Monday, January 12, 2009

reflections on the spiral jetty

The Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s earthworks sculpture in the Great Salt Lake, resurfaced in 1993 as water levels subsided. This sculpture has since been re-visited by thousands of people and stands as a solitary homage to the passage of time. Its placement in a remote and desolate area serves brilliantly to underscore the isolation of age and gradual but inescapable deterioration. Smithson was a promising figure in the world of earthwork sculpture and sadly died at the age of 35 in a plane accident as he was scouting a prospective site for another work. Interestingly, the Jetty is owned by the Dia Art Foundation, a New York art gallery.

At present, there has been a lot of debate about what to do about the Jetty. Pearl Montana Exploration & Production, a Canadian company applied for a permit to do exploratory drilling less than 15 miles from the Jetty which would have meant the construction of rigs within a five mile radius of the earthwork. While this may seem like a significant enough distance from the Jetty, it would have meant the incursion of construction equipment and trucks even closer to the earthwork as they traveled to and from their site. Naturally, there was an immediate outcry prompting the state to return the permit to Pearl Montana and to solicit further information. While this provides the Jetty a brief dispensation, Pearl Montana is sure to re-apply.

Sadly, even the Dia Art Foundation does not know what to do. In its original state, the Jetty was submerged in blood-red water and provided a stunning contrast with its black basalt base and conglomeration of white salt. All of this has been diminished with time and the receding of the lake’s waters. Suggestions have been made to simply “let it be” with the hopes that when the lake’s waters rise once again, the Jetty will be restored to its original appearance. Others have suggested adding rocks to the Jetty, to help replenish its “drama.” No decisions have been made thus far. Smithson's intent for the Jetty at the outset was to eventually let it erode as a testimony to the natural order of all things. Perhaps the right thing to do is to do nothing.

Nonetheless, I had the opportunity to visit the Jetty several years ago. It was a very deliberate journey as dictated by its location so very far from the beaten path. (It would be difficult to accidentally stumble upon it unless you are prone to scouting UFO landing sites.) The journey entails a drive into the West Desert, past the Golden Spike National Historic Site on 15 miles of dirt road. There is little to indicate where you are headed. You can only take it on faith from the sign placed at the Golden Spike site that you will reach the Jetty eventually, which is accompanied by great relief and multiple layers of desert dust on the car attesting to the road less-traveled.

I was immediately struck by the Jetty's magnificant scale. Although there was no contrast as described above, the salt that encrusted the elevated jetty, combined with the surrounding brilliant white salt of a flat but expansive dead sea, evoked the appearance of a mystical giant altar. This altar however was circular in nature, stretching from what was once the shoreline and then swirling into its resting point in the center. Like a childhood visit to the beach, one cannot wait to open the car door to run out into its midst and experience it fully. It elicits joy out there in the middle of nowhere and I’m confident this was exactly Smithson’s intent. A similar structure in the middle of an urban setting or man-made park would not have the same impact. The Jetty is a celebratory affirmation of man’s imprint on the world. Admittedly man’s imprint hasn’t always been a good thing. Somehow though, out in the isolation of the desert where nobody would typically travel, after miles of desolation, finding this design wrought by the mind and hand of man, one finds comfort and re-assurance that we are not alone. There is evidence that someone has travelled this road, that they have also made this same journey and that they have left something behind to share with you; a wonderful, transformative secret.

No comments: