When I looked into the Spiral Jetty and reflected on why I was drawn to it, part of that intrigue is from it being a spiral itself. Spirals to me are fascinating on all sorts of levels. Give a young child a pencil and one of the first things he or she is likely to draw is a spiral. They are simple shapes, and perhaps one of the first we learn to draw, but they often have much deeper meanings. I am very interested in the ancient Celts, and a lot of their art and symbols are based on spirals, but also they appear across the ancient world. This to me, gives them an even more symbolic and mythological status. Artists through time have been drawn to the spiral too and I want to explore more of the meaning behind this and look at more examples of where they have been used.
What is a Spiral?
In simple mathematical terms, a spiral is a curve that moves further away from the centre point as it revolves. Spirals can be 2D or 3D and there are many types.
Archimedean Spiral: The distance between the spiral arms remains constant, it is like a curve of parallel lines. These are important in geometry as they are what Archimedes used in 225 BC to square the circle and Archimedes wrote a whole treatise on these called ‘On Spirals’ showing their significance to ancient knowledge.
Fermat’s Spiral: Fermat’s spirals are interesting. They are similar to Archimedean spirals, but the distance between the arms does not remain constant. Instead, it is the area between neighbouring arcs that is constant which effectively makes the spiral come closer together as it expands outwards.
In mature flower discs (phyllotaxis) such as in sunflowers and daisies, the shape of the spirals is that of a Fermat spiral. This is a concept explored by John Edmark who makes some incredible pieces of art using spirals.
The Logarithmic spiral: This is a spiral that often appears in nature. It differs from the archimedean spiral by the fact that the distances between the arms increase each time. These spirals are throughout nature. Hawks use them to approach their prey, the arms of spiral galaxies are often this shape, shells follow this pattern, hurricanes, nerves of the cornea also follow this shape.
A special case of the logarithmic spiral is the Fibonacci Spiral: Fibonacci spirals are also called the Golden spiral as it is one where the growth factor of the spiral is exactly equal to the golden ratio.
Triskeles are ancient motifs consisting of a triple spiral. These are found across neolithic artefacts and continue into the iron age and the beginning of the classical period.
Spirals are ubiquitous throughout periods of history. They have been found as decorative motifs as far back as 10,000 BCE. We have more examples of them as Neolithic symbols throughout Europe.
One of the most famous examples is a prehistoric monument with a grand passage tomb built around 3200 BC at Newgrange in Ireland. We don’t know for sure what the site was used for, but it is believed to have huge religious significance and keeping time was important to the people as many of the tombs are aligned with solstices and equinoxes. Various archaeologists have speculated as to the meaning of the spiral designs, some think them to be purely decorative, whereas some hypothesise due to the placement of them, think they are much more symbolic. Many of the spirals are placed where they wouldn’t be visible which negates some of the theory that they are purely for decoration.
When you look into the Irish myths, there are other explanations for the meaning behind the symbols at Newgrange. Newgrange is described as a portal to the Otherworld, which is the ancient Irish underworld dwelling of the divine.
I find this an interesting link to the Spiral Jetty which also has roots in local mythology as a place of being a portal to another world.
In the Irish case, the link to time is even more apparent. One of the Irish Gods, the Dagda, has the ability to make time stand still by stopping the Sun. It has been suggested that the tale represents the Winter Solstice illumination of Newgrange. (Hensey, Robert. Re-discovering the winter solstice alignment at Newgrange, in The Oxford Handbook of Light in Archaeology. Oxford University Press, 2017. pp.11-13)
As well as in Ireland, spirals are found throughout the world. They are throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America, in rock carvings in Mexico, Peru as universal petroglyphs. Across Asia too where they are often interpreted as solar symbols.
The spiral has inspired artists for generations. Robert Smithson is one example but there are dozens of other examples too. In modern animation and anime, spirals are often present, one example is in the anime Gurren Lagann where the spiral represents a philosophy of life.
Spiral – Art Collective
When I was researching spirals in art, I came across it being used as a name of a New York-based African American collective that was formed in 1963 with the aim of addressing how African American artists should respond to America’s changing political and cultural landscape.
What I find interesting about this, is that it is from a similar era to Smithson and many of the artists with the group were abstract expressionists, like Smithson started as. The Land Art movement in which Smithson was part of was motivated by the political climate and a desire to get away from the gallery centred art. The Spiral group of artists were also “ignored by many of the proponents of abstract expressionism, like the critic Clement Greenberg; who said their art was too autobiographical to be considered.”
Spirals: the whirled image in twentieth-century literature and art – Nico Israel
As part of my research into Spirals, I read this book.
I hadn’t considered the role of Spirals in literature as much as those in visual art. This book made me contemplate many more examples.
“Spirals have a curious centrality in some of the best-known and most significant twentieth-century literature and visual art. Consider the writings of W. B. Yeats, whose Vision was entranced by a system of widening and narrowing gyres; Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, whose poetry traced Dantesque helical journeys into and out of the modern urban inferno; and James Joyce, whose Ulysses navigated between the Scylla of Aristotelianism and the Charybdis of Platonism, ultimately casting both into the Wake of a thunderous Viconian “gyrotundo.” Or think, later in the century, of Samuel Beckett’s obsessive circuitry and abortive spiral journeys or of W. G. Sebald, for whom spiral rings signaled the vertiginous emanations of historical trauma.”
In the introduction to this book, we find the author Nico Israel was inspired to write the whole book after visiting the Spiral Jetty in Utah. When he returned to New York, he read more about Smithson’s project and found how inspired Smithson was by literature and not other pieces of visual art. Smithson had handwritten, under the title “A Metamorphoses of Spirals,” a series of quotations of short passages from some twenty-one texts.
I am going to write up this book in a different post to collate the notes together.