ARTIST: Robert Smithson
ART: Spiral Jetty
MATERIALS: 1,500-foot-long, black basalt coil.
LOCATION: Salt Lake, Utah (Rozel Point)
In April 1970, two dump trucks, a tractor, and a front loader began moving the 6,650 tons of rock and earth needed to create Spiral Jetty. A film crew recorded the venture, and Smithson directed rock placement to the workers. Despite how disruptive this process sounds, the Spiral Jetty now seems at home in this vast, deafly quiet land expanse.
The Spiral Jetty is a destination. It is not an artwork people might just happen upon, as it requires venturing miles of gravel roads through back-country turf to find it. The nearest gas station is 30 miles away. Because of this, we had the entire place to ourselves for most of our visit and lingered at the site for nearly four hours. We walked the Jetty, took ground-floor photos and hiked up some hills to get aerial shots. We ate lunch on a big flat rock and watched the sun and clouds play in the space. We lamented how the Jetty seemed smaller than we thought, but it was more magical than we anticipated. We counted our lucky stars that it was above the water -- fully exposed and able to be walked upon -- disclosing itself as being not particularly beautiful as an object, knowing this rejection of a/the formal object is precisely what made the Earthwork movement so radical.
But the Jetty invites beauty. It is like an outstretched welcome mat, summoning people to interact with it. To contemplate. To be quiet. To breathe. Laugh, play, walk, run, scream -- activities the Jetty does in its own way as it perseveres the sun, rain, snow, wind, water, drought -- all while simultaneously breathing life into a place where few life forms can thrive.
I stepped onto the Jetty and all at once wondered if I should walk with prayer, as if on a labyrinth; or walk critically - viewing each rock and contemplating the texture and form of the artwork. As time passed, I began to look away from the Jetty and to span the silent vastness of the Great Salt Lake. The barren scape pulled me to her bed, and I strolled over carcasses, cloud-like foam and random puddles of brine. Far, far away from land, I'd look back to view the Jetty. It remained a safety net. A launching pad. Basalt-strong, salt encrusted and there.
I dunno how much time Smithson spent at this spot. He and his crew built it in only six days, and he died a young man (35). The romantic in me likes to think of him sitting out at the end of the spiral, drinking gin and listening to the wind for hours on end. Memorizing the stars. Braving the wind. Making love to his wife (artist Nancy Holt). The silence seems ripe for a meditaitive, or even ritualistic, art practice. However, the making of the Jetty was possibly (and more likely) an NYC bohemian art party.
Regardless of the process it took Smithson to construct the Spiral Jetty, the work itself has been nothing but a process since its birth. Because viewers are allowed to touch, walk upon, photograph, kick and otherwise engage with the art - they, too, become a part of the Jetty's process. And in some way, the Jetty then becomes a part of them.