Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown

While it predates the invention of the Anthropocene term/concept by several decades, Robert Smithson’s artwork Asphalt Rundown (1969) both embodies and scrutinizes key aspects of the Anthropocene.

The basic premise of the artwork is that a truckload of hot asphalt is poured down the steep slope of an open-pit mine. In the fall of 1969, Smithson realized this artwork in an abandoned gravel pit on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. This video shows documentary footage of the artwork and also has voice-over by Smithson and his wife and fellow artist Nancy Holt. The narration gives a nice background to the artwork and Smithson’s interests but the audio quality is poor.

The material components that make up Asphalt Rundown are, by themselves, quintessential symbols of the Anthropocene. Asphalt is a by-product of the manufacture of petroleum, and is an essential ingredient of roadways. As such, it is symbolic of the development of the highway system in tandem with increasing automobile use, part of the legacy of the Great Acceleration. Gravel, too, is used in the creation of roads, both as a road surface in itself and as a substrate for asphalt.

Open-pit mining could also be called an Anthropocene artifact, though the practice is centuries old and thus predates most origin stories for the epoch. Open-pit mining has displaced millions of tons of soil: a vast reordering of the earth’s surface that mirrors the geological impact of humanity that forms the basis of the Anthropocene concept. Open-pit mining literally makes visible geological strata, while also disrupting them.

Smithson’s “action” or performance, the act of pouring asphalt over the edge of an open-pit mine, further disrupts the landscape as well as functionally re-covering the exposed strata. This ambiguous act reflects the mutually destructive and conservationist forms that human impact may take in the Anthropocene.


Photo credit: screen capture from Asphalt Rundown,

Lisa Martin

Lisa Martin is a curator and writer with interests spanning site-specific, new media and social practice art, as well as heritage, history, and memory processes. She has a background in art and art history, and recently completed her MA in Curating Art through Stockholm University. Her thesis research examined the nature of contemporary art production, display, and encounter in cultural heritage sites such as national parks and historic monuments. Her interest in the concept of the Anthropocene is strongly linked to topics she examined during this research, such as the nature/culture divide, the concept of wilderness, the construction of cultural heritage, and artistic interpretation/mediation in sites or landscapes that are already heavily mediated.