Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) is arguably the most famous, least directly experienced work in the Land Art cannon. Most know the work from iconic aerial photographs, some by Smithson’s accompanying text and some by his weird and monotonous film. Built in 1970, the 6,650 tons of black basalt paved in a 1,500 foot long counter-clockwise coil was underwater and invisible for nearly 30 years until the early 2000’s. Spiral Jetty was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist in 1999. During the first days of 2011, artist Suzanne Stroebe and I ventured into the frigid landscape of Northern Utah to Rozel Point, the home of Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake. On January 2, Smithson’s birthday (he would have been 73 and coincidentally died in 1973), we visited the site for the afternoon and returned two days later to spend an incredible 23 hours with the jetty and its lunar-like, desolate landscape.
“Spiral Jetty” is approximately two hours northwest of Salt Lake City. Off the main highway I-15, towards the Golden Spike Monument, we passed a sprawling million square foot Wal-Mart distribution center, a granite facility, hot springs eerily misting the roadside and a rocket testing facilities (fitting for Smithson’s love for the sci-fi future). Past the Golden Spike Monument, where the east and west transcontinental railroads were joined in 1839 May 10, 1869, the roads began unpaved for the last thirty minutes. Like this photograph, most of the road was treacherously glazed with ice, and in patches, entirely sprinkled with fresh, sparkling, powdery snow, obscuring its exact location where there had had been no traffic.
My first impression of the jetty was, “Wow, that’s really small.” I think that’s because I was seeing the jetty outside of a viewfinder. Smithson discusses scale in his essay, saying that it fluctuates depending on your location, and to be inside the jetty is to be out of it. So does viewing a photograph. Photography dictates scale, in part, by its containment within a frame. Outside of it, my perception of the jetty’s size depending on its proximity to me and another person’s scale. Without architecture or many people (the first day we passed two cars at the jetty and the second none at all) to provide cues for scale, the jetty’s size was very nebulous and shifty. The extremes were experienced within the jetty (which took 7-10 minutes to walk from outside to inside) or from the surrounding series of ledges, which took 15-20 minutes to climb.
The jetty was in a severe low tide, which created pools covered by thin sheets of ice and snow. The space between the outer and middle ring here was cloaked by snow, and between the middle and inner ring an indecipherable phrase was carved into the sand and iced over. I wondered how long ago it had been inscribed and for how long it had been preserved, as if an ancient marking, captured in amber.
Our original plan was to set up a tent and camp in the snow, but when we arrived in Salt Lake City to 8-degree weather, we decided to upgrade our economy car reservation for an Explorer, which could serve as a shelter. Is it ironic that to get to this Earthwork in the winter, which has been historically linked to so many environmental concerns, you must drive a gas-guzzling SUV? The inside of the Explorer proved to be over the course of the night fairly cold, too: we decided that the thermometer that indicated 18 degrees must not have been accurate when we awoke the next day to find all the windows covered in a sheet of ice on the inside of the vehicle.
Every moment seemingly is different at the jetty. Here, at sunset, the spiral glowed with a fiery sun, reflecting off the Great Salt Lake. As I thought about the Smithson-esque elements in the vista — the idea of the water as a thermal mirror, a burning, mythical sun, and the un-visible crystalline salt particles — I felt how sublime and picturesque the view also was. It was almost like a Monet painting. I had Suzanne walk the spiral as I filmed her from a distant ledge, to better understand its scale. And then I realized: had the Explorer been any larger in the frame of this image — it might as well be an advertisement for the SUV.
Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) is located in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Greg Lindquist is an artist and writes about art. Lindquist’s most recent work addressed architectural decay and entropy through an immersive installation of painting and sculpture. He also writes about...
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May 10, 1869 the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit. Not 1839. But besides that, great article. I live in Utah and am going to go on my own quest for the spiral…thanks!
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