to José and Madgickal

Humanity no longer the measure, nor even the point, of art.—Thomas Crow, Cosmic Exile: Prophetic Turns in the Life and Art of Robert Smithson

In this paper, I consider works by three artists — Smithson, Roni Horn, and Felix González-Torres — as different, successive approaches to the non-human/inorganic in late modern and contemporary art. I think the displacement of the human measure of art from two related, but different perspectives. One route is through what philosopher Mario Perniola, borrowing from philosopher Walter Benjamin, calls the sex appeal of the inorganic. The other is through queer, and specifically queer of color, critique, as in the work of Professor of Performance Studies José Muñoz and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Mel Chen. Muñoz and Chen both rely on affect as a way to look at race less as an identity and more as an activity, which allows me to draw some parallels between their work and Perniola’s before them.


Robert Smithson, "Leaning Mirror," 1969. Sand and two mirrors, 30 x 108 x 144 in.
Robert Smithson, "Leaning Mirror," 1969. Sand and two mirrors, 30 x 108 x 144 in.

The first example I consider is Robert Smithson’s Leaning Mirror of 1969. Through Leaning Mirror, we can position ourselves in relation to Minimalism, the artistic idiom that most nearly describes the formal qualities of the work of Smithson, Horn, and González-Torres, even as their work stands apart from Minimalism. Let us begin with the obliqueness of Smithson’s work, the way in which it mirrors but leans away from Minimalism.

Artist Donald Judd’s 1965 essay “Specific Objects,” almost from its title alone, can be employed to elucidate the gambit of Minimalism.1 In “Specific Objects,” Judd liberates the work he is describing from the formal constraints of both painting and sculpture, referring to it simply as three-dimensional work. While, on the one hand, he grants that this work is not anthropomorphic2, on the other hand, it is not too great a leap from Judd’s specific objects to the intentional object of phenomenology. That is, while representational content is done away with in favour of the perceptual experience of the object as such, such objective knowledge is still dependent on a Kantian framework of noumena and phenomena, objects and subjects.3

More specifically, and to shift attention from objects to specificity or intentionality, what further unites Minimalism and phenomenology is their gestaltism, a mereology that subordinates parts to wholes: “In the three-dimensional work the whole thing is made according to complex purposes, and these are not scattered but asserted by one form. [ . . .] The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. [ . . . ] In the new work the shape, image, color, and surface are single and not partial and scattered. [ . . . ] There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material.”4 It is on this point — on the self-identity of objects that cohere above and beyond their constituent parts and that serve as activators of subjective experience and interpretation — that we can begin to pivot toward a reading of Leaning Mirror in terms of Smithson’s contentions with Minimalism.

Smithson counterpoises to Judd’s specific objects the corrosive process of entropy: “Separate ‘things,’ ‘forms,’ ‘objects,’ ‘shapes,’ etc., with beginnings and endings are mere convenient fictions: there is only an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations.”5 Leaning Mirror formally approaches a Minimalist austerity, but it is only half comprised of the industrial products typical of Judd’s three-dimensional works. More, the materials it does employ remain two distinctly separate forms, that is, one, the two back-to-back mirrors and, two, the pile of dirt. Broken down into its constituent parts, Leaning Mirror both ironizes Minimalism’s literality, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get ontology of (material) presence, and exposes the necessarily fragmented and always fragmenting nature of seemingly distinct objects. That is, the mirrors are angled in such a way as to prevent the reflection of the human viewing subject. The mirrors come together with the dirt in Smithson’s terminology of non-site. Crow draws attention to the homonym inherent in this term, elucidating both the function of the mirrors and, subsequently, that of the dirt: “Not enough has been made of the obvious pun in these pieces: ‘nonsight,’ that is ‘nothing to see,’ which signals their tacit parody both of concentrated modernist looking and the gestalt-dependency of Minimal art. The unstructured mineral deposits serve as tokens for the endless flux or ‘action’ that prevails in nature.”6

Together, the mirrors and the dirt work against any gestalt experience, throwing into question the totalizability and specificity of the work as object. However, between the two, or in their disjuncture, the horizontality of the sex appeal of the inorganic is forgone in favour of a vertical, dialectical tension that remains tethered to religious connotations. Hence the cosmic of Crow’s title, as a setting apart from the earth.

Smithson illustrates this verticality with reference to the infraphysical of my subtitle: “Perhaps, a better word than ‘metaphysical’ to describe my art would be ‘infraphysical,’ ‘infra’ meaning ‘below’ rather than ‘beyond.’ By infra I mean an order that is not visible to the natural eye, but rather an order that remains hidden until it is made physical by the artist. This involves degrees of consciousness that go from the organic natural state to the crystalline artifice. The natural world is ruled by the temporal (dynamic history) whereas the crystalline world is ruled by the atemporal (non-dynamic time).”7 So the dirt not only recalls, in the synecdochal relationship of site and non-site, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist8, but also the organic, natural temporality of human corruption, while the mirrors, though themselves non-crystalline solids, recall the enantiomorphism of the atemporal, crystalline artifice of the eternal.


Félix González-Torres, "Untitled (Placebo — Landscape — for Roni)," 1993. Candies, individually wrapped in gold cellophane, endless supply, Ideal weight: 1,200 lbs., overall dimensions vary with installation.
Félix González-Torres, "Untitled (Placebo — Landscape — for Roni)," 1993. Candies, individually wrapped in gold cellophane, endless supply, Ideal weight: 1,200 lbs., overall dimensions vary with installation.
Roni Horn, "Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix," 1994-5. Gold, 49 x 60 x .0008 in.
Roni Horn, "Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix," 1994-5. Gold, 49 x 60 x .0008 in.

I now turn to the work of Horn and González-Torres and, specifically, to that work that was made in relation to the relation between the artists, González-Torres’ Untitled (Placebo — Landscape — for Roni) of 1993 and Horn’s Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix of 1994-5. I lean on Professor of Performance Studies José Muñoz’s reading of González-Torres’ work in his first book, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, first as a way to consider the work in relation to Minimalism and second as a springboard for thinking about how the work might be reinterpreted in light of queer of color critique’s turn to affect — specifically as it appears in the subsequent work of Muñoz, as well as in the work of Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Mel Chen. Like Smithson’s, the work of these artists is in oblique relation to Minimalism,9 operating on an understanding of, contra Judd, identity as not objective or obdurate but malleable and mercurial, relational and transitional, that is, always in transit. While for Smithson this, quite literally, reflected humanity’s fall from God, Horn’s and González-Torres’ interests are far more quotidian. That is, all these artists, in some way, retain the positionality of exile, but the cosmic is here replaced by the social.

Transubstantiation, the act of changing the substance but not the appearance of an object, can be understood as the tactic employed alike by Smithson and Horn and González-Torres. Smithson uses the literary technique of metonymy, and specifically synecdoche — his samples of earth from a place on earth allow for that place to be re-presented in a gallery or museum context. Horn and González-Torres use metaphor — a landscape of candies wrapped in gold foil or a pair of gold mats resembles the queer artist or queer couple. We can understand the latter, after Muñoz, as disidentificatory performance. Though Muñoz’s analysis references explicitly only González-Torres, I think it can be extended to Horn as well.10 Both artists, through their formal practices and poetic assignation of private content to the publicity of these practices, negate the primacy, or even rule out the possibility, of the individual, universalized, self-sufficient subject, a tenet of white normativity. While Smithson’s work, to a certain extent, does this, too, the particularity of difference is sacrificed to an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations. In Horn’s and González-Torres’ work, there are still separate things, but they are neither whole nor alone. More, the disparity of things is not conjured through representational exoticism, but instead relies on tactics of affectual connotation, enigma, invisibility, and obliquity.

Writing about González-Torres’ unmade bed billboard, Muñoz elaborates what he means by disidentity thusly: “There is in fact nothing to identify with — no figure, no text, no gesture, barely an object, only an absence. What is evoked is a ‘structure of feeling’ that cuts through certain Latino and queer communities but is in no way exclusive to any identitarian group. I am suggesting that the image connotes a disidentity, a version of self that is crafted through something other than rote representational practices, produced through an actual disidentification with such practices and the public/private binary.”11 The artist’s golden landscape portrait of Horn could be said to operate similarly. The work is not only on the ground, but it is all ground; there is no figure, text, or gesture. Certainly there are the objects of the individual pieces of candy, but even these constitute an absence as viewers are meant to consume them. The work does not depict Horn, but performs a feeling, it feels, it feels like her, a feeling that, to take into consideration the etymology of the work’s parenthetical descriptor placebo, is pleasing. Horn’s work is, by comparison, more restrained — it is smaller and consists of less pieces — and more precious — it is comprised of pure gold rather than cellophane-wrapped candies. It exists as a sort of compressed and refined version of González-Torres’ placebo landscape. Yet, it still functions in the same way, being less about any one-to-one correspondence between its materials and its referents and more about the commonality, the being-in-common, it evokes.

In his essay on Horn’s prior work Gold Field that instigated the artists’ friendship, González-Torres carnally highlights his intuition of just this aspect of the work: “Recently Roni revisited the Gold Field. This time it is two sheets. Two, a number of companionship, of doubled pleasure, a pair, a couple, one on top of the other. Mirroring and emanating light. When Roni showed me this new work she said, ‘there is sweat in between.’ I knew that.”12 Both González-Torres and Horn come to their work with an understanding of the particularity of their respective circumstantial realities — the placebo of González-Torres’ landscape for Horn also indexes an earlier work of his, a candy spill in silver, that could be said to index not the pleasure of friendship but the ideological placation of people of color living with HIV/AIDS, and Horn has described Gold Field as being “a product of being a pawnbroker’s daughter.”13 Ultimately, though, through the installations of these artworks, these particularities are shared out in communal structures of feeling.

What constitutes these artists’ disidentification from their deployment of a Minimalist symbolic lexicon is that, counter-intuitively, the emotionality that their work works to maximize works against another, related sort of minimalism: “The affective performance of normative whiteness is minimalist to the point of emotional impoverishment.”14 Horn and González-Torres inherit from Smithson a seemingly Minimalist formal language that rejects obdurate material identity for fragmentation and incompleteness, but their work is imbued with the differences immanent on earth — not crystalline structures, but structures of feeling. In order that fragmentation and incompleteness be retained, these differences are not signalled through representational cohesion but through the open-ended interconnectedness of affect.

So far, then, from Smithson we get an art that is not measured by humanity insofar as it builds from the infra-physical level of atemporal crystalline structures. These structures exist on a spectrum with the human and other organic forms that, by contrast, exhibit decay. Such a spectrum leans away from the subjectivity of the viewer and the objectivity of the work. In so doing, however, both are subordinated to a transcendent entropy that is indifferent to differences on earth. Horn and González-Torres, by contrast, embrace difference through affect. One way in which to think the different tactics adopted by Smithson and Horn and González-Torres is with recourse to philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of apparatuses and Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of bodies without organs. This will be to detour us from Muñoz’s earlier work before arriving at his later work and to draw attention to Horn’s earlier sculpture Gold Field that inspired the artists’ friendship.

The impetus for Agamben’s essay “What Is an Apparatus?” is the term as it appears in the work of philosopher Michel Foucault. He begins from a 1977 interview with Foucault and works backward to retool the term in terms of a broader theological history. In Agamben’s ontology, there are living beings/essences/substances and the acting apparatuses that “capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.”15 This division is an event that reproduces a similar religious division, something like that between God and Christ. Between the two and arising from their agonistic interrelation, is the class of subjects: “Apparatus, then, is first of all a machine that produces subjectifications,”16 or, as Deleuze puts it in his earlier essay “What Is a Dispositif”, “they are machines which make one see and speak.”17 Generalizing the religious underpinnings of apparatuses as subjectification machines, Agamben “define[s] religion as that which removes things, places, animals, or people from common use and transports them to a separate sphere.”18 He names sacrifice as that apparatus that governs the separation performed by religion and profanation as that “counter-apparatus that restores to common use what sacrifice had separated and divided.”19

Let us briefly pursue the above synopsis of Agamben’s conceptualization of apparatuses with reference to Smithson’s Leaning Mirror. Like Agamben, Crow uncovers a religiosity at work in the work of Smithson. We have already heard this in Smithson’s language of transcendence and Crow’s language of cosmic. Crow’s analysis of Leaning Mirror draws out Smithson’s latent Pascalian Christianity20 manifest in the sculpture: “‘Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep, debris slides, mud flow, avalanche’, all of these qualities (the correlates of human corruption) being for him the antithesis of the static qualities of ‘proportion’ and ‘passion’ (the correlates of the eternal). The underside reflection in Leaning Mirror, by doubling the irregular shape of the mound, raises it to the realm of abstract symmetry — while the upward-facing mirror denies any such fixities [emphasis added].”21 Here, then, we have a material manifestation of the fracture Agamben describes “that separated in [God] being and action, ontology and praxis.”22

Agamben’s counter-apparatus of profanation, complicated as it has become by contemporary informatic capitalism, still retains a binaristic and dialectical structure, that is, the fight between living beings, primarily man, and apparatuses. So while profanation restores to “the free use and trade among humans”23 that which apparatuses have captured and controlled, man comes to occupy the place of God with objects tethered to his use. In terms of Smithson’s sculpture, then, which is similarly premised upon a binaristic and dialectical structure, profanation might amount to a repositioning of the mirrors such that man is reflected back, restored to himself (in the image of God).

To be sure, Deleuze and Guattari’s trope, based on the writings of playwright Antonin Artaud, of the body without organs, is product of an earlier historical moment than that of Agamben’s contemporary conceptualization of the apparatus, which can be more readily aligned with the later Deleuze. Nevertheless, we still might differentiate a body without organs from an apparatus on the basis that where Agamben proceeds from ancient Roman law and religion, Deleuze and Guattari proceed from Artaud’s to be done with the judgement of God. Agamben’s dialectical structure of two classes that give rise to a third is here subordinated to an uninterrupted continuum of immanence, to a degree zero of intensive matter, or energy — the egg. From this perspective, living beings and apparatuses alike are outcroppings of a more fundamental physics of nature. As Galloway has recently written, “the universe is no longer divided up into objects so much as nexuses of relation, forever ebbing and flowing in and out of equilibrium. [ . . . ] Nature, for thinkers like Deleuze, is at root a smooth aggregation of heterogeneous entities, all on equal footing within a material substratum. Crystals grow, and animals procreate. Elements catalyze chemical reactions just as nations surge together in battle. Each entity is a heterogeneous singularity. But taken as a whole, they constitute a single plane of being, the plane of immanence, broad, flat, and continuous. There is no vacuum in a Deleuzian universe, no absence or lack, no unconscious, no repression, no binarisms like self/other or man/woman, only variations in intensity, fields of attraction and repulsion, local crystallizations of material habit and corruptions of structure leading to dissolution and subsequent recombination. Deleuzian immanence is an immanence at the level of ontology. Nature is immanent to itself; it does not need to go outside itself in order to realize itself [emphasis added].”24 Desubjectification, as a movement on the body without organs, tends away from the affections of particular persons or subjects and toward pure affect. As such, as Deleuze and Guattari tell us, a body without organs is not opposed to organs per se but to their organization in an organism. Rather than the performance of the counter-apparatus of profanation that restores objects to the use of men, one performs a body without organs, one makes oneself a body without organs, by subverting the functionality of organs as they have been sedimented and coagulated in the organism. This is the sense in which “all BwOs pay homage to Spinoza”25, for it was this philosopher who first suggested that “nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do”26. Or, in the words of Rimbaud, “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. [ . . . ] Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed — and the Supreme Scientist! [emphasis added].”27 While the strata of the organism, signification, and subjectification fold, or instrumentalize, the body, making yourself a body without organs means becoming a scientist by experimenting with, or unfolding, the limits of what a body can do. Alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s examples of the drugged body without organs populated by refrigerator waves and the masochist body without organs populated by pain waves, Horn’s Gold Field can be read as a gold body without organs. The artist fabricates a degree 0 of gold on which waves of light circulate and across which they pass. As Horn relays, “The gold piece was about taking away all of these civilizing corruptions that gold had gone through, whether being used as a surface phenomenon or as jewelry. My idea was to give back to gold its corporeal presence, to let it be one hundred percent what it is. You’ve got this extraordinary material which is capable of existing in mundane reality. It’s not so platonic that it won’t admit to a very direct relation with natural forces.”28 Horn attempts to take away, to file away all the objects into which gold has been organized and all that is has signified, letting it be a body. What is achieved in the making of Gold Field, in a field, or body without organs, of gold, is an anonymous, impersonal, neuter sex appeal — the sex appeal of the inorganic. The gold is not platonic, but admits to a very direct relation with natural forces. Recall that González-Torres tells us that Horn said of her later sculpture with two sheets of gold there is sweat in between. To imagine that there is sweat in between two sheets of gold is to imagine gold bodies, is to imagine the inorganic landscape as body. On the one hand, we might be tempted to anthropomorphize the gold sheets as such. Yet on the other, I think this would be to miss the point of Gold Field and the body without organs alike, whose greatest invitation and provocation is not to anthropomorphize things, but to thingify ourselves en route to becoming imperceptible. Not to see gold from our perspective, but to see light from gold’s perspective. There is sweat in between the gold because there is already gold in between our sweat. After all, as Horn relays, "Pure gold. What you gather from the look of it is its relationship to light. It’s not phenomenological; it’s empirical. It’s doing something that the gold most people have seen doesn’t do.”29 That is, Horn, like Deleuze and Guattari’s example of the mistress-rider, converts the forces and inverts the signs of gold — its phenomenology — and establishes in its place an empirical environmentality, a zone of intensity, that forms a circuit, or relation, with light. Where Smithson’s sculpture highlights that apparatuses maintain a world in which they remain distinct from and forever at war with living beings, Horn’s sculpting of a gold body without organs uncovers, in the words of Perniola, “a world in which the distinctions between technical object and living body, inorganic nature and urban conglomeration are abolished. [And] it seems that the whole planet is covered by a garment of which the mountains as well as the cities, the oceans as wells as the industrial plants, are only the folds, the gorges, the outcrop.”30 Perhaps most succinctly we could now say that both Smithson and Horn and González-Torres efface the human, the former metonymically (synecdochically) and the latter metaphorically; the former espousing a verticality of a fallen world, divorced from an infinite and unknowable divinity, structurally akin to Agamben’s apparatus, and the latter a horizontality of a single plane of being traversed by affect, akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs. Such effacements, however, in their rhetorical techniques, remain nonetheless in necessary association with the human, Smithson through the human concept of God and Horn/González-Torres through their titular human referents.


Against the individualism and privatization favoured by neoliberalism, Muñoz has argued that “affective performances that reject the protocols of (white) normativity help map out cultural spectacles that represent and are symbolically connected to alternative economies, like the economies of recreational drugs and homoeroticism.”31 I employ this quotation as a way to transition to a discussion of how we might expand upon on Muñoz’s work and reinterpret the artworks I have presented thus far; that is, to transition focus from the emotion to the landscape of my subtitle, or from affective performances to recreational drugs. By describing this transition in these ways, I mean to signal that the expansion toward which the present paper is directed intervenes at the level of anthroponormative corporeal exceptionalism.

Muñoz thinks the affective performances about which he writes through a reparative reading of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s phenomenological psychology is oriented toward the signification of human reality to the world.32 Muñoz also relays, however, that “emotions are described in Sartre’s book as surfacing during moments of losing one’s distance in relation to the world of objects and people.”33 In addition to reparatively reading Sartre to re-establish a demystified and utilizable distance between humans and their objects, as is Muñoz’s project, might we, too, ask what happens if and when we stay lost in the world of objects?

Chen is one scholar whose work has begun to ask this question from the perspective of queer of color critique34. Chen moves from Muñoz’s take on taking ecstasy in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity35 to explore the concept of toxicity, specifically that of mercury, as a way of “favoring interabsorption over corporeal exceptionalism.”36 My own entry point into this line of thinking has been the aesthetic philosophy of Perniola’s The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic: Philosophies of Desire in the Modern World.37 I think that many of the arguments of Chen and Perniola are congruent, and so I would like to point to some of these congruencies and then back to the artworks to show how they might inflect our reading.

Chen autobiographically describes relating to the arms and back of a couch. The toxicity Chen experiences, like an autism-spectrum perspective, is such that connections are forged between myriad objects, many of them non-human. More, these objects are experienced ontologically flatly; that is, a couch and a girlfriend share the same level of being (a single plane of being as we encountered it above in Deleuze and Guattari). Such a perspective as provided by toxicity or autism pays more attention to the inter- of interconnected relationality than to the objects connected.

Chen wonders, “What body am I now in the arms of? Have I performed the inexcusable: Have I treated my girlfriend like my couch? Or have I treated my couch like her, which fares only slightly better in the moral equation? Or have I done neither such thing? After I recover, the conflation seems unbelievable. But it is only in the recovering of my human-directed sociality that the couch really becomes an unacceptable partner. [. . .] I have encountered an intimacy that does not differentiate, is not dependent on a heartbeat. The couch and I are interabsorbent, interporous.”38

Interporousness, too, is a key concept of Perniola’s, but he arrives at it through philosophy rather than toxicity. Porosity he derives from Stoic thought. It is of import to me here because it offers a third approach to relationality that is neither that of the specific objects of Judd’s Minimalism, nor the transcendent disintegrating order of Smithson’s entropy. In the terms of more recent scholarly debates, this is neither a question of the stability of objected-oriented ontology, nor of the fluidity of process relationism. Or, in terms nearer the theoretical interlocutors of this paper, neither is this the anti-relational turn of queer theory, nor the incorporation of multiculturalism and rights discourses. Rather, like the work of Horn, González-Torres, and Muñoz, I am invested in maintaining a difference that is not assimilationist, but is also not separatist or anti-relational, but rather, interconnected.

For Perniola and the Stoics, “when we say that reality is tactile and porous we understand that it is held together by links, knots, joints, and not that it is epidermic or devoid of content. In fact, the Stoics differentiated mixture both from juxtaposition, where things are held together thanks to an extrinsic link, and from fusion, where things lose their properties completely. [. . .] It points to a state in which things are interpenetrated but still preserve their nature.”39 Concomitant with interporousness is another concept related to Stoicism, amor fati, a concept that would tend to emphasize, contra Smithson, not the second but the first law of thermodynamics. Following from the thought of a tactile and porous universe of interconnection and interpenetration, amor fati, or love of fate, orients us away from the lack and void of negativity and nothingness and toward the always already fullness and availability of a maximal universe. As Chen argues in a way that I think is in line with this perspective, the transobjectivity experienced by some people with autism exhibits an openness, or a wider sort of bandwidth, that reveals an ever greater number of objects available for interaction that are otherwise funneled out of sensual experience limited to human-directed sociality.

The conclusions that Perniola reaches from such an ontology are vast. Not only does he, like Muñoz and Chen, point to intoxication,40 but he also suggests that we might arrive at the sex appeal of the organic through disability, through a depathologized perversion of incorrect object-choice, through an arbitrariness and externality freed from the ideological moralism of the Marxist and psychoanalytic fetish.

Instead of interrupting such object-choices, we might enable them, we might “derive[s] excitement from inadequate stimulation, in fact, greatly inadequate, such as concepts, numbers, sounds, spaces, objects, writings, all things that normal people keep immersed in a functional-utilitarian boredom, or in an aesthetic-formal tedium.”41 All this to say, then, that we might approach the work of Horn and González-Torres (and, to a lesser extent, of Smithson, too) not as knowing viewers of aesthetic objects, but as things that feel amongst other things that feel. This would be to reverse the transubstantiation in which gold and candy become metaphorical stand-ins for human referents to one in which the viewer becomes like a rippling surface of candy or gold, its body no more than a piece of discarded clothing, a thing that dissolves, sweats, and reflects light, or colors, in the presence of another thing. We are invited to do so by the extreme horizontality of these objects, by their glittering and undulating topologies; we abandon our selves to and become like their folds, gorges, indentations, outcrops, recesses, pseudopods, protrusions, and protuberances that perform a constant shifting, sliding, palpitating, and pulsating. Where Muñoz said of González-Torres’ unmade bed billboard that there is in fact nothing to identify with, we could now say that we become precisely indistinguishable from something like wrinkled sheets draped across a bed, transforming our bodies into a sort of sentient clothing.

Through such a desubjectivizing movement, we are neither raised toward a spiritual divine nor debased toward a vital animal, but flattened into a thing that feels, arriving at a situation in which (and we can listen for the resonance between Chen and Perniola here), “the folds of the female sex are no different from the depression of a seat cover, the skin that runs along the rod of the male sex is similar to the covering of an arm rest.”42 The prescience of such a situation as Perniola first described in 1994 has different, though certainly not mutually exclusive, significations for its different authors. For Perniola, the sex appeal of the inorganic helps to explain not only the way in which philosophy and the arts have been quarantined from and made politically irrelevant to society, but also how this positionality might be positivized. For Chen, it not only depathologizes so-called indigenous cosmologies that do not rely on the category of the human43, but also embraces “heretofore unknown reflexes of raciality, gender, sexuality, (dis-)ability.”44 If it has not been felt already, it ought to be noted that my reading of the sex appeal of the inorganic reorients debates in queer theory around relationality from a temporal heretofore to a spatial heretofore, less the horizon that one asymptotically approaches in a forever-receding distance and more the horizon of soil on which one already stands, that is, not the temporal possibility of imagination (how things could be) but the virtuality of spatial availability (what can be felt interminably), something perhaps akin to what Berlant has described as “a desire to sense nearness more than nextness,”45 or Professor of Performance Studies André Lepecki has called “a proximal aesthetics with things — an alongsideness without identification.”46 The desire for nearness more than nextness is significant, I want to suggest, in light of the historical situation in which we find ourselves today, one that evidences the flattening effects of a neurologically diverse, ecologically enmeshed, and fiber optically networked earth. In times such as these, the lesson of these artworks might be that we are a part of the landscape, and not apart from the landscape, that we, too, are landscapes. Queer of color critique as deployed by Muñoz and Chen helps us to understand this respectively in that we might come to experience ethnicity affectually, and, in turn, we might learn to experience affect in its pre-personality amongst a broad range of objects, the artworks I have presented here being but a couple of them. By allowing installation art — here, piles of dirt, candy, gold, and mirrors — to feel us and, in turn, to feel like it/them, the sex appeal of the inorganic explicitly interfaces with more than just humans; rather, through abandonment to a tactile relationality in a universe of things that feel, all kinds become non-human kinds and all kinds touch each other.


1. Judd’s essay was taken up by art critic Michael Fried in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood”, that essay, in turn, being taken up by Smithson in his letter to the editor in Artforum the same year.

2. “Three-dimensional work usually doesn’t involve ordinary anthropomorphic imagery”. Donald Judd, Specific Objects”, Arts Yearbook 8 (1965):

3. “George Brecht and Robert Morris use real objects and depend on the viewer’s knowledge of these objects”. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Thomas Crow, “Cosmic Exile: Prophetic Turns in the Life and Art of Robert Smithson”, in Robert Smithson (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contempoary Art, Los Angeles, 2004), 34.

6. Ibid. 53.

7. Qtd. in ibid. 54.

8. “Since the earth samples are fragments form a particular place, they function as a synecdoche: the part in the gallery stands in for the whole in the world at large. The employment of this particular literary trope seems related to Smithson’s early immersion in the Catholic faith, with the belief in transubstantiation: the wafer and wine administered during the Eucharist become literally part of the body of Christ. The synecdochical function of the earth in the nonsites becomes a more complex way of imbuing fragments with the power to re-present an actual place in the world”. Ibid. 52-3.

9. “He depended on a minimalist symbolic lexicon that disidentified with minimalism’s own self-referentiality. González-Torres’ minimalism evoked meaning and employed connotation, using the minimalist style to speak to a larger social order and to expanded issues of identity. His refunctioning of minimalism enabled him to rethink identity and instead opt for a disidentity”. José Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 165.

10. "Some people dismiss Roni’s work as pure formalism, as if such purity were possible after years of knowing that the act of looking at an object, any object, is transfigured by gender, race, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation”. Félix González-Torres, “1990: L.A., ‘The Gold Field’”, in Félix González-Torres (Göttingen: SteidlDangin, 2006), 150.

11. Muñoz, Disidentifications, 170. “Commonality is not forged through shared images and fixed identifications but fashioned instead from connotative images that invoke communal structures of feelings. The structures of feelings that are invoked point to a world in which exile and ethnicity are not stigmatized aberrations, but instead everyday aspects of national culture”. Ibid. 176.

12. González-Torres, “1990”, 151.

13. Horn, interviewed by Mimi Thompson, Bomb 28 (1989):

14. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho's The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs)”, Theatre Journal 52.1 (2000), 70.

15. Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 14.

16. Ibid. 20.

17. Gilles Deleuze, “What Is a Dispositif?” in Michel Foucault: Philosopher (New York: Routledge, 1992), 160.

18. Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? 18.

19. Ibid. 19.

20. “In the formula of Blaise Pascal: ‘We can know God properly only by knowing our own iniquities. Those who have known God without knowing their own wretchedness have not glorified him but themselves’. Smithson knew the Augustinian theology of Pascal at least through its interpretation by literary historian Lucien Goldmann, and he used the seventeenth-century philosopher’s definition of nature — ‘an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere’ — as the epigraph to a key magazine piece of 1966. The sentence that follows in Pascal’s Pensées reads: ‘In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought’. This assumption of a fallen world, divorced from an infinite and unknowable divinity, resonates with Smithson’s frequently expressed hostility to any assumption that the divine might reveal itself in naturalistic clothing”. Crow, Cosmic Exile, 45-6.

21. Ibid. 53.

22. Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? 11.

23. Ibid. 18.

24. Galloway, Laruelle, Kindle Locations 1101-36.

25. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 154.

26. Baruch Spinoza, The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), 63.

27. Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works (New York: Perennial, 2000), 115-6.

28. Horn, interviewed by Mimi Thompson.

29. Roni Horn, “‘Gold Mats, Paired (For Ross and Felix)’ (1995)”, Art21:

30. Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (New York: Continuum, 2004), 88.

31. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown”, 74.

32. “‘An emotion refers to what it signifies. And what it signifies is indeed, in effect, the totality of human relations of human-reality to the world’” qtd. in ibid. 71.

33. Ibid. 71-2.

34. Chen suggests that “queer theory’s attachment to certain human bodies and other human objects elides from its view the queer socialities that certain other, nonhuman intimacies portend”. Mel Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 207.

35. “While Muñoz meditates on the possibilities of ecstasy — the drug — as a metaphor for pleasurable queer temporalities, I explore an intoxication that is not voluntary, is potentially permanent, is ambivalent toward its own affective uptake, and produces an altered affect that may not register its own pleasure or negativity in recognizable terms”. Ibid. 198.

36. Ibid. 197.

37. Published well before much of the more recent scholarship coming from STS, new materialist, and speculative realist perspectives that has similar stakes in the non-human inorganic.

38. Chen, Animacies, 202-3.

39. Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (New York: Continuum, 2004), 75.

40. Not to taking ecstasy or to involuntarily absorbing mercury, but to opiate addiction. The fiction of Burroughs is exemplary here. Opiate addiction is analogous to the sex appeal of the inorganic for the way in which it ushers in a feeling of the body becoming extraneous, deemphasizing the experience of orgasmic sex and raising in its place a dependency on things.

41. Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, 144.

42. Ibid. 11.

43. “To pathologize such object relationships out of hand would also be to pathologize a great many kinds of long-standing, but politically suppressed cosmologies [ . . . ] cosmologies dubbed indigenous that are less characterized by a categorical, stringent attachment to human exclusivity”. Chen, Animacies, 214.

44. Ibid. 218.

45. Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 25.

46. André Lepecki, “Moving as Thing: Choreographic Critiques of the Object”, October 140 (2012): 80.