robert smithson's monumental earthwork 'broken circle/spiral hill' opens in the netherlands

Jul 04, 2021

in 1971, american artist robert smithson carved ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ into the shoreline of a former sand mine near the city of emmen, in the netherlands. the monumental land art piece, which marks smithson’s only extant earthwork outside of the US, consists of two parts: ‘broken circle’, a semi-circular jetty built into a quarry lake filled with reflecting green water; and ‘spiral hill’, a cone-shaped hill beside the lake. the quarry and ‘broken circle’ can be seen from the top of the hill, reached via a spiraling path, while at the center of the circle is an immovable huge boulder deposited by ancient glacial movements. ‘smithson was fascinated by the constructed and reclaimed nature of the dutch landscape, and in emmen he found a perfect location to explore ideas core to his artistic practice,’ lisa le feuvre, holt/smithson foundation executive director, tells designboom in an interview.

header video by carlos mora for land art contemporary featuring anne reenders, lisa le feuvre and the director of sonsbeek beyond the limits

robert smithson’s ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ is a land artwork with a rich history, a deep resonance for the present, and an unknown future. the artist described it as ‘a major piece’ and it sparked his interest in working with industry and post-industrial landscape to make art ‘a necessary part of their reclamation projects.’ sited on private land, the artwork’s future is uncertain as it was donated to the people of the netherlands, but the specifics of how the work should be cared for and who should take responsibility for the land on which it sits are unclear.

designboom (DB): what makes ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ so significant to this day, in the context of both art history and the local community of emmen?

lisa le feuvre (LlF): ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ is sited in a former sand-mine, cut into the side of a terminal moraine. the site is a place where you can see geological with you own eyes. smithson was fascinated by the constructed and reclaimed nature of the dutch landscape, and in emmen he found a perfect location to explore ideas core to his artistic practice.

DB: what ideas does ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ address, specifically regarding robert smithson’s notions of the future?

LlF: smithson often talked about the future, and he was fascinated with the idea of entropy – that everything rises into ruin. smithson was committed to working with landscapes scarred by industry, thinking through future uses for exhausted landscapes. ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ imagines a future where a former sand mine can be a location to think deeper and look harder at the surface of our planet.

robert smithson’s ‘broken circle/spiral hill’ is an artwork with a rich history, with a deep resonance for the present, and with an unknown future. in 2021 our ambition is to build a sustainable future for the artwork, to enable it to inspire future generations.

DB: can you briefly introduce the holt/smithson foundation’s mission and ambitions?

DB: what do you think makes the work of nancy holt and robert smithson so important and beloved to this day?

robert smithson, ‘spiral hill’ (1971) | emmen, the netherlands | earth, topsoil, sand | diameter: 75 ft. (22.9 m) at base

©holt/smithson foundation/licensed by VAGA at ARS

robert smithson, ‘spiral jetty’, 1970 | image by gianfranco gorgoni