Spiral Jetty, the best-known earthwork of the New York-based artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973), is one of the most powerful works of public art in Utah. It is a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide, and 3-foot-tall dirt dike, built using 6,650 tons of basalt rock excavated from the site. It projects straight into the water of the Great Salt Lake and then coils in on itself in a counterclockwise motion.
The coiling, as if occurring magnetically, pulls the visitor toward its terminus, giving the Jetty a sense of compression and interiority. As Smithson described it in an interview with George Baker, the Jetty “exists both inside and outside in terms of the actual experience of it.” There is a clear center and a clear periphery. The middle seems to urge the visitor to occupy it even if only for a moment. The straight pathway leading toward it, in contrast, draws attention outward toward the mountain peaks rising behind the horizon. Sounds intrude on the visitor’s awareness. The call of migrating pelicans announces the cyclical order of seasons. These atmospheric properties could not be further from what Smithson called “the hot urban centrality” of New York and other large cities. With barely any human activity, the lapping of the water, the droning of wind, and the crunching of the salt crystals underfoot are heightened in one’s consciousness.
A little over a year after its completion in 1970, the Jetty submerged under the viscous red and blue saltwater of Great Salt Lake. It didn’t resurface for 31 years. During that time, it remained alive in cultural imagination and aesthetic discourse primarily through reproductive media. Smithson himself recorded his inspiration for it in a 32-minute film by Bob Fiore, as well as in an anthology entitled Arts in the Environment. Awareness of it also circulated to cultural circles known and unknown via professional photographs. When the Jetty resurfaced in 2002, it prompted a series of conferences, books, articles, short films, and photo essays. It also prompted a desire for direct experience as Land Art, because documentation, no matter how robust, cannot capture the site-specific nature of the work—how it activates the remote landscape.
Smithson’s ambition was to create a work critical of certain art movements, like Surrealism, that were dominated by conversations that originated in the mind of the artist, as opposed to wrestling with the materiality of the world. Constructing the earthwork from material extracted directly from the site is central to the concept of producing art that is in eternal negotiation with its surroundings. The height and width of the Jetty, as well as the size of the rocks, was not the result of an idealist conception developed in the mind of the artist; rather, it was designed in consultation with contractors and builders in order to resist the forces of the wind and waves enveloping it. The dimensions were calculated to withstand the immense weight of water saturated with salt. They also considered the weight of the cleated bulldozers and trucks, which required the consolidation of the soft lakebed to build the earthwork in the first place. The resulting sculpture is a stylization of the elemental forces acting upon it.
The location of the Jetty at one of the remotest parts of Great Salt Lake, accessible only by unpaved roads, is entirely strategic. Its distance from an urban museum frees it from the spatial, temporal, and conceptual limits traditionally placed upon art by an institution. Spiral Jetty, like many of Smithson’s site-specific works, finds a home in the expanded field of quarries, mines, interstate highways, airport runways, lakes, and canals. These settings have rhetorical advantages. First, they give work a longevity and situatedness not enjoyed by temporary exhibitions. Second, the fact that the Jetty submerges and resurfaces depending on the level of the lake puts its exhibition schedule not on a museum calendar, but an environmental one. Finally, unlike what Smithson calls “the hot situation” of the cities, Rozel Point has the semblance of a “cold situation in which the primitives were involved.” The remoteness of this earthwork from non-native contemporary populations and the proximity to Native American archaeological sites gives this conceptual work of the 1970s the illusion of transcending historical time by setting up contact with earthworks of the first societies that dotted the region to the north and south of Utah. In both eras (the modern and pre-historic), human toil and ingenuity constitute a humble relationship to the sublimity of nature. If this site gives the Spiral Jetty an air of timelessness, then Smithson has achieved the greatest of his goals. He regarded the best art as that which rises above the continuum of its time, above the humanist idea of history, and enters the geological time-scale.
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