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Spiral Jetty (Photo: Greg Lindquist)

Greg Lindquist, a Brooklyn based artist, made a winter’s pilgrimage to the Spiral Jetty on January 2, Robert Smithson’s birthday. His photos and “trip report” can be read on Hyperallergic.

As readers of this blog already know, this is a frequent pilgrimage spot for me. Lindquist’s photos of the Jetty in the snow, with the angled winter light on that extreme and remote landscape, offer up a different face to that iconic earthwork.

A few earlier posts about the Jetty on Slow Muse:

Remote Futures, Remote Pasts
Jars in Tennessee, Jetties in Utah
Erin Hogan: Melding Gravitas with Whimsy
Schooled by Sand
Getting to Into
Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming
Preservation Update
Spiral Jetty Site at Risk

Salt crystals on the Spiral Jetty, Utah

When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.

–Christopher Alexander, one of my ideological mentors, as quoted by Edward Hollis in The Secret Lives of Buildings.

A mysterious space exists between the need for control and the need to let go, and navigating that terrain is of interest to every artist. Alexander’s comment about architecture is so succinct and accurate, and it speaks to more undertakings than just buildings.

In fact we live in a culture where the proclivity to masterminding in everything from architecture to film making is almost encouraged. And yet the primary thesis of Hollis’ book is that buildings will, over time, take on a life of their own in spite of all our efforts to control destiny:

At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them. Then, liberated from the shackles of immediate utility and the intentions of their masters, they are free to do as they will. Buildings long outlive the purposes for which they were built, the technologies by which they were constructed, and the aesthetics that determined their form; they suffer numberless subtractions, additions, divisions, and multiplications; and soon enough their form and their function have little to do with one another.

Hollis uncovers the checkered past of a number of emblematic buildings including the Parthenon, The Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Gloucester Cathedral, The Alhambra, among many others. In so many cases these structures survived because they were adapted, reinvented and transmogrified.

This exploration reminds me of a quote by Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame), one that suggests a metaphysical realm for this idea as well: “The artist must go into places where remote futures meet remote pasts”.

I know buildings that feel as if they embody that kind of crossroads of consciousness, spaces that have taken on a life that is so far from what was originally intended. A similar transubstantiation can happen with other art forms as well. Smithson wrote about how he built the Spiral Jetty but then released it into the hands of nature to do with it what it will. For many years it was submerged beneath the surface of the Great Salt Lake. When it re-emerged it was encased in white salt crystals, a very different state from the black, hard-edge basalt rock at its core. And of course the next 50 years will alter its structure even further. Smithson did not mastermind so much as set an energetic gyre into motion.

Erin Hogan

A few weeks ago I posted a review of a new book on Slow Painting, Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan. And now that I’ve finished reading the book I can recommend it without reservation to anyone who has interest in contemporary art, particularly land art, and who would enjoy a thoughtful adventure served up in a particularly sassy fashion.

Hogan’s writing style is a lively combination of the self-effacing humor of a David Sedaris with the thoughtful insights of a Suzi Gablik. Having made the pilgrimage to most of the land art sites that Hogan visits in her book, I loved retracing my steps with her. My regular readers know how passionately I love Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, so of course I loved every description of the treacherous dirt roads, the primal sense of pilgrimage, the difficulty of traveling in unmarked territory where getting lost and never being heard of again feels very real at times. Her gift of self-deprecating humor keeps the entire art road trip narrative engaging, and her sharp mind makes the journey meaningful to the reader who is traveling with her vicariously.

Here are a few passages that stood out for me:

I walked into the spiral and back out of it. I lay down in the center of it. I crisscrossed its rings, I crouched down and tasted the salt. I looked around, still overwhelmed by the work’s nonmonumentality. I tried to experience it physically, without processing it through any art-historical filter. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t separate my encounter with Spiral Jetty from the reading and thinking I had done about art of this era, by now deeply entrenched in my reptile brain. Trying to consider this object in isolation, to bypass art history, was like trying to knock an irritating song out of my head. I only managed to turn up the volume. It was with this force that the views of critics and historians crowded into my consciousness.

Like anything good and complex, Spiral Jetty can be thought of in many different ways. As lame as it sounds, those “ways” came down to two for me: space and time. Not small topics, I realize. But Spiral Jetty beautifully and subtly distills its experience into those fundamental categories…

Being at Spiral Jetty engendered in me a sense of articulated space, one that wasn’t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded space, like being on a sailboat at sea…the space is elemental and understandable, only a little overwhelming, and deeply inspiring.

And this:

Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty reads like a stoner’s manifesto, all over the map and deeply profound: he hits Brancusi’s sketcch of James as a “spiral ear”; he talks about lattices, a sense of scale that “resonates in the eye and the ear at the same time,” a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.” Taking a breath, he concludes, “So it is that one ceases to consider art in terms of an object.”

And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.

And how’s this for just about the best blurb ever on the back of a book?

Across the marvelously unexpected little road saga, the stud muffin cowboys of late twentieth-century American art at long last meet their sly gamine match. Pretty much doing for land art what Geoff Dyer did for D. H. Lawrnece, Ms. Hogan, an urban fish decidedly out of water, flopping about in the high desert parch, makes for marvelously endearing company. At at times harrowingly (albeit comically) unreliable navigator (who doesn’t bring a compass along on solo treks across such vast empty expanses?), Hogan nevertheless manages to deploy an expertly modulated prose, tracking the heaviest of subjects with the lightest of touches, melding gravitas with whimsy (vodka and tonic), in a narrative that in the end, like the art is surveys, manages to be about what it is to be an individual alone—pinprick-contingent, achingly vulnerable, gobsmacked enthralled—in the face of all that is.

–Lawrence Weschler*

Hogan’s is a fresh and welcomed new voice.

*I’ve referenced Weschler’s work in earlier blog postings here. Search on his name here if you’d like to read more by him.

I just returned from three days in Maine. My friend Katie is part of a family that has been going to the same hidden spot–Maine’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline–for four generations, and it is through her that I came to know and love this exquisitely unpopulated, shimmeringly pristine beach.

Everything here revolves around the tide chart. When the tide is out, the beach is wide and long, like a moonscape that has no end. Walking along the water’s edge, it is easy to believe you and your friends are the last people left on the planet. But when the tide returns, everything disappears completely. The expanse of sand is swallowed whole. And no matter how many times I have watched this slow rhythmic flow of water in and then out, in and then out, I can’t quite believe something could change that drastically, right before my eyes.

It is a beach of extremes. And being a person who has a natural proclivity to excess, I bonded with this place immediately. It is the place I think of when I long for peace. It gets carried around inside me the way Yeats described the lake water at Innisfree, a sound he could always hear inside himself, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”

The eternality of that stretch of beach–or my imagined concept of it–was altered this weekend when Katie told us about a new and unexpected development. Last season a storm ripped out an entire area of the shore that had always been covered with beach grass. That event, plus others that may have contributed to it, precipitated a major change in the placement of sand. Like water, sand has its own kind of fluidity. When existing patterns in stasis are disrupted, it can carve a new cliff or leave the old beach altogether, exposing an underbelly of rocks and boulders too heavy to choreograph a migration of their own.

Of course the children of the children of the children of the families that first began coming to this place are questioning what might causing this. No one remembers the beach being so disrupted this dramatically. Is it global warming, or nature’s own hand cycling through a larger arc the way fires can clear a forest and rejuvenate the ecosystem? Is it a beach retaining wall that inadvertently disturbed the esoteric sand flow? No one knows for sure, but the concern is palpable.

I kept thinking about this business of sand, flow, patterns, predictability. I once heard Frank Herbert speak about the genesis of his infamous Dune sci-fi series. In that lecture he said the entire epic storyline came to him when he was living on the Oregon coast and carefully studied the life of sand. He became mesmerized by the complexity of its existence. I was young at the time and I didn’t really understand how provocative that one concept could be. I’m older and wiser now, and it is possible for me now to imagine how a legendary series of novels could emerge from that seminal observation of nature at work.

I was also reminded of what Robert Smithson said in relation to his Spiral Jetty project:

Time is always there gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts about where we think we’re at. It’s always there, like a plague creeping in, but occasionally we try to touch on some timeless moment and I suppose that’s what art’s about to a degree, lifting oneself out of that continuum.

Schooled by sand, indeed.

Here’s a ray of hope on the Spiral Jetty preservation front. This article by Patty Henetz appeared on February 21 in The Salt Lake Tribune (and presents a much more hopeful view than a similar piece that ran in the other Salt Lake paper, The Deseret News.)


Artists outraged at the possibility of oil drilling near the Spiral Jetty have inundated state agencies with e-mail protests. Now they have a new advocate: the Utah Department of Community and Culture.

The department is working closely with the Department of Natural Resources, which is now reviewing an application from a Canadian company to set up drilling barges and oil rigs in the lake’s Little Valley Harbor, five miles southwest of Rozel Point and the Spiral Jetty.

“This is very important,” said Palmer DePaulis, Community and Culture executive director and a former mayor of Salt Lake City. “We want to represent the [art community’s] interests so everyone’s voice can be heard.”

State agencies have received more than 3,500 letters and e-mails from artists and conservationists around the world who thought the threat to Robert Smithson’s massive earthworks piece was out of harm’s way under a year-old settlement.

In May 2006, conservation groups including Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, Friends of Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake Audubon reached a settlement with the state that pulled back oil and gas leases in the northwest arm of the lake. The agreement covered 116,000 acres, but left out 55,000 acres.

But it turns out that Pearl Montana Exploration and Production LTD of Calgary, Alberta, holds three 2003 leases on the exempt acres. On Jan. 11, the company submitted to Oil, Gas and Mining an application to drill two wells from barges anchored in the lake.

Natural Resources executive director Mike Styler said today that review of the drilling application would include examining the company’s plans for spill control, blowout prevention and other safeguards.

DePaulis said his agency got involved because thousands of the letters of opposition were coming to the state museums and art division. The move to cooperate with DNR was a mutual effort between the two agencies, he said.

Smithson’s 1,500-foot-long basalt and soil earthworks sculpture that coils in the Great Salt Lake is an artwork of global significance. Drilling in the area occurred before and after Smithson finished his work in 1970.

The state must honor mineral rights. But leases can be canceled if the operator violates the lease terms, or if the state decides there is “imminent significant irreversible threat to the public trust” guaranteed in the Utah Constitution.

I’ll keep you posted.

Satellite view of the Spiral Jetty

For those following the effort to preserve the Spiral Jetty, here is the latest from Tyler Green’s blog, Modern Art Notes:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is out with a statement on the Spiral Jetty situation. From NTHP prez Richard Moe: “The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes that Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake is a significant cultural site from the recent past, merging art, the environment, and the landscape. We are deeply concerned about the potential harm that energy development could bring to the Spiral Jetty.”