Spiral Jetty By Robert Smithson: Great Art Explained

In 1968, astronaut William Anders took this 
photo of the earth rising over the moon.   The picture which became known as “Earthrise” 
showed the world as a lonely fragile oasis.   And it changed the way we see our planet. It was as if humanity was seeing itself in a 
mirror for the first time. Seeing itself as a globe,  as an object, would not only change our 
consciousness but also be inextricably   tied up with what would be called “Land Art”. Newsreader: “Good evening. Dr Martin Luther King,
the apostle of non-violence in the civil rights movement   has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. 1968 was a turbulent year for the United states. And the sudden appearance of “Earth Art” or 
“Land art” can be seen as a response to the   heightened political activism of the time, as 
well as the emerging environmental movement.   The world was changing and art needed to change 
too. Artists were fed up with the gallery system   and the over-commercialization of art and 
culture. They were questioning what art was.   Was it only art if it was in a gallery? Or a 
museum? Was it only art if you could sell it?   A group of artists, mostly working in New York 
city, were looking to transcend the limitations   of painting and sculpture. To do this they 
would go west – to the vast desert spaces.   They would find something that was elemental 
something that would go beyond physicality.   They were fearless, ambitious, 
and daring. They were pioneers. You could say land art existed thousands of 
years even before oil painting – but it would   take a group of American artists to bring it 
back to the public gaze in the 1960s and 70s.   Artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and 
Nancy Holt had emerged from sculpture, minimalism   and conceptual art. Rather than painting the 
landscape they started working outdoors and   sculpting directly INTO the landscape itself. 
Instead of paint brushes they would use bulldozers.   And the earth would be not only the site, 
but also the materials AND the canvas.   In spring 1970, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt 
visited northern Utah to select a site to   construct an earthwork. With no outlets to the sea 
the Great Salt Lake is a “Terminal” lake – only rain   can replenish the lake’s waters. We see images of 
the spiral jetty looking picturesque, but it is   important to note that the lake has always been 
an area of intense industrialisation. It still is.   And it’s one of the reasons Smithson chose it.
In Smithson’s film about the making of Spiral Jetty   we see an abandoned oil rig in the background. 
The Union Pacific railroad runs right through it.   Smithson saw his works of art as the “mediators” 
between the environment and the economy.  Some art theorists use the term “Land art” and 
“Environmental art” interchangeably. But the land art   of Smithson is not so much about ecology or direct 
activism. Spiral Jetty should really be seen as a   way of expanding awareness of geological changes. 
This was at the core of Smithson’s practice.   But who paid for these projects? Land artists may have 
shown disdain for the traditional art market, but   their massive outdoor works still required money. 
And lots of it. Land art needed wealthy patrons   who were not going to get anything in return –
just the chance to feel a part of art history. Robert Smithson was not just an artist – he was an 
intellectual, an important writer and a theorist.   It would be his words that gave land art a voice
He only created three monumental earth works and his   early death – in the process of creating the third –
would lend his work a mythological status.    Smithson moved to New York in the late 1950s.
Gallerist Virginia Dwan gave him a solo show in 1959.   And she would eventually fund the 
Spiral Jetty. At this time Smithson was   producing paintings, drawings, and collages 
inspired by the Abstract Expressionists.   Later his work would take a turn towards 
minimalism. The jump from minimalism to   land art is not such a giant leap. While the key 
element of land art was often its monumentality   and its site-specific context, it also connected 
closely with many of the concerns of minimalism.   In 1963, Smithson married Nancy Holt, a 
brilliant artist and a member of the earth, land   and conceptual art movements. She became not 
just smithson’s wife but his collaborator.   And their partnership would mark a 
significant turning point in his career.   Both of them were fascinated by man’s imprint 
on the natural landscape, and in 1969 they took   a journey through England and Wales, visiting 
sites ranging from ancient ruins and quarries   to wild natural places. It had a major influence 
on their work. Then in 1968 they took part in the   legendary show “Earthworks” at the Virginia Dwan 
gallery in New York. The following year Michael   Heizer created “Double Negative” in Nevada. A year 
after that Smithson built the Spiral Jetty in Utah. Rozel point is located in a remote section 
of the north end of the Great Salt Lake, whose   waters are four times saltier than the sea. It is 
nearly devoid of life. In this harsh environment   only a few organisms like algae and bacteria can 
live. Brine shrimp however thrive in this extreme   environment. They are a brilliant red colour and 
in Autumn they shed their old shells and deposit   them in the lake. It is the bacteria and algae 
that live on the discarded shrimp shells that   provide almost a constant source of colour – ranging 
from blood red to rust orange and purple pink.   The colour of the lake was the preliminary 
factor that attracted Smithson to the site.   Smithson: “North of the Lucin cut-off, the water is a 
red or pink colour due to algae in the brine”. To him the pigmentation evoked the primordial seas.   The mirror-like quality of the lake also 
appealed to Smithson – not only would he   create a spiral, but the water would act like 
an inverse spiral and a mirror at the same time. A big part of Spiral Jetty’s appeal 
is the sheer audaciousness of it.   And the enormous effort involved in the 
construction only adds to its mythological status.   It was made possible by the support of Virginia 
Dwan who put up nine thousand dollars for the project.   In April 1970 Smithson received 
the lease agreement for 25 acres of land   on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.
The rent was $100 per annum. Smithson then obtained permission to 
move the six thousand five hundred tons   of basilt and earth from the shoreline.
To construct a huge fifteen hundred foot long,   fifteen foot wide, spiral 
shaped jetty out on the lake. Part of Spiral Jetty’s attraction is how 
our senses are heightened when we encounter   artworks larger than us. Interacting with such 
a huge piece, requires a shift in perception   which then shifts how one experiences 
the world around it. The waters of the   lake were unusually low when construction 
began – but it was still an incredible feat. Smithson marked out the shape with poles and 
rope, and his contractor Bob Phillips used two   dump trucks, a large tractor, and a front end loader 
to haul the tons of rock and earth from the shore   into the lake. This is the first proposal 
by Smithson, which they built. With an island   as planned – and you can see that here.
But Smithson wasn’t happy with the shape   and to the contractors horror, insisted on removing it 
entirely and starting again – to new specifications. Despite this setback, Smithson was an artist
who made his mark in a very short time. Investigating  the lake – choosing a site – hiring a contractor –
and creating the work – took just four weeks.   Spiral Jetty’s strange markings deliberately 
reference prehistoric architecture – as well as   American Indian “Petroglyphs” found in Utah.
Early spirals are found in many places in the Americas.   Spirals fascinated Smithson, and in his writings 
he also mentioned their occurrence in galaxies and   nebulae, in the structure of crystals, in the human 
ear, and in particular in Constantin Brancusi’s   famous portrait of James Joyce. In Smithson’s early 
work you often find the spiral form.    Near to theSpiral Jetty site, the Bingham copper mines
– still active – appealed to his love of industrial sites.   In fact he once proposed an Earthwork to the 
owners – but was refused. Some early settlers   believed the center of an ancient universe was 
directly UNDER the Great Salt Lake and Spiral Jetty   could be seen as a “portal” to that world. This 
would tie into a theory that a book by the science   fiction writer JG Ballard inspired Smithson. 
Smithson was a huge fan of science fiction   and in 1967, he took the title of Brian Aldiss’ 
“Earthworks” to describe his own form of art.   JG Ballard’s “The Voices of Time”, like the Spiral 
Jetty is set in the salt flats, and concerned   with time. Ballard’s world is ravaged by climate 
change and characters are transformed by landscape. The climax has the main character, a scientist, 
building a “Mandala” off the coast of the salt flats.   A mandala is a ritualistic symbol in Asian 
cultures, and in the book it is a way of   communicating with the universe. The primary theme 
in both of these books is one which was common to   the new wave of science fiction writers – that 
of entropy and the breakdown of all things. Entropy is the inevitable and steady deterioration 
of a system or society – or in this case a work of art.  Land art might change in unpredictable ways.
And that’s the point. These works do not exist   in isolation from the world around them, and 
land artists embrace entropy – the idea of decay   or even the complete disintegration of their work.
From the second Spiral Jetty was created   it has continually changed. Only a year after it 
was completed, the rising lake level submerged   it under water. It would reappear briefly in the 
1980s then disappear again under 16 feet of water.   Until 2002 – when it would resurface 
as white as snow, with encrusted salt. Robert Smithson was killed in a light plane crash 
along with the pilot and a photographer, as they   were inspecting one of his Earthworks under 
construction on a ranch near Amarillo, Texas.   His story is an American epic. That of a man who leaves the
city to search for truth in the vast landscapes of the West. I think the Land Art movement was less  about ecology, than it
was about a desire to take art out of the white box of the gallery.   But thanks to its emergence and submergence, Spiral Jetty
has become a handy visual metaphor – a symbol of climate change. It seems inevitable that after a few more
cycles of high water and extreme drought   the Spiral Jetty will disappear completely – and return to
the vast salt bed of the Great Lake – from where it came. Something Smithson 
would have been very pleased with.
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