Friday, March 26, 2010

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty - Iconic American Art waiting for your visit on the Great Salt Lake

The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, on the North Shore of the Great Salt Lake, Photo by Mike Matson

Described as "The most famous work of American art that almost nobody has ever seen in the flesh," (by Michael Kimmelman in his 2003 article for the New York Times) Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty can be found high and dry these days on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Utah may not be famous for its thriving art scene, but it is home to an iconic rock sculpture considered to be one of the most important pieces in the American Earth Art movement of the 1960's. The Spiral Jetty is a fascinating piece for its peculiar nature and dubious title of "art". It warrants a visit, if only to get your mind thinking about its reason for being.

Driving out to the sculpture, it's hard not to wonder if reaching the Spiral Jetty is as much a part of the artwork as seeing. The Spiral Jetty sits on a deserted piece of beach below a sagebrush speckled hill of black basalt boulders. The lake stretches out to the horizon where distant mountain ranges break up the flatness like islands in an inland sea. The scale is grand, making the 1,500 foot rock and sand jetty feel surprisingly small in comparison. Other visitors are few, and aside from the chirping birds you'll probably find yourself alone to contemplate the vast openness of the landscape. The closest "civilization" to the Spiral Jetty is the Golden Spike National Historic Site, a small outpost commemorating the connection of the first transcontinental railroad linking the East and West Coast in 1869. The Golden Spike Site marks the middle of nowhere as much as the meeting point of a railway, and the Spiral Jetty is sixteen bumpy miles further down the unmaintained road. Imagine the disbelief of the Ogden contractor Bob Phillips, when Smithson hired him to help build the 6,650 ton basalt rock sculpture on the edge of nowhere.

Smithson designed his sculpture to extend out into the edge of the Great Salt Lake, where the water was red from algae. Nature had different plans though, and the lake water level and algae production have fluctuated over the years. The Spiral Jetty was visible for its first two years of existence, but was then submerged in the lake as the water level rose during heavy snow years. It wasn't until 2002 that the Jetty re-emerged after 30 years beneath the fluctuating water. Since then the sculpture has been intermittently visible at the water's edge. If the level of the lake falls below 4,197 feet the sculpture is above water, if the water's surface rises above, it disappears. Smithson anticipated the lake would fluctuate and was a fan of the natural process of entropy, but you can't help but wonder what he would of thought of the re-emerging sculpture more than 30 years after its creation. We'll never know for sure, because Smithson died 3 years after he finished Spiral Jetty in a plane crash scouting another project in Texas.

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