Hotel Palenque

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Robert Smithson, 'Hotel Palenque', 1969–72. © Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Hotel Palenque is a 1969/1972 artwork by U.S. artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973).

Initially existing as a series of 31 color transparency photographs taken by Smithson during a 1969 trip to Mexico, the images were later presented by the artist as a slide lecture to architectural students at the University of Utah in 1972. The lecture presentation has since been exhibited as an audio-visual art work in its own right, with the sequence of images synched to an audio recording of the artist's 1972 talk. This latter incarnation of the work was purchased by the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1999.[1]


In 1969, Robert Smithson, his wife - artist Nancy Holt, and dealer Virginia Dwan, traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. There, Smithson executed six individual works, including the Yucatan Mirror Displacements[2], which were made by installing 12-inch-square mirrors at a range of outdoor sites that were then photographed. These images were reproduced as part of the artist's essay "Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan", in the September 1969 edition of Artforum Magazine.[3]

While in Mexico, the party stayed at the Hotel Palenque, a partially constructed cinder-block hotel building in the town of Palenque, aimed at travelers and tourists visiting the nearby Mayan ruins.[4] Smithson took a series of color transparency images documenting the hotel using his preferred 126 'Instamatic' format camera.[5] The images reveal the hotel to be an ad-hoc structure with a haphazard layout plan, existing in a state of ongoing and simultaneous renovation and demolition. Smithson's interest in the semi-ruined state of the hotel has been related to his broader concern with entropic disintegration, and his focus on peripheral sites such as quarries and industrial infrastructure, evidenced in works such as the photo essay "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ" (1967) in which the artist first coined the term 'ruins in reverse.'[6]

1972 Lecture[edit]

Smithson was invited to give a talk to a group of architectural students at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, in 1972.[7] The artist had recently completed his Spiral Jetty at the nearby Great Salt Lake but, rather than focusing his lecture on the Jetty project or the Mayan ruins of Palenque, Smithson presented the 31 images that he had taken of the Hotel Palenque, which had been unpublished up until then.[8] The presentation was accompanied by a droll and meandering lecture on the architectural merits of the half-finished structure, the audience "failing to comprehend the artist's dry wit and humorous interpretation until well into the lecture."[9] The presentation plays on the expectations of a scholarly lecture, "a critique ... of the kind of academic jargon-laden travelogue usually reserved for slideshows of "real" architecture like the nearby Mayan temple complex."[10]

However, a number of themes and interests are present and recur throughout the talk:

  • 10 Robert-Smithson Hotel-Palenque-composite.jpg
    A relativity of architectural values is a touchstone of the lecture, with the ramshackle hotel described throughout as an architectural monument spiritually akin to, and as worthy of our attention as, the ancient Mayan palaces and observatories nearby. Smithson links the serpentine layout of the hotel to a former name for Palenque, City of the Snake and, throughout the lecture, addresses the students in a manner that assumes they shall one day trek to the Yucatan to visit the hotel. A molding on a stairwell in the tower is described in relation to the hollow psychoduct that channels the spirit of the king from his tomb, and an unfinished swimming pool "...calls up all the fears and dreads of the ancient Mayan Aztec culture, human sacrifice and mass slaughter."[11]
  • Throughout the presentation there is a play on the notion of architectural authorship or intentionality; Smithson treats the dilapidated, half-built nature of the hotel as its intended architectural form. One photograph of a section of sheared-off floor is described as a "spiky, irregular, cantilevered effect" and another part of the building without a roof represents a "roofless motif". The hotel embodies what the artist calls "de-architecturization", a 'technique' that "I rather like..."[12]
  • The lecture format, as a means of rational explication, is continually weakened and deflected. Smithson hedges his statements with adverbial qualifications like "sort of" and "kind of", and specifically aligns the center-less layout of the hotel with the object-less directionality of his talk. A paved path in the hotel courtyard "...seems to go towards some kind of center but it doesn't so I won't", states the artist; and later, "It should be taking shape in your mind at this point. You should be getting to the point that I am trying to make, which is no point actually."[13]
  • The hotel as one giant readymade artwork is a recurring motif in the talk: the sheared-off floor "recalls Piranesi", a hotel room doorway "has a Jasper Johnsian simplicity about it", while an area of black and white paving is "more interesting than most of the paintings being done in New York City right now."[14] An image of a series of poles resting on top of small piles of bricks seems to "signify something. I never found out while I was there but it just seemed to suggest some kind of impermanence."[15]

Critical Interpretations[edit]

The importance of Hotel Palenque is generally related to Smithson's ongoing concern with processes of entropy, and his overarching project to recontextualize cultural or man-made elements within expanded, sometimes geological, timescales.[16]

As early as 1967, the artist had been giving tours of abandoned mansions in the Passaic area of New Jersey with his wife and friends[17]; in his 1968 essay "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects", Smithson wrote of how "The tools of technology become a part of the Earth's geology as they sink back into their original state. Machines like dinosaurs must return to dust or rust. One might say a "de-architecturing" takes place..."[18]

On the level solely of its images, Hotel Palenque can certainly be aligned to these concerns, but as Guglielmo Bargellesi-Severi and others have noted, Smithson's work is characterized by a sophisticated awareness of "the relationship of territory and the viewing site"[19] - initially explored in the sculptural relationship of site and nonsite, and evident in Hotel Palenque in his appropriation of the format and conventions of the slide lecture to leverage significant new layers of meaning from his imagery.

Palenque composite 2.jpg
The initial mechanism upon which the lecture hinges is its enactment of a 'turning away from' the object of most western travelers' interest in Palenque, the Mayan temples and observatories. Eugenie Tsai has noted how Smithson invokes western anthropological expedition narratives in his photo-essay "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" (which makes reference in its title to John Lloyd Stephens' 1843 'Incidents of Travel in Yucatan'), only to thwart the expectations that might accompany such an allusion.[20] The Mayan ruins remain absent from the artist's hallucinatory images of the sculptural interventions he made at remote locations across the peninsula, while the Mayan deities become smoky apparitions whispering instructions in the artist's ear.[21]

Hotel Palenque makes this Mayan lacuna ever more explicit, "you won't see any of those temples in this lecture..." the artist explains.[22] Furthermore, in shifting the subject of his presentation from ancient ruins to contemporary 'ruin in reverse', Smithson undermines the didactic foundations of the lecture format itself, drawing long-established scholarly assumptions into a relativistic fog. The entropic forces acting on the Hotel spread to the artist's language and deflect any sense of rational forward momentum to the lecture. As Neville Wakefield observes:

"The protracted pauses that laconically punctuate each call for the next slide [become] fault-lines in the continent of thought. Here the glacial drift of perception and cognition causes ideas to buckle or be pulled to extremes of uselessness, the space of sculpture alternately compressed and attenuated. In the Hotel Palenque the traction of empirical truths and steadfast geographies is lost."[23]

This dissolution of mental and topographic categories should not be seen as a merely nihilistic gesture, however, but perhaps one arising from the artist's late-60's milieu ("more stoned than stentorian", Wakefield observes of Smithson's lecture style[24]) and the transformative possibilities of altered perception. In appropriating the Hotel as artwork, Smithson enacts a perceptual shift, somewhat similar to his elevation of the industrial fixtures of New Jersey to the status of 'Monuments'. As the artist had written in "A Sedimentation of the Mind; Earth Projects":

"When a thing is seen through the consciousness of temporality, it is changed into something that is nothing. This all-engulfing sense provides the mental ground for the object, so that it ceases being a mere object and becomes art."[25]

Exhibition history and questions over the work's form[edit]

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2008
Questions exist over the format of Hotel Palenque, and whether the artist ever intended for it to be presented beyond the 1972 slide lecture. It appears not to have been shown as a tape and slide installation until the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition Robert Smithson: Photoworks in 1993, and again, as part of the James Lingwood-curated exhibition The Epic and The Everyday at London's Hayward Gallery in 1994. In 1995, the 31 images were published alongside an edited transcription of Smithson's lecture as an insert in the magazine Parkett; and the piece was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003 - as a video on a monitor, the slides overlaid with the artist's narration on the soundtrack.

Greg Allen has observed how this variance in the work's posthumous realizations raises the question of its very status as an artwork. He notes how the work was one of the last holdings of the Smithson Estate when it was sold to the Guggenheim in 1999, alongside nine slides from the artist's Mirror Displacements series (which were also never exhibited as standalone works in the artist's lifetime). Given Smithson's "own ideological concerns with the gallery/museum space and system", Allen expresses concern that the artist's early death has allowed work, including Hotel Palenque, to be given permanent form as artworks that the artist himself may never have intended if he had lived.[26]


Since the work began to be shown again as a tape-slide installation in the 1990's, Hotel Palenque has gained something of a cult status[27] among artists and curators, inspiring 'pilgrimages' to the site of the hotel and the production of new artworks.

For his 1999 piece Monument to Entropy (Hotel Palenque)[28], Jeremy Millar visited the hotel with his wife and made his own set of photographs. Before leaving, Millar deposited the roll of film in one of the hotel's safety deposit boxes and later exhibited the key, alongside the receipt for the box, as part of the exhibition 'Sleeper,' in Edinburgh in 2007.

Jonathan Monk, 'Color Reversal Nonsite with Ensuite Bathroom', 2009. Museo Tamayo, Mexico
Another British artist, Jonathon Monk, has produced a reversed, inverted, stainless steel copy of the Hotel Palenque sign, Color Reversal Nonsite with Ensuite Bathroom, 2009, that is now in the collection of the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City.

And on his blog Centre For The Aesthetic Revolution, curator Pablo Leon de la Barra writes of his own ten-year obsession with the work, visiting and documenting the hotel in 1999, and for many years trying to see the installation in its slide-tape form.[29] Interestingly, as a Mexican-born curator and writer, he was underwhelmed upon finally viewing the work in the Open System exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2005:

"I was very disappointed when I saw it, though I was familiar with the images and practically knew the text by heart. Listening to Smithson, with his mocking tone (the text itself is ironic, but it’s not the same as listening to him), he seemed like the cliché of a gringo, condescending and paternalistic."[30]

However, de la Barra has since visited the hotel again: in virtual form, posting a series of Google Earth images of the once-again-renovated hotel on his blog.[31]


  1. "Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque",, retrieved October 18, 2016.
  2. Nancy Spector, "Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque",, retrieved October 18, 2016.
  3. Reprinted in: Robert Smithson, Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 119-133
  4. Eugenie Tsai, "Plotting a line from Passaic, New Jersey, to Amarillo, Texas" in Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai with Cornelia Butler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 11-31.
  5. Robert A. Sobieszek, Robert Smithson : photo works, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 26-27
  6. Smithson, "Collected Writings", 68-74
  7. Neville Wakefield, "Yucatan is Elsewhere, On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque", in Parkett 43, 1995, 133
  8. Sobieszek, Smithson : photo works.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Greg Allen, "Non-Sensical Non-Site Non-Art?: Smithson's 'Hotel Palenque'",, October 9, 2006, retrieved October 18, 2016.
  11. Robert Smithson, "Hotel Palenque", insert, Parkett 43, 1995, 122
  12. Ibid., 119
  13. Ibid., 124
  14. Ibid., 121
  15. Ibid., 129
  16. Spector, "Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque".
  17. See footnote 111 in Sobieszek, Smithson : photo works.
  18. Smithson, "Collected Writings", 100-113
  19. Guglielmo Bargellesi-Severi, Robert Smithson : Slideworks, (Verona: Carlo Frua, 1997), 13
  20. Tsai, "Plotting a line from Passaic."
  21. At one point, Tezcatlipoca (actually an Aztec deity) warns the artist, "That camera is a portable tomb, you must remember that." See: Smithson, Collected Writings, 121
  22. Smithson, "Hotel Palenque", Parkett, 120
  23. Wakefield, "Yucatan is Elsewhere", 135
  24. Ibid., 133
  25. Smithson, Collected Writings, 112
  26. Allen, "Non-Sensical Non-Site Non-Art?"
  27. Pablo Leon de la Barra, "Hotel Palenque is Elsewhere: On Jonathan Monk's Hotel Palenque Sign", on centrefortheaestheticrevolution, April 10, 2011, retrieved October 18, 2016.
  28. Images and details on the work are available at the artist's website.
  29. de la Barra, "Hotel Palenque is Elsewhere"
  30. Ibid.
  31. Pablo Leon de la Barra, "Hotel Palenque is Elsewhere, Revisiting Hotel Palenque Thanks To Google Maps", on centrefortheaestheticrevolution, January 15, 2011, retrieved October 18, 2016.