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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Walking the Jetty

After the shock of seeing it for the first time (and the shock of realizing that it's now surrounded by dry land) wears off, Spiral Jetty appears surprisingly small--almost delicate and demure. It is dwarfed by the size of the oil drilling jetty to the east and by the enormity of the landscape in which it is situated.

Once you've picked your way down the incline to the (former) shore of the Great Salt Lake and the base of Spiral Jetty, though, the piece looks larger. Then you take your first steps onto it.

As you walk, you begin to appreciate the true size of the piece and realize that your first impression was not correct. This thing is big. The initial run out from shore is straight. Eventually, it begins to curve to the left and, if you are walking the whole spiral, you start to circle around and fall in towards the middle.

As you become adjusted to the harsh surroundings, you begin to notice details: How the piece appears well on the way toward melding with its environment. How a few of the tallest rocks are not encrusted to their tops. (Were these always sticking above water?) How the salt has attached itself to the rocks, forming stalactites and stalagmites on the edges of the jetty. How the salt has bonded so strongly to the rocks that it's impossible to scrape or kick it off.

You also begin to see that the entropy at work here at Spiral Jetty is not all natural. There is evidence all around that people are using the site in ways that will lead to its disintegration over time. People (probably men based on the expressionistic traces left) have pissed all over the work--on the sides of the boulders, on the top of the jetty, and (most prominently) right at the tip of the spiral--staining the white salt yellow. There are several piles of shit on the jetty and on the hard salt surface around the piece. At the tip of the jetty someone has left what was probably once a small sculpture made of modeling clay. It's now disintegrated into a puddle of red, blue, yellow, and green mush that looks like a melting scoop of Superman ice cream. There are cigarette butts on the jetty and empty cans at its base.

Leaving the work behind for a few minutes, you can walk another 75 meters out on the salt flats before you reach the waterline. Smithson chose this location, in part, for the red tint in the water. The water takes on a rusty hue right at the shoreline, but turns a gentle pink as you walk farther away from shore. There is no drop off here. It feels like you could walk, no greater than ankle deep in the salt water, all the way to the horizon.

But it's not possible to stay out for that long. Here, at almost a mile above sea level, the sun is brutal. And the light reflected off the pure white salt flats only increases its power. After a half hour you begin to feel like you are drying out. You start to worry that you'll dessicate completely, your last motion frozen in a casting of salt. You see that this has happened here before.

It's time to return to the shade of the car. (There isn't shade anywhere else.) But maybe one more walk on the spiral first.

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