(sitting as near as possible to the window mounted ac-unit, vainly seeking respite during a typically sweaty, humid New York summer thunderstorm, I find myself returning back to the basaltic Promontory Range along the Great Salt Lake.)
“If ‘monuments’ in fact exist today, they are no longer visible.”
I had left the Super 8 around noon and made the Golden Spike National Monument by two. I was constantly stealing glances down to my printed map, but it proved unnecessary. At the first nameless, dusty fork in the road there is a large printed sign hammered into the ground: “Spiral Jetty <-- 18.2 miles.” Once the road devolved from dirt to rock, I ditched the Pontiac and hoofed it the last, short ¾ mile. And then there it was. Less a jetty, the spiral is now landlocked, only touching the red waters on its outer, westernmost coil. I nearly broke my leg scrambling down the ridge, jumping from rock to rock, my jaw on the ground.
Here’s the thing about the Spiral Jetty, hyperbole crystallizes on it like salt deposits. (!) Canonized as the epitome of land art, Spiral Jetty is “the quintessential heroic gesture in the landscape.” Time and art history texts have relegated it to the status of masterpiece, unquestioningly titling it the iconic post-war artwork, classified as the ultimate embrace of the western landscape, with a direct link to the primal, pre-historic apologue of life and death. Robert Smithson, the essential iconoclast for rejecting the confines of the New York gallery scene for the freedom of the Great Outdoors. And so on. And, like everything in the West, you print the myth because the facts can’t compete; they’re too slow, too complex, not as easily digestible. As an art object, Spiral Jetty traffics in myth in spades, assuming legendary status in no small part due to two occurrences.
One, about two years after it was completed it was swallowed up by the waters of the Great Salt Lake, unwittingly creating a small cabal of people, those who had actually seen it, to fan the art world and spread its gospel. At the height of its popularity, it no longer existed as a physical object, but rather as an idea and media object that was disseminated through film, photography, drawings, diagrams and writing. Land Art (earthworks, earth art, LAND/ART, whatever) and Smithson faded from memory in the late 90s, but both experienced a resurgence in 2002 when MOCA and the Whitney debuted a major Smithson retrospective that was fortuitously staged simultaneously with the re-emergence of the jetty itself. After 30 years it rose again out of the lake like an Authurian legend, almost as if the waterline of the Great Salt Lake itself was under Dia and the Whitney’s command.
Two, Smithson himself was transformed into a mythic hero, due to his tragic death at thirty-five, only three years after completion of the Spiral Jetty. He was the cowboy Icarus art god who fell from the plane, clutching his camera while scouting sites in the Texas plains.
The problem is the canonical adorations become conventional; the cliché saps the object of its inherent strength allowing it to safely be categorized in a simple historical box, kind of like in an “Oh yeah, Spiral Jetty, that’s a masterpiece, what else is new” way. So the viewer is really left with one of two options when actually confronted with the object itself. The first is a vaguely discomforting, disappointing notion that the object has been rendered impotent to the point of dissolution. Again, think Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa, the Grand Canyon. What you came to see is gone, disappeared in a mass of jostling Germans in short pants. The second is incredulousness leading to exhilaration. That thing is really real, it exists, Smithson pulled it off. The syntactic gaps between what you expected in your mind and the reality of what is sitting in front you are bridged, and something fires.
At least, those were the two options I predisposed myself for when I set out from Salt Lake City. Arriving at the jetty and Rozel Point I felt a mixture of what was certainly exhilaration, delight and disappointment. The one truth is that the facts are always more complicated. And as interesting as combing over the historical essays and theoretical exercises might be, I can say without equivocation, that whatever you may think, it will be better in person.
My reaction is as follows, but first an examination of those historical essays is in order (naturally). But only those penned by Smithson himself, because the artist’s own writings are incredible, they’re personal, banal, critical, whacked-out like a space age fever dream. Take this for instance:
“Following the spiral steps we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm, a floating eye adrift in an antediluvian ocean. On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through the lids. I opened them, and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks. My sight was saturated by the color of red algae circulating in the heart of the lake, pumping into ruby currents. My eyes became combustion chambers churning orbs of blood. Swirling within the incandescence of solar energy were sprays of blood. Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me. I had the red heaves, while the sun vomited its corpuscular radiations. Surely, the storm clouds massing would turn into a rain of blood.”
It sounds like it could come from a pulp drug novel, and you’d be excused for thinking this guy is some kind of stoner rock god. He’s placed the spiral as a symbol of our primordial, antediluvian origins, where interior and exterior blur (“sun burned crimson through the lids”), man and nature entwine and merge (“geologic fault groaned with me”) and apocalyptic visions reign(“clouds massing would turn into a rain of blood”). From there his writing continues, oscillating from straightforward field note-ish accounts of the construction of the Jetty (“From New York City I called the Utah Park Department and spoke to Ted Tuttle”)-I would’ve liked to hear what Ted thought – back to scientific geological records of the site, segueing into 60s gonzo acid trip territory, then back around to ruminations on the nature of the picturesque and sublime in Enlightenment and Romantic travel narratives (he was really into Frederick Law Olmstead). The whole thing is definitely worth reading a few times.
Maybe it was the battered copy of J.G. Ballard’s Terminal Beach that was riding along in my backpack, but I found myself returning to what I saw as the most interesting of the many genres that Smithson quotes from – science fiction. In Lytle Shaw’s essay, “Smithson, writer,” Shaw argues that Smithson, by using such time cancelling phrases in descriptions of his Jetty such as “immobile cyclone,” a “dormant earthquake,” and a “spinning sensation without movement,” is associating the outdoor site with science fictions ecological apocalypse and is in effect stopping nature’s clock in the midst of its most dramatic productions. The frozen natural disasters are not just part of harnessing the sublime power of nature, but they are the actual genesis of the form of the sculpture itself – the Jetty is the physical embodiment of the forces Smithson found at the site.
Smithson’s freezing effect is but part of a larger thematic connection to the science fiction genre, one that includes time as a driving force. In “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Smithson goes through a number of rhetorical inversions to imply that first the monuments of his age will reverse the temporal baseline by shifting past and future, but then secondly, that those monuments will function as actual agents that cast doubt on the possibility of directional time itself:
“Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, or other kinds of rock, the new monuments are made of artificial materials, plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather work against the ages.”
Not only an indictment of modern architecture, the essay brings up a crucial notion for Smithson, the one word that summed up his preoccupations with dissolution, degradation and the direction of time: entropy. The second law of thermodynamics, the rejection of Newtonian perpetuity, entropy codifies the inevitable disintegration of all matter. The universe will eventually fizzle out to nothing, the center cannot hold. Ruins are monuments to entropy, and the site around Rozel Point holds a number of examples. Smithson chose the site in part because of the preponderance of enigmatic wreckage. Your first view of the Salt Lake is also the first encounter with a jetty, not a spiral one, but an abandoned oil drilling station that has been overtaken by disrepair, frozen in a state of natural decay. And the Spiral Jetty itself ended up having a short half-life, disappearing under the salt water before emerging again with a new patina of white salt. The concept is pretty incredible, Spiral Jetty the sculpture is not just a representation of the concept of entropy, it is entropy. Simply put, it was ‘entropy made visible.’ You take nature and turn it into art. Nature can be the basaltic rocks and earth of Utah or an immaterial idea, while art can be a jetty or a building. All that matters is the transformation and the acknowledgment that what is built will in turn erode. Nothing is stable.
A hot topic in the architectural world right now is ‘emergence,’ a topic which is pretty vague (something about scripting), but I would argue that Spiral Jetty is part of the concept that process is more important that the final piece and time produces interesting and unexpected results that are outside the reach of the creator. The crystallization of the salt particles, the ever shifting water levels, the dissolution of the pure form to something a little fuzzier, the way the water gets all foamy as it laps up against the rocks are things that Smithson couldn’t have planned predicted. Object and site move forward together as something new. The site was revitalized, but the historical textuality of the site (the industrial ruins) was superimposed onto the bulldozed earth of Smithson’s object. He refers a lot to ‘collapsing time,’ in his writing, merging the stone age with the space age. Check out his film on the Spiral Jetty, Smithson trumps Kubrick’s celebrated 2001 jump-cut from bone-as-tool to orbiting spaceship, with his own lumbering dinosaur to rumbling dump truck. Kubrick was looking forward to technological evolution, Smithson portrayed the artist as mover of mountains, a primordial designer. Construction is also destruction, and the built-in obsolescence of the Spiral Jetty is paralleled and alluded to in the fate of the dinosaurs. Even at its conception, the time was ticking.
The space age/nuclear age allusions become even more explicit with Smithson’s later quote upon seeing the Spiral Jetty from a helicopter: “From that position the flaming reflection suggested the ion source of a cyclotron that extended into a spiral of collapsed matter. All sense of energy acceleration expired into a rippling stillness of reflected heat.” He links the Jetty to the spiral-shaped cyclotron developed during the Manhattan project that was integral to enriching uranium by speeding up and separating particles using electromagnets.
Smithson’s description of the sun burning crimson through his closed lids could also be seen as a reference to accounts from B-52 crewman, dropping the H-Bomb in the Bikini Atoll in the early 50s. The first invisible wave ejected from an explosion caused by nuclear fusion is a blast of x-rays. Pilots reported seeing the bones of their hands through their closed eyelids, while the rest of the crew appeared as walking skeletons. The military must have also picked up on the latent apocalyptic archetypes of the Utah salt flats. In 1944, 70 miles away at Wendover Air Force Base, the US Air Force began preparations for the use of the atomic bomb against Axis Forces. Paul Tibbets and the 509th Composite Group began running mock flight trials with the newly designed B-29 Superfortress, trials intended to simulate the precise deployment of one bomb followed by a sharp aerial maneuver to avoid the initial blast wave.
You can walk the spiral in less than five minutes, it’s smaller than you think (vaguely disappointing). And with the recession of the water level, you can cut back across the coils, leaving footprints in the white salt. It crackles and hums as the microscopic salt crystals break (delightful). And absorbing the bizarre atmosphere of the place, dangling my feet in the surprisingly warm water, the salt already crystallizing between my toes, while pondering the peculiar evening redness of the place (exhilarating), I thought back to Smithson’s quote that “a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance,” and I returned to Ballard, and Traven, the protagonist of ‘Terminal Beach.’ Left to wander the ruins of an abandoned atoll, once used for the testing of nuclear weapons, he makes his home among the decaying observation towers and mock bunkers. Gradually he succumbs to the same entropic devices taking their toll on the debris of science and civilization. Decaying physically and mentally, the structures of his mind become one with those of the island, until one day he sees two travelers, scientists, who came to conduct biological research in an empty, contaminated submarine holding pen. Smithson’s preoccupation with time and entropy, antediluvian history and science within the vortex of the inner workings of the mind find substance in this exchange from Ballard:
‘”Doctor,” he said, “Your laboratory is at the wrong end of this island.”
Tartly Osborne replied: “I’m aware of that, Traven. There are rarer fish swimming in your head than in any submarine pen’.