Massive sculptures are fascinating and Robert Smithson‘s Spiral Jetty walks the fine line between nature and the artificial. In 1970, he built a 1500-foot long, 15 foot-wide counterclockwise coil out of mud, salt crystals and rocks at the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Like most land art, the Spiral Jetty is a part of its landscape and its affected by the elements: It exists to eventually erode under natural conditions. Since its creation, the jetty has been completely covered and uncovered by water several times, being dependent on fluctuating water levels.
When Smithson set out to build ”Spiral Jetty” in 1970, he hired a contractor and another worker who used two dump trucks, a tractor and a large front-loader to move 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the water. At 1,500 feet long, the giant spiral is large enough to be seen in photographs taken from space.
Smithson had a precise vision for the project and supervised every step, making sure individual rocks fell in the right spots. ”He would raise each rock up and roll it around, then he would move this one, change that one until it looked exactly right..He wanted it to look like it was a growing, living thing, coming out of the center of the earth.”
The Tate ETC has a great article chronicling a visit to the Spiral Jetty and feelings that it evokes:
Whenever the water of the lake recedes, it leaves salt in its wake. After the recent long drought, it now encrusts almost every inch of the work and a salt bed has risen and hardened within its 1,500ft-long spiral. It appears inevitable that after a few more cycles of high water and drought – probably a matter of decades – the Jetty will disappear completely within a matrix of impacted salt: an art conservation problem for the ages.
We visitors could see the process underway. The deep water lay far out in the lake bed, a roseate sea rippling away for miles, its surface torn into whitecaps by the wind. Between the Jetty and the water’s edge were scudding, tumbleweed-like plumes and quivering masses of salt foam, the latter in various stages of coalescence into the hard white ground, still tinged with rosy algae, on which we walked and stood.
Despite the facts, I kept imagining the lake bed and the work as being ice-bound rather than salt-bound, so white has the setting become. Spiral Jetty was not even 35 years old when I saw it, yet the mind could easily accept the thought of it as 3,500 or 35,000 years old. Only a nearby derelict oil rig, the ruins of a speculator’s failed scheme, provides some anchorage in time for the disorientated visitor. That, and the presence of other visitors.
Seeing the work from the nearby ridge, dotted with 30 or 40 people, created a slightly sickening sense both of humankind’s unstoppable dispersal across the planet and of the planet’s, and the larger universe’s, utter obliviousness.
In writings and conversation, its creator emphasised the difficulty of getting a fix on the scale of the Jetty. Now I knew how literally he meant it. From up on the ridge, the sculpture looks gargantuan in its prehensile hold on the lake bed. But set foot on it, and it turns almost intimate, a mere filigree of earth-moving within a desert immensity that lacks all familiar cues to the sizes and distances of things…
Smithson himself did a film on the Spiral Jetty, which you can view on his website (quicktime). A voice-over by Smithson reveals the evolution of the Spiral Jetty and sequences filmed in a natural history museum are integrated into the film featuring prehistoric relics that illustrate themes central to Smithson’s work. Here’s a short Youtube sample:
If you’re planning on visiting it, here are directions to the jetty.