Spiral Jetty


Marie-José Jongerius, Spiral Jetty (Robert Smithson, 1970), Great Salt Lake (UT) — 2005

Most probably, Robert Smithson would not mind if his Spiral Jetty had never re-emerged.
The 1,500-foot-long basalt and earth spiral on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake had been visible for about two years after its completion in 1970. At the time, the lake’s water level was unusually low because of drought. As the water returned to a normal level, the iconic work of land art became submerged; its ghostlike appearance could only be seen from aircraft.

The ever-changing lake and its surroundings were part of what interested Smithson in the site. Except for brine shrimp and algae, the salt lake is a dead sea. Its shores were littered with wreckage when Smithson first got there. ‘The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern prehistory,’ he wrote in the essay that accompanied Spiral Jetty. ‘This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.’

In his art, Smithson embraced the principle of entropy: order inevitably breaks down into disorder. He accepted that his sculptures would change with the cycles of nature and the elements. He wanted his work to engage with the outside world instead of confining it within a white cube art gallery. ‘I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation,’ another essay reads. ‘I am talking about a dialectic of nature that interacts with the physical contradictions inherent in natural forces as they are – nature as both sunny and stormy.’

In 1973 Smithson died in a plane crash while scouting a location for another art project. Three decades later, in 2002, Spiral Jetty re-emerged. Once its black basalt stood out firmly against the rosé-colored water, but now the artwork had turned old, gray, salt-encrusted.

Robert Smithson, The Spiral Jetty, 1970www.robertsmithson.com
Robert Smithson, ‘The Spiral Jetty’ (1972) and ‘Cultural Confinement’ (1972), Jack D. Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 2nd edition, University of California Press, 1996, p. 143-156
Michael Kimmelman, ‘Phenomenon. Out of the Deep’, The New York Times, October 13, 2002
Michael Kimmelman, ‘Sculpture From the Earth, but Never Limited by It’, The New York Times, June 24, 2005
Hikmet Loe, ‘The Spiral Jetty: Strata of Water’, 15 Bytes – Artists of Utah ezine, April 2010
Glen Warchol, ‘Spiral Jetty: Building an artistic masterpiece for the ages’, The Salt Lake Tribune, March 7, 2011