The Spiral Jetty
The Spiral Jetty, Published in White Hot Magazine, October 2008
“The route to the site is very indeterminate. It's important because it's an abyss between the abstraction and the site; a kind of oblivion.” This quote from artist Robert Smithson in an interview with William Lipske in 1969 aptly describes the experience of journeying to the Spiral Jetty, the earthwork Smithson created in 1970 in Rozel Point, in the Great Salt Lake in Northern Utah. Measuring roughly 1500 feet in length, the “Jetty” was constructed using large, black basalt rocks and earth from the area, the shape formed into place with the help of tractors and skip loaders. Most people who studied art and/or art history know about the Spiral Jetty. There is an aura of mystery that surrounds this work, partly because of the untimely death of the artist in 1973, and partly due to the fact that after nearly 20 years of being submerged, the Jetty reappeared on the scene in 2002, still in good condition. This resurfacing allows devotees of the earthwork and Smithson himself, to see it but that is not easy to do so…which may also be part of the allure.
With a road map and directions from the Dia Center in hand, (which acquired the work in 1999 from Smithson’s estate), two friends and I headed north from Park City on our pilgrimage to the Spiral Jetty this August. It was a beautiful Utah desert day with a high, hot sun and dry as a bone. As you wind off the Highway 83, already a quiet road with not much around, you enter into Golden Spike National Monument. The geology of the landscape looks prehistoric, the horizon of undulating red and brown rocks goes on forever, and there is not much in the way of wildlife or shade. You feel the remoteness of the place immediately and when you pass the Golden Spike Visitor’s Center (the last remaining civilization before getting on the dirt road to the Jetty), the real trip begins. Though there are infrequent small white signs pointing the way, the Dia Center directions are more fun to interpret. For example: “Drive 1.3 miles south. Here you should see a corral on the west side of the road. Here too, the road again forks. One fork continues south along the west side of the Promontory Mountains. This road leads to a locked gate. The other fork goes southwest toward the bottom of the valley and Rozel Point. Turn right onto the southwest fork, just north of the corral. This is also a Box Elder County Class D road.”
Maybe it’s more exciting for city dwellers like I am, who are used to describing distance in terms of how many blocks or street lights, but to be on the lookout for cattle girders and the skulls from long dead cows that lay along the road certainly adds to the sense of journey. As we bounced along the dirt road in our SUV, a flock of birds was doing a form of aerial dance above the Salt Lake in the far distance. Mountains surround the view and you are filled with a heightened sense of peace, isolation and vastness.
You first spot the Spiral Jetty as you near the last half-mile of the journey. The three of us yelled out “I see it,” like we were kids spotting the signs for Disneyland. It is not like observing a painting in a museum of course, but this was part of Smithson’s goal. The one thing I heard from people who’d visited the earthwork in the past was that it felt much smaller than expected. Perhaps this is true, but sitting out there all alone in the flat, rusty and white lake, it looked quite proud and noble.
The land was extra dry at the moment of our visit so we were able to walk straight out onto the jetty, the water starting just past the last spiral. The crystallized salt crunched beneath our feet and the sensation of walking along the rocks was spiritual in a way, particularly having seen the fantastic 45-minute film of the construction of the work. One sees Smithson strut along the jetty as it’s being built, talking about his methods and ideas, evoking the contemporary vision of man and nature, macho yet classic. It’s all there and it still comes across well after 38 years of existence.
Though the best view may be from the air, I don’t think that such an experience would resonate without the off road driving which slowly lets the surroundings sink in and thus prepares you for actual engagement with the site. Since the Spiral Jetty has been reproduced endlessly just “see it”, is not to properly understand what it represents. The earthwork is more than visual. It’s about physicality, appearances and perception and how these concepts can be tossed and turned in such a lunar-like landscape. The remains on this landscape, the rusted cars, dead birds, and remnants of old oilrigs are supposed to be part o the work. (Currently there is talk about re-opening oil drilling in this area which could seriously damage not only the Spiral Jetty, but also the pristine beauty of the Salt Lake.) Part of the genius of Earthworks is that they force one leave one’s typical environment and enter nature to experience something fresh and different. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a true place, a marker of time and history. In that Utah landscape it is completely otherworldly.