Essays

The Mythic Scale of History and Labor at Spiral Jetty

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Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty” (1970) (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

ROZEL POINT, Utah — Beginning with childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History and continuing with excursions to study rock formations throughout his adult life, Robert Smithson cultivated a lifelong obsession with natural (and human) history that explicitly informed his artwork, including the Spiral Jetty, his most well-known piece. The Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point on Utah’s Great Salt Lake, is a site-specific earthwork sculpture that consists of a 1,500-foot long counter-clockwise coil extending from the shoreline into the lake. Not only did Smithson select the Jetty site because of the otherworldly pink waters of the adjacent Great Salt Lake (caused by the red algae Dunaliella salina) and the anti-pastoral beauty of the area, but the Spiral Jetty also references the history of the surrounding area and a more expansive historical lineage that spans the history of the planet. Today, Spiral Jetty is perhaps best known for arousing discussions about art preservation and land ownership, but the piece and its relationship to the surrounding land warrant critical consideration beyond questions of ownership.

Constructed over the period of six days in 1970 with the assistance of local crews, the Spiral Jetty is composed of more than 6,000 tons of black basalt rock and earth. In accordance with Smithson’s reverence for “entropy,” a concept referring to the devolution of systems over time due to chance events, the appearance of the Spiral Jetty has changed markedly over the span of its existence. For the last three decades of the 20th century, the Jetty was completely submerged under water and mainly lived in the popular imagination, carefully perpetuated through Smithson’s film and photographic documentation. In the past decade, the Jetty has been intermittently exposed depending on water levels.

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A replica of the Golden Spike, the ceremonial spike that joined the rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads into the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, housed at Visitor center. The original Golden Spike is housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Early this month, I had a chance to visit the Spiral Jetty when the water levels were exceptionally low, and the Jetty, in addition to large expanses of the lake’s salt flats, was luckily above water. The only practical, passable road to the Jetty passes through the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit, and the Visitor Center has the only restroom within 20 miles of the Jetty. Most “Jetty pilgrims,” as Harvard professor Jennifer L. Roberts describes them, must inevitably launch their voyage to the Jetty from the Golden Spike site. The monument commemorates the “Golden Spike,” which united the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads into the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869 and provided the first direct overland route across the United States, making the frontier accessible. Scholars of Smithson’s work, including Roberts, emphasize the connection between the Golden Spike site and the Spiral Jetty as adjacent models of historical engagement and human-nature relations. At one point, Smithson even planned for a Spiral Jetty museum to be built near the Golden Spike site.

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The Visitor Center at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, Utah
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The section railroad where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met, located outside the Golden Spike National Historic Site
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Another view of the railroad
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Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty” (1970)

Walking on the railroad before traversing the Jetty underscores the physical and conceptual relationship between the two sites. Smithson let the conditions of the site determine the form of his work, and did not design the Spiral Jetty until after he had selected Rozel Point as the location for the piece. As I hiked the length of the Jetty, I couldn’t help but think about the physical process by which the rocks forming the Jetty were laid down to erect a wide path — or shall we say, track — into the Great Salt Lake and the nearby land itself was displaced in order to shape the form of Smithson’s Jetty.

It is impossible not to draw a parallel between the Jetty’s material form and the process by which the railroad was constructed a hundred years prior to Smithson — enormous amounts of earth and landscape and were displaced to produce both. Yet, in another sense, the Jetty is the antithesis of the Transcontinental Railroad. The railroad exists within a capitalist system of transport that is intended to move people and commodities from one point to another in the most efficient, direct manner possible, while the Jetty is a perversion of that paradigm of linear progress. The path of the Jetty moves out, away from land, but collapses, spiraling in upon itself, going nowhere except into its own interior. The Jetty disorients its visitors rather than offering railroad travel’s triumphant, objective, and Randian flight through landscape.

Chinese laborers laid tracks and blasted through mountains of solid basalt rock to pave way for the Transcontinental Railroad; the region’s Native populations were displaced as a result. Both have been evacuated from historical images and marginalized in representations of the history of the railroad. Indeed, the history of the railroad singularly fixates on the seminal event of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony, in which the railroad was completed and acquired utilitarian worth, and erases the labor, lives, and time expended in its construction. The role of the Chinese in the railroad’s construction remained largely unacknowledged in the 1969 centennial celebration of the completion of the Transcontinental railroad.

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Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty” (1970)
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The salt flats of the Great Salt Lake, around the Spiral Jetty

In 1972, Smithson made a film about the Jetty, also titled “Spiral Jetty,” rife with historical images intended to situate the Spiral Jetty in a larger scope of historical events. It features red-tinged shots of dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History and close ups on ancient and modern maps. In the wake of the Spiral Jetty’s submersion under water, Smithson’s film was influential in mediating understanding and viewing of the piece. The film also functions as a history of the Spiral Jetty itself, visualizing the labor and time invested in its construction; viewers witness Smithson wading through the lake, staking out the work’s dimensions, and hear the rumble of machines shaping earth and boulders into a spiral. Jennifer L. Roberts goes as far as to optimistically suggest that the Jetty acts in opposition to the Golden Spike model of history, unearthing the duration and materiality of labor.

The red-tinged waters of he Great Salt Lake
The red-tinged waters of the Great Salt Lake

Yet to uphold Smithson as a social critic and historical revisionist gives him too much credit. Any vague critique in his film of the conditions of labor and its dehumanizing mechanization is subsumed by Smithson’s egotistical attempt to aesthetically elevate Jetty and its construction into an infinite cosmic dimension. Smithson wants the film to transform “trucks into dinosaurs” and visually likens red waters of the Great Salt Lake to prehistorical primordial soup. He offers insincere and heavy handed statements about history, including his narration, “The earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.”

The film reel (which takes the form of yet another spiral, Smithson cheekily mentions) provides a number of profoundly disorienting vantage points on the Jetty; it is seen both from a plane spiraling overhead and from ground level, as Smithson runs over its rocks. Vertigo- and nausea-inducing views of the Jetty skim over social history, and, instead, catapult the Spiral Jetty into the canon of all-American mythmaking, a small-C capitalist achievement laid against a big-C act of Creation.

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Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty” (1970)

The Spiral Jetty is located at Rozel Point peninsula on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake, and is accessible by vehicle. Visitor information and driving routes can be found here.

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