Is it an earthwork, a seascape, an icon of landscape design, a pilgrimage destination, perhaps even a joke at the art world’s expense? In a recent article for the Historic Gardens Review, I explored the meaning of Robert Smithson’s best-known work, Spiral Jetty, a strange, inaccessible mass of boulders, salt and mud, constructed in 1970 on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Some saw it as a heroic gesture in the landscape, a modern version of Stonehenge or the pyramids. Remote, unseen except in photographs and film, its size and location meant that it was almost an appeal to the cosmos, a grand gesture best viewed from the heavens. Others interpreted it as essentially bleak, its location threatening and contaminated, its seemingly heroic nature Smithson’s cruel irony: despite its name, the Jetty served no maritime purpose and was artificial, functionless, a hollow legend generating vast amounts of empty metaphor. It was a monument to nothing but the futility of man’s intervention on the land.
In my opinion, Smithson’s purpose was deliberately ambiguous and playful. Known for his sense of humour, he even wrote about laughter as the fourth dimension, and described ways of creating laughter in art, equating different kinds of laughs (guffaws, giggles, etc) to different shapes and structures, unfortunately none of them spirals. The shape of the Jetty could be seen as an elaborate question mark, gently teasing the viewer to try to work out what it meant. The location was neither glorious nor threatening, but a sly joke at the expense of Manhattan gallery owners, who considered themselves the centre of the art world. Now the wilds of Utah were the location of the real artwork and New York became a provincial outpost with access only via photographs and films. Certainly Smithson’s film “Spiral Jetty” was playful: part of its purpose was to allow people to see the sculpture without having to travel to a remote area of Utah, but nevertheless several minutes of the film were taken up with images of a car travelling along the dirt road to the shoreline. The film also made the point that once the viewer finally reached the artwork and walked to the centre of the Jetty, there was nothing there; there was no choice but simply to turn around and go back.
Whatever meanings Smithson intended for the Spiral Jetty, its subsequent history has given it an extraordinary iconic status. Within three years of its completion, its creator, still a young man, was dead. Even before then, the water level of the lake had risen to engulf the sculpture completely. It barely emerged for thirty years. Only visible in old films and photographs, but still present under the surface of the lake, the Spiral Jetty became a mythical, almost legendary, work of art.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, a prolonged drought meant that the water in the lake dropped to its 1970 levels. For the last few years, the Spiral Jetty has again become visible above the water, at least during the drier summer months. Its formerly black rocks emerged from the lake dazzlingly white and salt-encrusted. The media frenzy that has greeted its re-emergence is everywhere on the web, and the Jetty continues to provoke fascinating questions about the nature of aesthetic appeal, the role of landscape art, and the complexities of conservation in a world where change is inevitable and unavoidable.
For more of Ray Boren’s wonderful photographs of the Jetty since its reemergence, see the Utah Hands website.