I was in Utah to see, and walk on, Robert Smithson’s mighty piece of land art, Spiral Jetty, built in 1970 at Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake, about a 100 miles from Salt Lake City. It’s Smithson’s masterpiece I think, although given that he died comparatively young, in a small plane crash, in Texas, while scoping out the site for another work, who knows what else he might have achieved?
Spiral Jetty is, I suppose, an earthwork, or possibly a causeway, 6000 tons of basalt arranged in a 1,500-foot long, 15-feet-wide counterclockwise, swirl. It isn’t always easy to see. As the lake’s waters rise it may become invisible: 4,195 feet is the crucial number, and there’s a handy website waterdata.usgs.gov which tells you the level. In fact it was under water for the best part of 30 years - but these days of drought have made things much easier. Not entirely however. I’d tried to go earlier in the year but was driven back by terrible rain and rising waters. No such problems in September 2015 however.
The lake was low, and Spiral Jetty was a long way from any water. It was just an arrangement of black rocks on the salt flat. That was pretty cool too, though it affected the way you engaged with it. If the water was surrounding it you’d be forced to walk on the rocks themselves, but since the water was out, I and the others I saw there (a total of four people) walked on the lake bed, inside the spiral, as it were, rather than on it. It was much easier that way, and certainly one of the girls I saw there, in flip-flops, would have had an impossible time negotiating the basalt.
Of course Spiral Jetty is big in one sense, but compared to the overall size of the whole lake it seems pretty small. And so having walked in, or on the jetty, you inevitably start walking across the lake bed itself. You might do this even if there was no Smithson work nearby, but its presence changes everything. Random chunks of old wooden (non-art) jetty, and industrial detritus were sticking out of the land, but they suddenly looked very much like art too. And earlier visitors had evidently been inspired also to become artists of a sort, rearranging rocks, writing things in the sand. I like to think Smithson would have been perfectly happy with this.
Smithson was at least somewhat concerned with walking. The 1971 movie Swamp, a collaboration with his wife Nancy Holt, has the two of them tramping through the wilds of the New Jersey wetlands.
His essay titled “Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape” (don’t you just hate it when artists use the word dialectical, unless maybe it’s ironic?) describes a walk in Central Park, where at one point he encounters a “sinister looking character” whom he fears is going to steal his camera – he doesn’t – and Smithson heads off into an area of the park known as The Ramble “a tangled net of divergent paths.”
Smithson writes, ”Now the Ramble has grown up into an urban jungle, and lurking in its thickets are ‘hoods, hobos, hustlers, and homosexuals,’ (I’m pretty sure he’s quoting John Rechy) and other estranged creatures of the city ... Walking east, I passed graffiti on boulders. Somehow I can accept graffiti on subway trains but not on boulders … In the spillway that pours out of the Wollman Memorial Ice Rink, I noticed a metal grocery cart and a trash basket half-submerged in the water. Further down, the spillway becomes a brook choked with mud and tin cans. The mud then spews under the Gapstow Bridge to become a muddy slough that inundates a good part of The Pond, leaving the rest of The Pond aswirl with oil slicks, sludge, and Dixie cups,”
Well, the land around the Spiral Jetty is very clean and free of litter though there is oil oozing up from the lakebed. I guess that’s a “natural” process. Certainly nobody has desecrated Smithson’s art with graffiti, though I imagine its guardians live in constant fear of that.
Spiral Jetty strikes me as those great works of art that isn’t “about” anything: it simply is. And merely by existing it raises and exemplifies all kinds of issues about land usage, time, mortality, change, nature and culture, entropy and so on. But of course art always come out of something else.
Phyllis Tuchman who (with Gail Stavitsky) created the exhibition “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey,” at the Montclair Art Museum, in 2014 reckons that Smithson was at least partly inspired by the Lincoln Tunnel connecting Manhattan with Weehawken, specifically by its exit/entrance ramp on the New Jersey side known as (would you believe, or maybe everybody knows this already) the Helix.
We’re also told, in an article Smithson write titled “The Crystal Land” (a nod to JG Ballard no doubt) that he and the sculptor Donald Judd, and their wives, once drove though the tunnel together and admired its minimalist qualities. Smithson writes, “the countless cream colored tiles on the wall sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles’ order”
Now, as it happens, there was a period of my life when I took a bus once a week in either direction through the Lincoln Tunnel. I could see that the long curving ramp (I certainly never thought of it as a helix) was quite a feat of engineering, although my admiration rather evaporated as the bus regularly got stuck there in traffic for 30 to 60 minutes. I certainly noticed the tiles, but what really got my attention as an enthusiastic pedestrian was that raised walkway you can see on the right-hand side of the tunnel.
I always wondered in what circumstances members of the public would be allowed to walk through the tunnel: I imagined only in the event of some kind of catastrophic traffic pile up. I assumed the walkway was used by maintenance workers but I never, ever saw one of them walking there.
In fact there are circumstances in which the tunnel is open to pedestrians, the annual Lincoln Tunnel Challenge, a race through the tunnel from Weehawken to New York and back again. They have about 3000 competitors. Elephants have also been known to walk there.
I’m sure Spiral Jetty looks different every day and at different times of the day, and obviously it’s completely transformed by the presence or absence of water. And possibly it looks best of all from a helicopter: Smithson certainly filmed it from up there, but that does mean you lose the opportunity for a good walk.