NJ Is a Wasteland

New Jersey is a wasteland.

This assertion is often derided by residents of the state who resent the stereotypical perception of the Garden State as an endless expanse of landfills, brownfields, and disused industrial sites. For years, New Jersey’s residents and public officials alike have pushed to dismiss the notion of the state as a post-industrial badlands. However, anyone who takes a ride on an NJ Transit train out of New York City or has driven on the New Jersey Turnpike can tell you that these efforts largely prove futile, at least in regard to this corner of the state. Perhaps these revisionists should reconsider the lens through which they are viewing the desolation of Jersey’s landscape.

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This re-evaluation of New Jersey as a blast crater left behind by manufacturing and mechanical production is best exemplified in the early works of artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson. Both artists grew up in northern New Jersey, and their artistic visions and practices were both massively influenced by their time spent in the state. Holt and Smithson’s respective careers would lead them out of Jersey into the gallery world of New York City, which they would then transcend all together for the deserts and salt flats of the American Southwest. Some of their most notable works, such as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Holt’s Sun Tunnels are located in the state of Utah. Here, the uninhabited desert allowed them to work in a space that left the scales of their creations unrestricted and allowed the artists to establish their own ambiguous physical boundaries for them.

Placing their artworks in the vast wilderness was a logical conclusion for both Smithson and Holt, as they were concerned with themes that are inherently natural: the passage of time on a geological scale, the ultimate ineffectualness of humanity’s constant drive to control nature, and the state of equilibrium that nature never fails to restore. Taking these themes into consideration, it is no wonder that these artists originated in New Jersey.

New Jersey has pockets of harsh wilderness everywhere, even in the lands surrounding some of its largest population centers. Though not typically idyllic, are the overgrown swamps surrounding the Turnpike any less of a wilderness than the high desert or the arctic tundra? Is nature more in command on a pristine but deliberately manicured urban garden like NYC’s Highline or in an abandoned factory on the Passaic River, where the ruins of industrial production are being rusted, crumpled, and eroded back into the natural elements they consist of and returned to the earth?

These are the sites where Smithson and Holt saw the unyielding movement of nature toward physical equilibrium across time. Perhaps these forces are too strong in these places for even the most determined of manufacturers and developers. They cannot be tamed any more than the sunbaked alkali flats of Utah. The artists’ fascinations with this phenomenon are evidenced by their numerous artworks created in or with materials removed from places like Bayonne, Passaic, Montclair, and the Jersey Pinelands. One of the most striking examples of this is Holt’s 1969 film Swamp, which consists of point-of- view shots of Holt and Smithson bushwhacking through the thick vegetation of the meadowlands. The drone of the Turnpike can be heard in the background, but the visuals they present appear as if there is not another human for miles.

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This strange duality of New Jersey’s natural landscape is omnipresent but seldom recognized or acknowledged even by those who have lived here for their entire lives. In fact, I often observe it in Antique’s kitchen. It is located in bustling Hoboken, but it is dominated by the smells and heat of a fire fueled by anthracite coal in a massive stone and brick oven. This coal has been extracted from the earth after millions of years, and it is burned to balance the elements of Chef Paul Gerard’s dishes. The heat from these fires brings acids, salts, and lipids all into concert in wholly unique way, achieving a moment of fleeting equilibrium that briefly but beautifully challenges nature’s final equilibrium.

New Jersey is a place of unlikely inspiration for visual and culinary artists alike, and though many fail to recognize this, those who do harness this place’s unusual cosmic energy as a source of unique creative stimulation.

Written by Patrick Gora.

Patrick Gora is a born and raised Jersey boy who studies art history. You can imbibe his knowledge of art history and flavors through his shaken or stirred masterpieces at Antique Bar and Bakery.