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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
Sanctuary


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.

I continue to be caught up and compelled by the ongoing saga of the Spiral Jetty. It is a touchstone for so many compelling personal themes: the unique power that is an art pilgrimage site (Bilbao, the Ajanta Caves, Uluru in Australia–there are many art/sacred sites that also move me deeply); the geographic connection I feel to the land in Utah and my family’s multi-generational heritage there; the large scale power of Smithson’s construction to frame and define that exquisite desert expanse (not unlike Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee*); the ongoing organic evolution of the structure as the years leave their marks, like the coat of crystallized salt, on the jetty stones. Just to name a few.

Here is a recent update:

The Great Salt Lake continues to shrink. Today its official measurement dipped slightly to an elevation of exactly 4,194 feet. The last time it was lower was way back in the 1960s.

The lake was at precisely this same level four years ago; then and today, the lowest since record lows in the ‘60s. But this year it’s a real surprise because we had a relatively wet winter.

The Great Salt Lake is now surrounded by hundreds of square miles of dried mud and salt.

The $25-million-a-year brine shrimp industry is scrambling to find usable harbors. They dredged this one at a cost of $200,000. Brine Shrimp Industry spokesman Don Leonard says, “It was a big surprise to us. I mean Lake Powell went up 30 feet, right? But the Great Salt Lake’s going down.”

Robert Smithson’s world-famous artwork the Spiral Jetty is now hundreds of yards from the lake it was sculpted in. It still inspires artists. We encountered a man in a suit of mirrors, San Francisco based Austrian Gustav Troger, at the heart of the Spiral Jetty standing on salt instead of water.

A decent winter snowfall was blunted by a hot, dry summer. Eric Millis, with the Utah Division of Water Resources, says, “With all that combined, yeah the lake has just continued to drop.”

Lee Sporleder opens the gates at a remote, aging facility on the west side of the lake, a pump house built in the 1980s when the lake was flooding. The $65-million state pumps ran less than two years.

The lake is now a dozen miles away across a vast expanse of salt, but the pumps get monthly maintenance in case they’re ever needed again.

It would be a long way off, but we’ve got a big investment here, and there’s no sense letting it go to waste,” says Sporleder, with the Department of Water Resources.

But you know what they say in Utah. If you don’t like the weather, wait, ah, a few years maybe, and it’ll change. Pretty good odds, eventually the lake will make a comeback.

In the ‘60s it was 2 ½ feet lower than today. In the ‘80s it went up 20 feet. Leonard says, “Well the long-term worry is that as the population of the Wasatch Front grows that the people will drink more and more water, use more and more water, and less and less will get to the lake.”

State experts disagree. Millis says, “The impacts of additional water development to meet the growing population’s needs will have a minimal impact on the lake. We’re calculating on the order of less than a half a foot.”

The brine shrimpers worry the saltier water may hurt the shrimp. Duck hunters are afraid the ducks will fly away.

For the rest of us, it’s a drama of nature, a lake that defies efforts to control it, whether it goes too high or too low.

John Hollenhorst
KSL.com

*Wallace Stevens’ infamous short poem, “Anecdote of The Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.


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.

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.)

jetty.jpg

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.

2spiral.jpg
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.”

aspiral.jpg

The Spiral Jetty is in need of your help. Here’s what’s happening by way of Tyler Green’s excellent blog, Modern Art Notes:

Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson’s widow, recently sent an email out detailing specific threats to Smithson’s masterpiece, Spiral Jetty.

Yesterday I received an urgent email from Lynn DeFreitas, Director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, telling me of plans for drilling oil in the Salt Lake near Spiral Jetty…I have been told by Lynn that the oil wells will not be above the water, but that means some kind of industrial complex of pipes and pumps beneath the water and on the shore. The operation would require roads for oil tank trucks, cranes, pumps etc. which produce noise and will severely alter the wild, natural place.

If you want to send a letter of protest to save the beautiful, natural Utah environment around the Spiral Jetty from oil drilling, the emails or calls of protest go to Jonathan Jemming 801-537-9023 jjemming@utah.gov. Please refer to Application # 8853. Every letter makes a big difference, they do take a lot of notice and know that publicity may follow. Since the Spiral Jetty has global significance, emails from foreign countries would be of special value.

They try to slip these drilling contracts under the radar, that’s why we found out so late, not through notification, but from a watchdog lawyer at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the group that alerted me to the land leasing for oil and gas near Sun Tunnels last May.

The comment period has been extended to February 13th. According to Green’s blog today, the State of Utah has received over 1000 comments. The acting director of the Salt Lake City Art Center Leslie Peterson said, “I think they were impressed to be taking calls from Europe and Japan about an artwork in Utah.”

Please write or call. If you have been to the site, you understand. If you haven’t, trust me that it deserves preservation.