Searching for Smithson: Rose Vickers
Updated: May 3
A University of Sydney alumni in Art History, Rose Vickers is a US-based curator, art writer, and speaker with a focus on technology. Her dissertation on the American land artist Robert Smithson drew on site-based research in Indonesia and Mexico, and was written mainly in New York. Rose talks to her supervisor, Richard Smith, about a career crossing continents, the where and why of fieldwork, and the challenge of tracing one of the 20th century’s most sphinx-like artists.
Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque, 1969-72.
Dr. Richard Smith (RS): One thing that always fascinated me was the way that you went about doing your PhD: the importance of travel to the research, but also the idea that the travel came before the topic. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about it and how absolutely vital travel was to the project?
Dr. Rose Vickers (RV): I was interested in Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque. He’d travelled to Mexico’s Yucatán region in the late 1960s, and in 1972 gave a lecture at the University of Utah which drew on that earlier trip. This work is one of the more ambiguous in Smithson’s oeuvre, and to my mind could only be decoded through a lens of site.
The University of Sydney’s Australian Postgraduate Award and the Wentworth Fellowship allowed me to spend time in Vanuatu, Morocco, parts of Europe, the US, and Mexico—where I read about Hotel Palenque—and my PhD began.
RS: There’s an interesting methodological link between your PhD and the artwork that you chose.
RV: There is, because Smithson was so nomadic himself.
RS: So, you weren’t aware of this when it started, that’s brilliant. One of the other things that interested me was your decision to interview people: theorists or thinkers you were going to talk about. Did this occur to you towards the beginning or just as part of your travels? Because most people just get the book out of the library and have a read.
RV: I had the sense that people are knit into the fabric of architecture and art, and the only way I would understand Smithson’s work was to go backward through his career, his interactions, and the artists that had come after him, who had taken on his incredible legacy.
For a while I was just searching for people who were at that 1972 lecture. It became a social question, of how I could trace Smithson back through others. I heard about the Italian architect Gianni Pettena through one of my interview subjects: he not only was there, but later developed a friendship with Smithson that went far beyond the lecture, away from Utah and into New York.
RS: It actually suggests you should have made a doco: ‘Searching for Smithson’. And it implies a different model of PhD research that I hadn’t encountered before. I think there’s a connection between all this and what you’re doing now—can you tell us about the notions of mobility and automation in the work you’re doing?
RV: Graduating during the early stages of the pandemic necessitated ‘moving with’ the art market. As galleries and auction houses pivoted to digital, entry points opened up in a different way. In my work now, I’m overseeing a team of curators from around the world; as independent thinkers, they’re mobile but also locally embedded, so each has their own specializations and understanding of (often smaller) art markets.
Rose Vickers visiting the Bushwick studio of artist Brad Kahlhamer.
RS: Regarding automation, then—Artificial Intelligence is massively expanding in film production, but it didn’t strike me right away that AI would be huge in curatorship. It makes me wonder whether AI, and online exhibition spaces, could be used as a research tool by students.
RV: Online spaces can be forums to thematically group artworks. Curating IRL involves so many different logistical elements coming together, but through technology, young curators can quickly reach an audience.
RS: Do you think that the automation of curatorship is going to gather more pace?
RV: I do. In 2020 the global art market was down 22%. Many people were being made redundant—in institutions, at auction houses—and there was the audible question of ‘why are we even thinking about art?' It took some time for answers to transpire, and communities of online curation were just one of these.
At the same time, the developments we’ve been seeing in AI (even recent headlines on how advanced these algorithms are, such as Blake Lemoine’s argument on computer neural networks) merely skim the possibilities for programming personality and education into online art curation.
If a space is really just a way to reach an audience, or something that has a style and a personality—and a readership—then online curation is already halfway there. Whether AI will fortify or challenge these communities remains to be seen. I hope we can do both.
Dr. Rose Vickers is a US-based curator, speaker, and art historian focused on innovative outcomes for digital and real-world projects. Rose is an alumni of Art History at the University of Sydney.
Caption: Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque, 1969-72, Slide projection of thirty-one 35 mm color slides (126 format) and audio recording of a lecture by the artist at the University of Utah in 1972 (42 min, 57 sec), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director's Council and Executive Committee Members: Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Linda Fischbach, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Brian McIver, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Denise Rich, Rachel Rudin, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk, 1999, 99.5268. © Estate of Robert Smithson.