. He moves forward to greet Ho; the small, bright-eyed man takes Smithson’s hand, warmly.
At the end of the Spiral Jetty, Ho Chi Minh turns to Smithson: “My brother Khiem, dead these many years, was a geomancer, a diviner of the earth. He would have appreciated this”; Ho raises his hand across the water. A pair of American avocets rises from the reeds along the far shore. Smithson leans back, hands in the back pockets of his jeans, eyes closed, the rising morning wind across his face. Smithson remembers the memorial telegram Ho sent to Khiem’s village: The onus of public affairs has not allowed me to look after him during his illness or to attend his funeral today. I humbly apologize for this failure in brotherly devotion and beg you to forgive a son who has put affairs of state before family feelings. “Public affairs” signified Ho’s leadership of the guerrilla underground against the French in Tonkin circa 1950.
The two move forward along the contour of the spiral, Yulia following closely behind. She translates for Ho when needed. Smithson is unperturbed by the pauses. Their meeting is as it should be; the rising sun hard along the desolate, lunar lake shore—an exchange punctuated by stillness.
Despite his poor health, Ho strides easily along the rough length of the stone-piled jetty. He’s spent a life time on the march. “It occurs to me, Mr. Smithson, that so much of the work of your Western avant-garde, in its fascination with deep, geological, ahistorical time, constitutes an attempt to operate outside the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, from the Renaissance though the Enlightenment.”
“For the avant-garde,” Smithson replies, “the crisis of capitalism will not be mediated through intellectual discourse, but will be solved in the streets.”
“Mr. Smithson, I appreciate your bravado, but history ends rather differently for me.”
Yulia knows more about Smithson than she has any reason to reveal. He once wrote: The circles of power become more and more intangible as they move to the edge of nowhere. Crimes are committed for the ultimate goal of the state. Fictitious social structures uphold stupid hierarchies and protect the legal criminals. Unreality becomes a hard-nosed fact. In this fugitive ‘city’ of the crumbling world-mind, all solids tremble and seem about to disintegrate…The Establishment is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
Pointed social critique from this theoretically elusive figure whose art criticism often reads like an elaborate put-on. Yulia also finds Smithson’s spontaneous and unaffected deep regard for the President touching, if not uncommon.
“Spiral Jetty is 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide and is composed of 6,550 tons of rock and earth. Construction costs totaled 8,000 dollars; the site was leased for 20 years at a cost of 100 dollars,” Smithson says as they reach the spiral’s tip. “Tell me, please, what you think?”
Ho gazes over the red salt water, across the concentric bands of the jetty’s length as it crosses his line of sight. “I think it should be bigger,” Ho says. Smithson laughs, “You know, I get that a lot.”
Smithson takes a pack of Marlboros from his pocket. As an afterthought he offers one to Ho; to his surprise the President accepts.
Ho points at Smithson: “Nowhere in your writings do you employ the designation ‘avant-garde.’ Yet in your recent contribution to the Artforum symposium The Artist and Politics, you wrote in effect that ‘The political system that now controls the world on every level should be denied by art’.” Smithson nods again. This seems to satisfy the President, who tosses his spent cigarette into the water and moves on along the interminable-seeming length of the promontory. Smithson grins at Yulia.
Yulia in conversation, on assignment, Mexico City, 1987: “Shortly before his untimely death, Smithson gave a final interview in which he made several surprisingly unfortunate comments regarding Marcel Duchamp, characterizing Duchamp as a pretentious, aristocratic dilettante. Smithson goes on to make a facile and misguided critique of both the readymades and ‘The Bride…’ and then of conceptual art in general. Smithson, in his sole meeting with the then-aged Duchamp, smugly casts him as an ‘alchemist,’ a sort of fraudulent mystic. Smithson comes off as a humorless, provincial ass somehow threatened by Duchamp and the then-emerging move toward Conceptualism. I can’t imagine Smithson not retracting these comments, had he lived long enough to regret them.”
Smithson points and turns to stop at each point of the compass across the arcs of the spiral, saying “Mud, salt crystals, black basalt rock, red water…mud, salt crystals, black basalt rock, red water…mud, salt crystals, black basalt rock, red water…”
Ho and Smithson share an economy of movement, an easy precision of speech, an insightful, penetrating, compassionate gaze. Yulia finds these similarities disconcerting.
“He is the man who remains awake while everyone else sleeps,” wrote Lacouture of Ho Chi Minh, and Yulia suspects the same could be said of Smithson—he has that same vigilant intelligence. This meeting, Yulia now intuits, is almost cosmically improbable—in another world it could never happen.
Yulia wonders why, exactly, Ho Chi Minh has made this long journey to the Spiral Jetty. It has the feel of a settling of accounts. There is little in the historical record to suggest that Ho Chi Minh has any affinity or even specific knowledge of Western art, avant-garde or otherwise. Yet here he is, nodding as Smithson cups his hand to his ear, suggesting that the sound of the wind and the water on the Jetty are to be considered integral to the sculpture. Ho was in Paris during the second decade of the century during the flowering of the Modern avant-garde in the visual arts, but then he was an impoverished émigré preoccupied with the political dimensions of Vietnam’s fledgling struggle for independence. How did he find time for art? Yet here he is, stroking his beard as he gazes out across the red waters…
Yulia takes in the sweep of the Jetty and the surrounding site. The salty wind rakes her hair, she hears the water lapping against the stones of the jetty, the wind across the water; she can taste the salt, smell it on her skin and in her hair. This crystalline realm, she realizes, constitutes its own self-contained universe. Out on the Spiral Jetty she can believe that this world ends at the horizon line. She is struck by the power of this sensation. Smithson, she realizes, discovered this country. She lights a cigarette as she scans the far shore.
It occurs to her that this perceptual compression effects a sort of ending to the outside world—an attenuation, rather than an expansion of consciousness. That is what is so powerful about Smithson’s art. After the earthworks would come the refined and venturesome machinations of Conceptual art, and then the long entropic fade into the fluidity of postmodern forms. She thinks she understands now why, in interviews, Smithson so stubbornly privileges the fundamental immanence of the art object in its physical form.
Yulia rests with Ho on the gate of Smithson’s pickup, eating a ploughman’s lunch.
Smithson paces before them, detailing the Jetty’s construction, chain-smoking, gesturing freely, his harsh voice carried on the rising wind. Given Smithson’s almost manic volubility, Yulia might suspect that he’s “under the influence,” but understands that he’s in the thrall of his own species of exalted mania, the artist’s prerogative.
Yulia studies Smithson: the square-jawed, lightly pockmarked face, the hawk’s eyes and implacable gaze, his athletic, American physique with broad shoulders, narrow waist, strong legs. She remembers a remarkable interview with Bob Phillips, the contractor Smithson hired for the Jetty project. Phillips’ frank expression of respect and camaraderie for Smithson—a man from essentially another world—was poignant, after Smithson’s then-recent death in a plane wreck, dead at thirty-five…
Smithson stands before Ho, leaning forward, his left hand on the old man’s shoulder, sharing a quiet joke…the sky slides sideways, the waters of the Spiral Jetty pulsing a blood red.
They gather back at the car, Yulia and Ho preparing to leave. Smithson gives Yulia a farewell kiss on the cheek; she looks at him. He says, “So we part as friends, after all.” She shrugs lightly, glances away. Smithson laughs.
Ho takes his arm, leads him off towards the ridge overlooking the Jetty. Yulia watches them talking easily, silhouetted against the setting sun.
They take their leave; Yulia sees Smithson waving goodbye in the rear view mirror, a lone figure in the dusty gloom.
As Yulia drives the Ford through the darkness, Ho takes a pewter cigarette case from the fold of his coat, removes a Gitanes, taps it thoughtfully on the case, lights the cigarette—the strong tobacco smoke fills the cabin.
She drives along a high ridge scattered with wind-stunted pines. She opens the bag on the bench seat, removes a flask of whiskey, drinks.
Ho Chi Minh rests silently, gazing out the window. He lifts the whiskey flask from the seat to take a long swig.
Ho Chi Minh then turns to the side window, slumps down in his seat, and falls asleep.
Yulia drives on through the dark hills.
Smithson runs along the
Spiral Jetty, his heart set to
burst, riven by crystalline
oceans of time where
memories fade; galaxies dead
a million light years ago;
unbearable sorrows of war;
the unbridgeable spaces
The Great Salt Lake
The north and west shores are almost uninhabited…
A critical habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl in western North America: Wilson’s phalarope, red-necked phalarope, American avocet, black-necked stilt, marbled godwit, snowy plover, western sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, tundra swan, American white pelican, white-faced ibis, California gull, eared grebe, peregrine falcon, bald eagle.
A phytoplankton community dominated by blue-green or green algae tint the water south of the causeway a greenish color. North of the causeway, the lake is dominated by halophilic bacteria which gives the water an unusual reddish or purplish color. These color differences are especially noticeable in satellite photographs.
Nghe An (Ho’s home province)
Above this plain soar gray birds, wild geese with enormous wing spans. Their melancholy cries drift in from the sea, full of nostalgia, vague fear and the insatiable desire for change. The sea’s presence is felt everywhere…the area is like a mirror, with glimmering beaches and sea-green fields, a long pearl-colored mirror reflecting the first foothills of the cordillera…”Land of green waters and blue mountains,” says a popular song. But the soil is arid and in the summer a torrid wind blows from Laos, crackling the earth and scorching the plants. Typhoons are common and the rains torrential. Nothing is more beautiful, nothing harsher than this climate…it must be said that the challenge posed by the land of Ho’s birth is strong indeed.
— Jean Lacouture, Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography
Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography, Jean Lacouture, Random House, 1968.
Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 1996.
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty, edited by Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, University of California Press, 2005.
The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh, Riverhead Books, 1996.
The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, Marilyn Young, Harper Perennial, 1991.
Gary Lain’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Journal of Experimental Fiction, Fiction International, American Book Review, Asylum, The Southern Anthology, Belphegor, Locus Novus, red, Crash Test, Raised in a Barn, and City Works.
This story is included in issue #41: Freak. Copyright © 2008 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
Purchase Freak from Amazon.com.