Spiral Jetty is a 1970 piece of land art made in Salt Lake, Utah, by Robert Smithson. As well as making the land art itself, Smithson produced a film to document the work. I was drawn to the spiral jetty in Doug Burton’s introductory lecture. I’m not sure what exactly inspired me so much from seeing the Spiral Jetty in the presentation. On reflection, it was a combination of the scale of the piece, the connection with the land and the spiral itself. Previously, I have read a lot into the Ancient Celts and the Spiral is a very predominant feature of their monuments and artwork, so perhaps it was this connection that intrigued me. I aim to explore the artwork here in more depth than in my initial lecture write up.
Before researching the background of the Spiral Jetty, I wanted to watch Smithson’s own film about his work so that I could view his movie with no preconceptions. The film itself is a piece of creative art and would tell a story without the sculpture. Throughout parts of the film, you hear this almost metronomic sound in the background, possibly someone using a hammer-like tool. This draws you into the concept of labour, industry and timekeeping. It could be this idea of someone keeping time whilst others work, or it could be to highlight the industry of the area that Smithson chose for the location. It is certainly atmospheric, in an almost sinister way.
Throughout the film, there are symbols and items that give clues as to what Smithson would like the land art to represent. For example, there is a pile of books of which The Lost World by Doyle is one, as well as a book on Mazes and Labyrinths. To me, these indicate that Smithson is pointing to the Spiral Jetty being a nod to the ancient world, of being mystical and fantastical. Spirals are closely associated with labyrinths and this idea of being able to get lost in his artwork. There are also multiple images of dinosaurs and mentions of the Jurassic era through his use of the map. Again, this emphasises that Smithson is trying to root his Spiral Jetty in a much more ancient time, time where geological changes are continually occurring. There is a direct mention of this in the film when Smithson talks about the old popular local myth that the lake was connected to the ocean by a subterranean channel that was opened by a whirlpool portal.
The industrial nature of the area is a feature of the film and is shown in a few ways. There are shots of a truck driving around amongst oil rigs disturbing the dust of the Earth as it does. The footage of the trucks driving almost becomes hypnotic, in the same way that our destruction of the Earth can at times be mindless. There are times when the film flips between two clips: footage of man-made construction which is very noisy and more peaceful recordings of nature such as water lapping. It cycles between these two for some time. To me, this is highlighting the way that we destroy and then want to repair, only for someone else or another group to destroy. Time is cyclical like this with periods of destruction and regeneration. Again linking to the spiral nature of time. At one point the phrase “Just because things don’t change, doesn’t mean they never will” is used in the voiceover, reminding us of this constant change of time.
After watching the film and spending some time watching aerial footage of the Spiral Jetty, I researched Smithson and the Jetty. Spiral Jetty was Smithson’s second major land art project and tragically the last one that he completed before his death in a plane crash at age 35. In some ways, this helps to give the Spiral Jetty an even more mythical status as it was created by an artist who was a pioneer in his field just before his very unexpected death.
The time when the Spiral Jetty was created is interesting in terms of a cultural perspective. Mankind was exploring space and 1968 brought the famous Earth Rise photo. The emergence of this photo showed the world in a way it had probably not been viewed previously, like an oasis in a dark place and it inevitably changed humans’ perception of the planet. 1968 was a very turbulent year, it saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy which sparked large scale protests. In response to the political activism and alongside the emerging environmental movement, land art sprung into life.
A group of New York artists including Robert Smithson, his soon to be wife Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer started to question what art is for. Does art have to be in a museum or gallery? Does art have to be sellable? In response to what they saw as over commercialism in galleries, they started moving West to the desert lands of the US to make more elemental art. Rather than painting landscapes to sell, they used the land itself to create the art. Of course, land art has existed for centuries and is one of the oldest forms of art. Throughout the ancient world, constructions like Stonehenge were made, there is footage of Smithson and Holt visiting these in the 1960s alongside industrial quarries of the UK so they were obviously inspired by some of these much older creations. Smithson’s role in the land art movement is pivotal. Alongside his art, Smithson was a great writer and his writings gave land art a voice.
Smithson saw art as a mediator between industry and ecology and you see this through his choice of location for the Spiral Jetty. The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake meaning it has no outlet to the sea and it is in a historically industrial area. He was fascinated by man’s imprint on the natural landscape. We see this hinted at in the film but it is also obvious when you consider where he placed the Jetty and how it was constructed.
Smithson chose a site that is four times saltier than the sea, it is a harsh environment where not much survives. The one creature that seems to thrive is a shrimp, which in Autumn shed their bright red shells. These shells alongside algae and bacteria provide the lake with a whole spectrum of colours from deep red to orange and pink tones. This pigmentation appealed to Smithson as a natural palette of colours but also as it invokes images of the primordial seas where early life emerged.
The Jetty itself is enormous, I would love to visit it one day and see and experience it for myself. The scale of it adds to the mythological status as it makes you wonder about the construction and how it got there. In the way that we look at ancient monuments like the Great Pyramids and wonder how they were made. It is a 1500 foot spiral and people report that their senses are heightened when interacting with it due to its scale. What is even more incredible in some ways, is that the whole thing only took 4 weeks from design to completion, and that included a rebuild at one point!
The Spiral was constructed using local Black Basalt and Limestone that was moved by huge trucks onto the spiral. Water is between the arms of the spiral to give a mirrored look, highlighting a chance to reflect on our place within the natural world. The whole structure changes with time, it evolves like a natural wonder. Mud and salt crystals form on the rocks changing the overall look of the spiral as if nature is taking over the piece. On an even more dramatic level, the whole structure gets submerged when the water levels rise. It was constructed during a period of low water levels and then only a couple of years after it was completed, the whole spiral was hidden by water. It only briefly emerged again in the 1980s before being hidden again. It then re-emerged in 2002 covered in snow like white salt crystals. If there was ever a symbol of climate change and how it impacts our world it is this Jetty. In the future, the whole structure will be destroyed by the world around it. Giving it a sense of impermanence, just like our lives, time ultimately wins. Land Artists embrace this entropy and natural decay, part of the creativity is letting the land take the piece into its own hands. A sense of unpredictable change.
Spiral Jetty is amongst one of the most recognisable pieces of land art that emerged in the early 1970s, but it is not alone. In 1968 was the pioneering Earthworks New York Show. There are also creations such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada 1969 that were part of this movement.
Smithson himself wasn’t only a Land Artist. He started as an abstract expressionist painter and then created works in the minimalist style before embracing land art. Spirals feature a lot in his work, such as in the Feet of Christ.
Spirals were an obvious inspiration, one that seems to have been important to Smithson is Untitled by Frank Stella. This is an area I want to look at more.I was drawn to Spiral Jetty as soon as I saw it in Doug’s presentation. It has made me look much more into Land Art and the time in which it emerged, the politics of the time and the world events that preceded it. I am also interested in the people behind the movement, Smithson, Holt and Heizer seem to have rejected the very traditional gallery approach to art and returned to a much more ancient, natural way of creating but at the same time highlighted an issue that is very predominant today – climate change.
I am also intrigued by the way that Smithson took inspiration from a whole range of areas. He was inspired by ancient local folklore like the Jetty being a portal to an ancient universe but also inspired by very modern science fiction ideas. His Earthworks show was even named after a Sci-fi book by Brain Aldis.
Although Spiral Jetty was made in 1970, so many of the ideas and issues which it highlights are still so relevant today. We still seem to be fighting political activism, climate change, commercialism and the destructive nature of humans. I wonder what Smithson would think of the modern world if he were here today?