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Friday, August 20, 2004


People’s experiences with art today occur mostly in white cubes, environments that are designed to filter out distraction. Critical discussion of Spiral Jetty tends to use the white cube approach when describing the piece—a work that most people will never see for themselves. It narrows the field of view, crops out what exists around the edges, ignores the broader environment, and focuses on the jetty itself.

Making the trip to see Spiral Jetty forced me to see the work through a much wider lens, giving me a new appreciation for the work and its context.

Visiting Spiral Jetty showed me the dialogue the piece has with its environment in a way that critical essays and photo documentation have not. Interestingly, this isn’t the case for all Earthworks. Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field relates to its environment in a much different way than Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The Lightning Field does not engage with its surroundings. It consumes them, making the vista to the horizon in every direction a part of the piece. There are no distractions in the environment, and no dialogue with it, because at The Lighting Field everything seen, felt, and experienced becomes a part of the work.

Spiral Jetty is not like that. Although still a monumental construction, it is much smaller than the Lightning Field and is much more discrete. It doesn’t annex the landscape, sucking it in and claiming it. The landscape dwarfs Spiral Jetty, and the natural and man-made features seen from Spiral Jetty open a dialogue with the work.

The industrial site to the east, with its larger jetty, provides the “entropic landscape” for Spiral Jetty, surrounding it with detritus rotting away with time. From Spiral Jetty you can see this other jetty—the two opening a sort of dialogue about the reasons that humans have made incursions out from the shore into the Great Salt Lake.

Other traces of human use of the land and sky are evident. The hill to the north of the jetty, the place to get an aerial view of the work, is covered with drying cow dung. The landscape here is still used for productive purposes; today it produces cattle instead of barrels of oil.

The land around Spiral Jetty is also scarred with traces of past rail transportation. The transcontinental railroad was completed 16 miles from Spiral Jetty, and there are many historic railroad grades in the area. No longer used, their tracks ripped up in the early 1940s to feed the war machine, these deep cuts and fills in the landscape are still clearly visible and speak to the history of man using the land, carving into it, for his own purposes.

Overhead, today, the clear blue sky is filled with the contrails of airplanes flying east to west and south to north over Spiral Jetty. As remote as the site may feel on the ground, civilization still moves around and above it through the air.

There has been talk since Spiral Jetty reemerged about conserving it somehow. The man who led the construction crew that created the jetty has said that in the past he’s been tempted to take his machinery back to the site to pile on more dirt and rock, to bring the piece back to life. But, he said, he’s decided against this because it wouldn’t be the same without Smithson’s involvement.

I think he has the right idea. Dia, which is now responsible for the piece, should monitor it (perhaps more closely than they do today) but should allow nature to continue taking its course. It would be desirable for Dia to take steps to limit the damage that visitors are doing to Spiral Jetty (perhaps removing some of the signage to the site, requiring visitors to sign in at the Golden Spike Visitor’s Center to receive a map, and asking them to agree to follow a leave-no-trace ethic during their time there), but intervening on the work itself in any way would not be right. Nature should be allowed to work on the piece, changing Spiral Jetty’s character over time.

Over the next year or two, the Great Salt Lake will continue to evaporate, turning lake into salt flat, further locking Spiral Jetty in its dry, frozen grip. But at some point in the future the rains will come again, the lake will rise, the waters will encircle (and eventually cover) the work.

Spiral Jetty, present now—dry as can be—will disappear, existing as memory and documentation for several years. But someday again it will reemerge, different somehow yet still fascinating to those interested enough to drive to the end of the road on Rozel Point to seek it out.

It’s a cycle we have experienced in our generation, and a cycle that generations in the future should be able to experience as well.

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