Originally published – AUGUST 18, 2005
“Through the vaporous abstraction of Box Elder County Utah, I beheld a wide expanse of lake whose waters were so bloody a hue as to bring to mind a landscape of unspeakable carnage. Yet at the same time a voluptuous calm prevailed. A voluminous languor coupled with a foreboding sense of menace produced a gyratory dimension.” – Robert Smithson
The words above belong to a notebook on spirals written by Robert Smithson now at the Archives of American Art. His curves are made famous in the artist’s later work, but Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is the grand inheritor of that particular arc. “Spiral Jetty” is one of the most recognizable and celebrated markers of late 20th century art.
“The immensity of geologic time is so great that it is difficult for human minds to grasp readily the reality of its extent. It is almost as if one were to try to understand infinity.” – Edwin H. Colbert, “The Dinosaur Book,” as excerpted in Robert Smithson’s essay “Teratological Systems.”
Robert Smithson’s interest in mining and reclamation of wasteland space drew him to the hostile shores of the northern Great Salt Lake. He secured a twenty year lease on 10 acres of land. In April of 1970, he contacted Bob Phillips of the Parson Construction Company (Ogden, Utah) for a bid on haulers and trucks that would move the nearly seven tons of dirt and black volcanic rock that would accumulate to form the Jetty. Phillips’ initial bid for the project was $6,000. On completion, Smithson wasn’t satisfied with the terminal point of the spiral. Parson Construction was retained for additional work. The total price tag for the Jetty of $9,000 would be valued at around $36,000 in 2005 dollars. Total time for construction was two weeks.
“I thought, My world, that is beautiful,” Phillips says, “the way the red water is against the black rocks and white foam. I had always built things that had to have a use. I had never built anything for the fun of it. Anything that was just beautiful.”-p.27, “The Spiral Jetty,” Sunset Magazine, August 2005
Smithson’s complexity lies not only in the difficulty in enjoying the primary object but the frequently contradictory and evolving positions the artist held. His resentment of humor in art and patience for commodity in the art market changed completely between interviews in the mid 1960s to 1973. He would acknowledge that his opinions, though developed, continue to evolve.
The artist’s work from the late 1960s on was about making art that was contextual to the perception of the viewer – an interplay between cognitive reasoning and tactile remove. The later spiral forms allowed the artist to enact a dialectic of absence and presence. The shape, either expanding or contracting, would be a useful mark to illustrate elements of geology and mathematics.
For Smithson, once the contractor’s trucks pulled away, the “Jetty” is free to permeate under the erosion of salt water and the corrosion of art history. Though much of Smithson’s earth art is extant and accessible, from a landscape perspective they work as wholly inclusive and solitary experiences. For Smithson, encountering the “Spiral Jetty” is as much about seeing it at its home on Rozel Point, as your perspective of enjoying photos and drawings of it in a gallery (or museum.) As Smithson noted in a late interview, he had never seen the Great Pyramids but he hadn’t needed additional evidence that they existed other than the books and photos he’d seen.
“About one mile north of the oil seeps I selected my site. Irregular beds of limestone dip gently eastward, massive deposits of black basalt are broken over the peninsula giving the region a shattered appearance. It is one of the few places on the lake where the water comes right up to the mainland. Under shallow pinkish water is a network of mud cracks supporting the jig-saw puzzle that composes the slat flats. As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still. The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. No sense wondering about classifications and categories, there were none.” – Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” 1972.
I’d made two previous trips to reach Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” once in 1988 while still at Art Center (then the Jetty was still submerged) and again last year when snow blocked my passage. Last week, I boarded a plane to again attempt the work – comforted by fair weather and reports that the lake’s water level was nearly identical to when the artist created the work.
The site for the “Spiral Jetty” is located about 2 1/2 hours north of the state’s capital, Salt Lake City. Getting to the Jetty requires passage by the Golden Spike National Historic Site (The agreed upon location where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads completed the first transcontinental line.) Past the Golden Spike, you leave paved roads and drive another twenty miles on an access road – passable by automobiles with a high clearance. We arrived at the site early in the evening and walked the length of the Jetty (15 feet wide at its base and 1500 feet long.) Jumping from stone to stone when the point began to narrow or stepping on crust covered salt when necessary. The air was thick and wide. On occasion, you could hear the glassy water accidentally slap at the water break. The curled journey to the point reminds you over and over again of where you are and where you were.
The shallow red water snakes through the white crystallized rocks. On the windward side of the Jetty a berg of salt foam collects and shudders in a light breeze. It’s never the same Jetty twice. As we camped at the site overnight, I was able to take photos of the work over the course of a full day: pink and pale as dawn frosts the sky; starched white coil under a high and hazy blue sky; a dark serpent under a dying sky. At midnight it sits blacker than black on a lake bed that mirrors the infinite sky.
[ed. note re 2016 repost – much of the original archives for Placement were lost in a drive failure that took the original photographs. Posted here are the original images recaptured from Wayback Machine, unfortunately at low res.]
Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.
In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive
Among his less savory qualities, he's a poor sport, a sore loser and ill fitted for honest labor. He makes bad friends and worse decisions. Animals avoid him and children despise him. He's been known to drink to excess, carry on with seditious talk and leer at women. He's a coward, a card cheat and a known liar.