In his 1967 article, ‘The Monuments of Passaic’, the American artist Robert Smithson mused on the strange beauty that might be experienced in the decaying wastes of the post-industrial urban landscape – here, that of the artist’s own childhood in suburban New Jersey with its mixture of half-constructed motorways, industrial detritus and empty car parks. In this unsettling meditation, Smithson drew on the example of a sand-box (one of the ‘monuments’ he found on his journey) as a potent illustration of the fundamentally entropic nature of reality – imagining, as he did, a child mixing up two different colours of sand with a stick and then, in vain, trying to reverse this process. All matter, it seems, is forever headed in one direction – the arrow of time we are so often told is progress onwards and upwards in reality being the inevitable disintegration of everything.
Yet, there is consolation in entropy, especially in those places where Smithson’s quintessential entropic material, sand, dominates. One such place is the vast beach that is still growing immediately to the west of the village of Harlech in northwest Wales. Stretching over 3 miles from south to north, its northern edges eventually merge into the unstable mud and sand of the Afon Dwyryd estuary, beyond which the undulating edge of the finger-like Lleyn Peninsula begins, stretching out all the way across the north-western horizon. The cumulus clouds that build over the Lleyn’s hills often funnel directly eastwards into the higher mountains of Snowdonia which rise, from this place, seemingly straight out of the sand itself. As the dunes flatten out, their rich vegetation thins to a meagre cover, the unbroken marram grass now semi-submerged flecks of green. Here, the wind can be seen: the eastward ripples that scour the sand mirroring the funnel of cloud bank above. In this place the elements of the world – sky, wind, sand, water – are in direct conversation, as if the inert were at last allowed to express itself, free from the territorial contestations of organic life.
All that gets washed up on beaches like these is left stranded in a world without progress: an entropic world where time is measured by the endless repetitive actions of sand, water and wind that wear down matter. A profoundly unstable world that is paradoxically characterised by a deep stillness. Yet, of course, there is nowhere in the world that is not affected by organic life – and particularly human life – and here, organic detritus – necklaces of seaweed; bleached, eggshell bones of anemones; and desiccated crabs – wraps itself around plastic wastes such as a bottle, boxes and a lone washing basket. There are some beaches in the world, I am told, where plastic chokes the entire landscape, washed ashore from the vast vortexes of plastic that are increasingly accumulating in parts of the world’s oceans.
Here, the isolated plastic flotsam gives a sense of what might happen if entropy disappeared from the world, if materials never decayed and were completely immune to the weathering effects of wind, water and sand. Of course, even plastic will eventually decay, but the timescales involved are so vast as to be barely comprehensible. Is it possible to even imagine a world where the materials we make will outlive everything else, perhaps even the sun itself? In the beginning there was a void; in the end, there will be only plastic. Even as entropy produces a profound sense of melancholy, that sadness is in fact a deep consolation – a sense that if all things pass, then all things can be renewed. Once you understand the overarching power of the inert, perhaps then you can know something of true freedom, of a life lived in acceptance of mortality rather than struggle against it. By contrast, if the wastes we generate simply continue to pile up, and if they outlive everything else, then we’ll have no space left to ponder our mortality. Perhaps like the inhabitants of the waste-filled earth of Wall*E (2008), we’ll eventually have to leave the planet altogether to find a place where entropy can once again provide some consolation.