Restoring Spiral Jetty: What If?
On January 13th, 2004, the New York Times reported the Dia Art Foundation’s director, Michael Govan, as saying that planning was underway to facilitate easier access to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and perhaps do restoration to bring the Jetty back to how it originally looked when built in 1970. In conversation with me on February 20th, Govan assured me that he’d been misquoted, that the original look was not a factor. Restoration would not only be impossible to achieve but unrealistic for a work of process art. It would be limited to what, according to Smithson’s widow and executor, Nancy Holt, would have been the artist’s intention. The entire matter, he added, was only under study.
In this essay, I will address the issue of restoration as if curatorial intervention were to happen, while trying to iron out wrinkles of interpretation as to Smithson’s intentions. Were this a larger undertaking on my part, I would take up the posthumous removal of white primer paint from certain sculptures by David Smith, the posthumous casts of Rodin’s plasters, and even the repurchase of readymades that Marcel Duchamp had lost several years earlier. In Smith’s case, a few of his sculptures were backed up in the process that came to a halt with Smith’s death; in Rodin’s case, plasters were cast under the assumption that Rodin would have cast them, hence their process was advanced; as for Duchamp, the works to which I am referring were replacements that recall the originals. I am mentioning these examples only as a way of saying at the outset that what we classify as an original work of art can get entangled in semantics when original is confused with origin—two words so similar as to imply the same meaning when, in fact, they mean different things. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty came into being at a certain time in a certain place—its place of origin, so to speak. But is it original in its present state, in so far as natural processes have been altering it? And if now altered by curatorial intervention, while its origin will remain the same, will it still be original? Such questions can lead one into a quagmire of speculative metaphysics when original is equated with «by the artist’s hand.» If the world was created at a certain time, it surely doesn’t look or behave like it did then, and not one of us look like we did when born.
Spiral Jetty was acquired in 1999 as a gift from Smithson’s estate, so its stewardship is in the purview of the Dia Center for the Arts, which was founded in 1974 to promote art that is beyond the confines of the art gallery. So one should assume that the Dia’s concern over Spiral Jetty’s present condition is consistent as well with its mission to preserve nontransportable works of art at remote sites. The Jetty is indeed remote. It is located at Rozel Point, a small peninsula jutting into the North Arm of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, about ninety miles from Salt Lake City. In anticipation that the Jetty should undergo restoration and its access improved to accommodate visitors, the Dia commissioned a topographical survey of Rozel Point and its access road. Jetty’s dimensions were mapped and its height above water level measured. Registered as if it were a traditional objet d’art with its identity certified by dimensions, like people as to height, it measures 1500 feet (457 m) in length and 15 feet (4.6 m) in width.
For readers not familiar with earthworks, Robert Smithson, and Spiral Jetty, I will supply some unadorned facts. By 1970 it was apparent that a few young artists associated with the New York art scene were breaking the symbiotic relation of artist to dealer, systematized as studio art fitted to gallery dimensions and routine rituals of exhibition schedules and openings, the artist in a cell controlled by what Smithson called the dealer-warden. To break that cycle and explore alternatives, these adventurers, which included Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Dennis Oppenheim in the first wave, would move themselves to a site, not to capture its appearance as would landscape painters but to intervene in its process by inserting artistic form that geology would then have to deal with. As if needing a canvas with a background already filled in, they looked to demised sites: wastelands, salt flats, deserts, corrupted land, polluted lakes, and any
flaunting of industrial detritus from abandoned oil fields to strip mines. The site itself would yield the artist’s materials. As a conceptualizing force of this movement, Robert Smithson packed a lot into a short life: earthworks, photography, filmmaking, and writings. Born in 1938, he died in 1973 at the age of 35 when a light plane from which he studying his staked out site in Texas for the earthwork, Amarillo Ramp, crashed.
Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty at Rozel Point in April-May 1970, the work taking about three weeks. Earlier in the year, he had explored Salt Lake’s northeastern shore, having been attracted to it by hearing that the water’s color was that of tomato soup. The lake was also attractive to Smithson’s evolving ideas about art for other reasons. Because Salt Lake is a terminal lake, having no river outlet to eventually reach an ocean, only through evaporation can its water dissipate. In so doing it leaves behind its dissolved minerals, making Salt Lake some eight times as salty as seawater. The north bay of the lake is exceptionally salty, a consequence of the lake having been split by a nearly impermeable causeway. In 1902, the Southern Pacific Railroad had constructed a combination rock and trestle bridge across the lake so trains wouldn’t have to go around it. Over 1957 to 1959 the bridge was replaced by a solid raised roadway with only two 15-foot culverts connecting the south and north parts of the lake. Because most of the fresh river water flows into the south part, the north part became ever more salty and also lower. By mid-1984, after two years of above normal precipitation, the south part was 3.7 feet higher that the north part, which tells us that the water surface level at Spiral Jetty’s site was that much lower. As a flood control measure, by the end of 1984 a bridge replaced a 300-foot section of the causeway, which allowed the water level of the two parts of the cloven lake to even out and reduce the differential salt concentration.
The topography of Rozel Point lacks those scenic features that draw visitors to the western states, offering only worn down foothills, volcanostrewn rocks, polluted mud, and brackish water nurturing microorganisms that color the water purplish at times and at other times a thinned down red, like anemic blood. On the ascending scale of organic evolution, the lake’s fauna climaxed with brine shrimp. In the late stages of entropy, the process by which orderly substances or systems become increasingly disordered, Rozel Point was like a disorderly unconscious waiting to be filled in with orderly consciousness by a shift in discourse from exhausted nature to art infused with the discipline of poetry.
Before getting to my thoughts about the Dia’ restoration plans, to whatever extent they may be in place—my wanting here only to establish a dialogue in which others will most likely find their mode of engagement — I will lay out in Smithson’s words the aesthetic base upon which he built the idea and then the form of Spiral Jetty. He is speaking of driving around the area with his wife, Nancy Holt, and coming upon the site: Driving west on Highway 83 late in the afternoon, we passed through Corrine, then on to Promontory. Just beyond the Golden Spike Monument, which commemorates the meeting of the rails of the first continental railroad, we went down a dirt road into a wide valley. As we traveled the valley turned into an uncanny immensity unlike other landscapes we had seen. The roads on the map became a net of dashes, while in the far distance the Salt Lake existed as an interrupted silver band. Hills took on the appearance of melting solids, and glowed under amber light. We followed roads that glided away into dead ends. Sandy slopes turned into viscous masses of perception. Slowly, we drew near the lake, which resembles an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stony matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediment were countless bits of wreckage. Old piers were left high and dry. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern prehistory…Under shallow pinkish water, a network of mud cracks supporting the jigsaw puzzle that composes the salt flats. As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizon only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. Adormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty.
Smithson engaged two machine operators and rented a tractor, a huge front loader, and two dump trucks. These would be his tools. Black basalt rocks thrown up during the Pliocene Age and scattered along the lake’s shoreline and bordering low foothills would be his materials. After sloshing out into the shallow water and staking out the spiral, Smithson had the front-loader operator scoop up rocks along with an arbitrary amount of dirt and load the trucks that would alternately back up to the point where the previous load had been dumped and there drop another load. From time to time, the tractor made passes over the top surface, leveling and compacting it to accommodate the trucks’ wheels, while leaving a curb of rocks at the edges. And so Spiral Jetty’s surface took on the character of a rocky road.
Rather than saying that Smithson altered the Jetty’s site, let’s say he intervened in a geological process that had been underway since the earth was formed. He lifted those inert rocks out of a discourse on despoiled geology—its biological life reduced to microorganisms—and put the site into conceptual form as a discourse on art. The relatively finite geometry of the spiral challenged the infinite randomness of the environment as a cage does birds. While packed down under their collective weight, the rocks would nonetheless retain some of their random instability, the mud would leach out during the water’s lifts and falls, whether as waves or periodic changes in the lake’s water level. White salt crystals and pinkish-purple algae would coat the rocks’ blackness like air pollution does newly built stone buildings.
Were the Dia Foundation to intervene in the site and put a stopgap in the entropy of Spiral Jetty the support of Nancy Holt—herself a major site artist—would be needed. Holt is quoted in the New York Times analysis of Dia’s news release as favoring limited restoration, about which I will speak later. The Dia Foundation is of course sensitive to what surely will come as impassioned objections from artists, critics, landscape architects, and art historians to any intervention whatsoever in Spiral Jetty’s struggle with Nature’s elements and forces in an entropic flow toward earth’s inevitable decay. So here I will voice an early warning against alterations. My arguments will come from the sense of the work itself, not from any ideology that sanctifies works of art. And nothing of what I have to say will impugn the good will of the Dia Foundation as to its sense of curatorial obligations. My argument stems from belief that the true validity of earthwork art is twofold: 1) its own definition as art, and 2) its contrast with closed-system art that lays claim to aesthetic priority. The term «earthwork» should be taken literally as working with the earth. That is not the same as working with clay or marble as the more traditional sculptor would do. But even then, sculpture of any sort is subject to decay—less from natural forces than human acts that as well are forces of nature, human nature: air pollution, vandalism, bronzes melted down to recast as armament, marbles calcified in lime kilns, and sculpture losing its place through urban and land redevelopment. So I am obliged to ask if human intervention in Jetty’s process would be just another natural force.
The catalyst for the Dia Foundation’s distress over Spiral Jetty’s present and future condition is Salt Lake’s fluctuating water level that elevates over years of favorable rain and snowfall and lowers over years of drought. The lake is broad—about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide—but shallowly sloped to its deepest points of only about 40 feet. With heavy precipitation, along with river and spring-melt ground water flowing in, it doesn’t take much increase in the water level to spread great distances beyond the normal shores (if there were such a state as a normal shore line for this lake of variable surface level). At its lowest level in 1980, in 1982 it began to rise. By June 1986, the water had elevated to its highest level in recorded history. The high level soon fell off, only to peak again in April 1987. Now that Utah is experiencing a severe drought, as it had the year Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty, the water level has again dropped in favor of the Jetty’s rebirth.
According to Nancy Holt, prior to constructing Spiral Jetty, Smithson had consulted locals who assured him that the lake water would not rise. The experts were misled by the fact that over their own years of experiencing the lake, the level had not significantly changed. In historical time, the water level of Salt Lake has been rising and falling for centuries. It was known that in 1970, Utah was experiencing a great drought and that the lake’s water level was at the lowest it had been for many years. Between 1970 and the time of Smithson’s death in 1973, the water surface remained fairly stable but still subject to incoming flood water. In 1971, when interviewed by Gregoire Müller and asked if he had seen Spiral Jetty recently, Smithson replied: Yes, I was there in August. Recently the water rose to its highest level in seventeen years. During the months of June and July the Jetty was under 2 or 3 inches of water. Some people had gone out there and found the Jetty completely submerged. This was a sudden natural condition. The snow in the mountains melted so fast that the farmers couldn’t hold it in the irrigation canals. There was no way of projecting the water level in advance. Later, when I went back, there was no rain at all and the water had started to evaporate at a terrific rate Around mid-August it was beginning to surface and the entire Jetty looked like a kind of archipelago of white islands because of the heavy salt concentrations. Two weeks later, I returned with Jan Van der Mark, and the Jetty was almost entirely surfaced and encrusted with salt crystals.
One might associate the periodic immersion with Smithson saying of Broken Circle (that he’d constructed in Holland in 1971) in response to Müller’s asking whether the Circle being seen from an elevation might cause the viewer to focus on it as if it were an object rather than being absorbed into the piece and the landscape at the same time, «I don’t see it as an object. If you are immersed in a flood you can drown, so it is wiser to perceive it from a distance. Yet, on the other hand, it is worth something to be swept away from time to time.»
By 1973 the Spiral Jetty was back under water. Twenty-two years later, in 1995, when Nancy Holt and Jack Flam visited and photographed it from the air and the ground, the Jetty was about 20% out of the water. Under water again shortly thereafter, by 1999 it was coming out of the murk and by September 2002 had fully emerged, so blanketed with gleaming white salt crystals that it again had the appearance of a miniature range of snow covered islets—an archipelago of white islands, as Smithson would again say—glistening like the whitest of pearls in a pink sea. (One thinks of Christo’s “Surrounded Islands”—pink fabric floating around eleven small islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida). With each emergence, the gradual surfacing under a hot sun allowed layer upon layer of water to crystallize salt that coated the rocks as Smithson and Holt had seen it in 1973. Dia is studying whether nature will reduce the encrustation and so restore the contrast that the black rocks had to the reddish color of the sea all around it, or, as stated in the New York Times column, «if human help will be needed.» That help won’t be needed. As Smithson said in the interview from which came the above quotation, «The day after I last visited the Jetty, some huge thunderstorms came in and completely dissolved all the crystals and turn the Jetty back to naked rocks.»
My reservations over any restoration plan are not so much generated by Salt Lake’s fickle water level than by the semantics of «an original condition»—for that matter, of «a previous condition.» In the first place, Spiral Jetty is not a work of art that had an original condition, and as a work in sustained process it had no punctuated previous condition, like the various states of an etching that records the images history of change. Secondly, how can the natural process the Jetty entered into be reversed or played back and then restarted without erasing changes it underwent since 1970 as a condition of being an earthwork? The earth after all is an entropic machine that sustains a steady decay of energy. Restoration is the natural enemy of entropy, which is the inevitable breakdown of material as if the world were continuously destroying itself in one way while rebuilding itself in another.
The original look or previous state of anything undergoing a process cannot be recovered. According to the art dealer, Virginia Dwan, who financed Spiral Jetty, Smithson found equally interesting the process by which things broke down. Yet Nancy Holt says that Smithson wanted his works to be permanent. So here one encounters a reflexive ambiguity in the very concept of an earthwork. Why create a work as an insertion into the entropy of its materials and site and then maintain it such that it withdraws from the entropic process and isolates itself as a singular entity? This question admits to a contradiction when understood as an insertion of stable order into a declining natural order, the art then working against entropy while at the same time entering into it as a dialectical fusion. Smithson said in 1972 that he would «take on the persona of a geological agent and become part of the earth’s process,» so let’s question whether one should supplant that agent with a conservator as if returning a mountain lion to the wild with a gamekeeper holding its leash.
Smithson’s inspirations reflect back on the ideas of Uvedale Price, William Gilpin, and above all, Frederick Law Olmsted as the seminal forerunners of dialectical materialism applied to the physical landscape. «Dialectics of this type,» Smithson wrote, «are a way of seeing things in a
manifold of relations, not as isolated objects. Nature for the dialectician is indifferent to any formal ideal. This does not mean that one is helpless before nature, but rather that nature’s conditions are unexpected… Olmsted’s parks exist before they are finished, which means in fact they are never finished; they remain carriers of the unexpected and of contradiction on all levels of human activity, be it social, political, or natural.»
Process is, of course, difficult to explain insofar as explaining is itself a process, if only mental processing of what a process entails as to definition. All movements, perceptions, thoughts, and actions are extended in time, so process is best defined as a succession of discrete moments measuring change by alteration or accretion, or on the downswing by attrition and entropic decay. While William James’ stream of consciousness would fit to any process thought to be seamlessly smooth, I prefer David Hume’s notion that no process flows like a stream of water but rather like a chain of minute events moving so rapidly it only seems to be seamless. And so processes can be disjointed, sidetracked, thrown off course, only to continue on another track, like mutations do when multiplying the evolutionary arrows of a species. That is how I understand Spiral Jetty, as Smithson having intervened in the decaying waterside and its lack of desirable qualities, and put not just the rocks but also the site into another discourse, the one called art, about which we can endlessly speak insofar as art as discourse is multiple in its metaphysical sameness.
As Smithson said early in his career, «A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an aesthetic process that has scarcely been touched.» It’s little wonder that Spiral Jetty and earthworks in general have permeated the soul of landscape architects, whose designed structures enter into conflict with their materials wanting to return to the condition of their natural order, to what we call the wild and untamed, akin to Smithson’s «mess of corrosion.» Whether despoiled by human industry or other natural disasters, the land strives to reorganizes itself and return to the order of its own nature. In 1969, Smithson created a work in Alfred, New York, called Upside Down Tree—a tree trunk that had been uprooted and truncated. In a freshly dug tree hole, Smithson replanted the shorn trunk upside down with the deranged mass of roots made to look like branches. The dialectic of this piece, if any, is an extreme of human intervention that smacks of absurdity fused with death. The natural order of the tree was rendered helpless beyond the pale, like the upside down crucifixion of Paul, or a turtle on its back, as if Smithson were converting a poetic metaphor into reality while following a statement by Leonardo da Vinci, who said, «If you want to represent utter defeat, draw a tree with its roots in the air.» It is not surprising that Smithson would speak of geology as to plate tectonics, volcanoes, floods, and erosion much like Leonardo said in his treatise on painting, the Trattato, where, as here quoted, this earliest of romantic landscape artists, with eyes tuned to the sublime, vaults between sweetness and fury as between meadows of spring flowers and the destructive onslaught of storm-driven water: The artist can call into being the essence of animals of all kinds, of plants, fruits, landscapes, rolling plains, crumbling mountains, fearful and terrible places that strike terror into the spectator; and again pleasant places, sweet and delightful with meadows of many colored flowers bent by the gentle motion of the wind that turns back to look at them as it floats on; and then
rivers falling from high mountains with the force of great floods, ruins which drive down with them uprooted plants mixed with rocks, roots, earth, and foam and wash away all that comes in their path; and then the stormy sea, striving and wrestling with the winds which fight against it, raising itself up in superb waves which fall in ruins as the wind strikes at their roots.
According to the New York Times column, on a recent return from seeing Spiral Jetty, Michael Govan said that the spiral is not as dramatic as when it was first built. «Quite the opposite,» Govan told me in a telephone conversation: «While I hadn’t seen it in 1970, on my recent visit to the site, it looked very dramatic as if improving with age.» Which nonetheless raises this question: What sense of drama is being spoken of here? Is the drama in the physical form of Spiral Jetty—the rocks, the shape—or in the dialectic of an engagement with an environment, reading like an environment-poem afloat in imagination, evading familiarity that fades the passion of an awesome encounter?
One need only look to Smithson’s narrative on creating Spiral Jetty that I quoted earlier to understand how impossible it would be to restore any sense of the original drama that began forming even before the first stone was laid and before the creative process had turned the corner from envisioning to making. Almost everyone visiting Spiral Jetty today sees through gauzy layers of what’s been said and written about it by Smithson and others. The film Smithson made that so dramatically documents the genesis of Spiral Jetty, the shots of it from all angles and as a souring eagle’s eye high above it—eagle and helicopter turning in a spiral, mimicking in the air both the Jetty and the mythical whirlpool that’s said in ancient lore to underlie the lake—and as well the vividly gripping photographs of its recent re-emergence are more dramatic than the site-work itself, which being low and flat cannot be wholly experienced by the eye except from an elevated position, like stepping back from huge canvas. One thinks of the oxbow lake in Thomas Cole’s painting by that title, which can be seen only from the mountain promontory where Cole had set up his easel. To indulge in oxbow poetry, one needs to know why the flowing river left the oxbow behind like an abandoned child, the river flowing on like an indifferent narrative. Yet to treat Spiral Jetty as a material presence in fixed time would translate its poetry into banal prose, like a dinosaur reconstruction as a frozen moment in evolution. It’s not the Jetty’s material presence that excites one’s lust for drama but the precariousness of its existence, which can drain as much empathy as it fills one with an elixir of mystery.
Now I’m reminded of Smithson’s 1970 Partially Buried Woodshed in Kent, Ohio, on which, with a front end loader, he had soil piled against and atop it to the moment when the shed’s main support beam started to crack under the pressure, at which instant the artist’s work was complete—the woodshed left in a state of terror, helpless under the dirt load like Damocle’s under a sword the king had suspended by a single hair to demonstrate that kingship brought with it fears and worries. Such was Damocle’s punishment for flattering the king with awe at his regal power and apparent happiness, failing to discern that with kingship comes power and majesty but also terror.
In Smithson’s mind, who among us would be Damocle’s equivalent other than those who believe that Nature in all its innocence if left inviolate would be peaceful and self-fulfilling, to be adored like spiritual caretakers of the Garden of Eden or The Peaceable Kingdom and intoned as lyrical poetry in which daisies are not trampled and spotted owls don’t fear the woodsman’s axe. «The authentic artist,» Smithson wrote, «cannot turn his back on the contradictions that inhabit our landscape.» So, to now intervene and save Spiral Jetty from burial at sea, or the Partially Buried Woodshed from collapse and burial in dirt, would invert the sense of earthworks like that inverted tree. Precariousness is inherent in earthworks, as in every moment of avant-garde art, for in the absence of hostile resistance there can be no valor in success. To come to Spiral Jetty’s rescue would be like replacing the hair that suspends the sword over Damocles’ head with a wire. Artificiality would then substitute for the dialectical nature of Smithson’s work, like a topiary garden pretending to be a natural plot of vegetative ground.
It’s been said that the end state of earthworks is in photographs and documentation. To a great extent that is so.Art needs the spectator. One might say it needs the spectator more than the spectator needs art insofar as art without enactment is like actors without an audience. Documentation and media that overlay the reality of site and performance art are often of greater interest than real objects and real people. That syndrome of fantasies, more interesting than reality, applies to more than earthwork art. Had the Titanic not encountered an ecological shock and dramatic sinking it would have sailed out its time and been sold for scrap, its entropy from man-made iron to natural rust. While down there in the ecology of a sea bottom, the ship’s virtual fate above water entered into social and entertainment discourses feeding on the fallout of disasters of the sort that disperse the materiality of real events into an ever-expanding imagination, like galactic explosions brutally transforming twinkling stars into dust clouds.
There’s a mile of difference between preservation and restoration. The first strives to preserve a work of art as it is, the second to restore it to what it was. Justification for restoring Spiral Jetty to how it originally, or at one time, looked is premised on belief that it once had a finite appearance to which its present look can be rehabilitated. The original appearance would of course be the material form at the moment when Smithson added no more to it, when from a helicopter took a final look straight down on it, like Yahweh after the seventh day of creation looking down on Eden and seeing that it was good. So all that had happened prior to that moment, which would constitute Smithson’s conscious materializing of pre-conscious inspiration, would shift to the condition of Spiral Jetty as on its own, the artist having disappeared into the work.
When not confined to a grid of conventions that isolate l’oeuvre d’art (the work of art, or what art does) from une oeuvre d’art (a work of art as a singular object), the artistic process associated with process art and earthworks allows no originary moment, as if the process starts with a switch turned on. To speak of Spiral Jetty as having had a finite appearance contradicts the essential motivation of earthwork artists to abandon the evaluative status of art as portable objects and marketable commodities. If «original appearance» were consistent with «moment of completion,» wouldn’t we be speaking of Spiral Jetty and related process art, site art, and earthworks in terminology taken from traditional object-art as to what determines beginning and completion? To illustrate by example: When did the creation of New York’s Central Park begin?
Look at it this way. Smithson deployed only three materials: polluted water, rocks with incidental mud, and salt crystals. In the film he made when finished with Spiral Jetty, on looking down from a spinning helicopter, he intones what he sees: «Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water.» Each material had its place in the process as to time: the water already in place (an indefinite past); the dislocated rocks inserted into a process already underway (the present); the salt crystals anticipated (the indefinite future). As for the crystals, Smithson gave them vitality: the rocks would remain inert, the mud without character, while the salt would come alive as Smithson’s metaphor for the entire process: To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it. On eye level, the tail leaves one into an undifferentiated state of matter. One’s downward gaze pitches from side to side, picking out random deposits of salt crystals on the inner and outer edges, while the entire mass echoes the irregular horizons [of the curb stones]. And each cubic salt crystal echoes the Spiral Jetty in terms of the crystal’s molecular lattice. Growth in a crystal advances around a dislocation point in the manner of a screw. The Spiral Jetty could be considered one layer within the spiraling crystal lattice, magnified trillions of times.
Had Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty during any of the lake’s higher water phases, a succeeding drought would have left it high and dry, like a shore-anchored boat at low tide. When too low to be seen at high water the Jetty would be too high when the lake was at low water. So the lowest water level during the lake’s drought phase would be the only sensible time to construct a jetty of any sort if it were to be at all times out in the water, even if much of the time under water. Therefore, the original condition would comprise not just the physical form, as if the Jetty were a traditional sculpture, but as well the conditions under which it was sited. The original condition would include the pending inundation and future reemergence. This would question the Dia Foundation’s thoughts about adding a layer of rocks to elevate the Jetty’s height. In the Dia’s September 1999 press release announcing its acquisition of Spiral Jetty, and on the present Dia web site, one reads, «Realizing, after its completion, that he had built it at a time when the level of the lake was unnaturally low, Smithson considered adding further material to ensure his artwork would be visible more often. And yet this has not been done.» The yet this has not been done cues one to think that it will be done. Nancy Holt is in favor of adding rocks. In a letter from her in response to my saying, «The world is continuously destroying while rebuilding itself,» she said, «Then why not build up the jetty?» And she added, «Bob did say to me several times after he saw the water level rise and cover the jetty that he would place more rocks on it to build it up so it would remain out of the water more of the time.» Holt then mentioned that Bob had taken measures to preserve Broken Circle and Spiral Hill in Holland by having them shored up using the traditional Dutch method with wood, and that the shoring changed the look of the works somewhat but assured they would last longer. Although confiding to Holt that he would have added more rocks, the point is that he didn’t.
It is of course not the Dia’s intention to add more than Holt says Smithson would himself have added. Still, an added layer would have anyone walking on the Jetty to be walking on rocks placed by Dia rather than by Smithson. Operating here is the natural sense of curatorial responsibility to preserve art for all time. But does that mission not work against the very notion of process and site art, like preserving a forest as it originally was? A forest of seedlings! Anyway, if Utah’s drought cycle goes on as it has for centuries, the attraction would be only for periods of time separated by long spans over which Spiral Jetty would be entirely submerged even if its height were increased.
Or am I missing the point? If we humans are embedded in nature, as Smithson believed (as most of us believe), then human intervention would be an aspect of the ever changing natural process that Spiral Jetty is undergoing, no less than human alterations to Central Park along with trees aging and dying, seeds generating, muggers plying their trade, and vandals imprinting themselves as graffiti. Here we get close to audience participation. But where does one draw the line? As hard as we may try to integrate with Nature, in the human world there are only human things, in a fish’s world only fish things. The Nature we love and fear, cultivate with care and plunder with indifference, is our own own nature.
Were there a line to draw, it would have to separate the fate of earthworks from that of painting and sculpture as history has known them. As Conrad Fiedler said far back in 1876, in his Ueber die Beurteilungen Werken der Bildenden Kunst, «Once a work of art leaves the artist’s studio it goes to confront whatever fate will be meted out to it.» Which says for then as for the present that the experience of art is always post-production, like the produce of farmers, manufacturers, and fishermen. One might say of the traditional object of art that it’s completion comes at the moment the work of art leaves the studio and enters into the various discourses of the post-art industry as items of possession, display, and commerce. The reverse would apply to earthworks. The comparable moment of completion is when the work stays in place and the artist leaves the studio
What then is the post-production fate of the earthwork? Let us not be naïve. What preserves a work of art is precisely what purists of the eternal virgin would claim demeans it: consumerism, entertainment, and its use to profit an individual collector, aesthetically or monetarily, or sustain the budget of an art museum in order to support and expand its curatorial functions. The question leads into the category of coloring black and white films, having plastic surgery, and putting animals in zoos? In each case, the original state-as-process is interrupted and then reinserted into either a different, or retroactive, discourse.
Having just argued with myself, I will now say that no one knows for sure what Smithson thought about the future of Spiral Jetty other than how it might fare after he’d concluded his physical intervention and turned the site over to natural processes. According to Nancy Holt, he left no record of how he felt about the disintegration of his works executed at sites rather than for gallery exhibitions. He did, however, have much to say about entropy and the inevitable disintegration of all things in which his art would participate. When interviewed by Moira Roth in 1972 (the interview to appear in the catalogue of the upcoming Smithson retrospective), Smithson said that because Spiral Jetty was 80% rock, it wouldn’t erode completely, and that he had planned for his pieces to be permanent. The contradiction embedded in that statement should not be overlooked. If Smithson planned for his pieces to be permanent, would he have meant only the 80% that was rock? Would that be the permanent work of art without the dirt, salt crystals, and the process by which the Jetty entered into a renewed state of natural entropy? To Smithson’s statement, the interviewer, not Smithson, added editorially, «… and he seemed to say he wanted them preserved.» The phrase «he seemed to say» arouses suspicion in my mind that Smithson had actually said what Roth implies he’d said. I am alert to how easily such phrases as seems to convert to wanted to or did. As Robert Storr, the former curator of the Museum of Modern Art, frankly said, as quoted in the New York Times column, «A lot of people dealing with ephemeral works hedge at the last minute and are not willing to let nature take its course.»
Consider the case of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, a precise grid of 400 stainless steel poles on a 21-square-mile stretch of desert in New Mexico. Entropy is not integral to the work, so Dia’s $50,000 per year maintenance cost can be justified as one does the upkeep of the Mount Rushmore portraits. In that the Los Angeles County Museum owns Michael Heizer’s 1969 Double Negative, two 100-foot-long cuts facing each other across a canyon in Mesa, Nevada, the museum is committed to maintain the piece and arrange tours to the site, but Heizer insists that no one touches it, so the museum curator is caught in the ambiguity of being the conservator of a work he’s not allowed to touch. At issue here is the degree to which site art might be curated into object art.
Not wholly acceptable is what I believe is a hindsight assumption that, when constructing Spiral Jetty, Smithson arranged the rocks at a height just above the water surface so people can walk on it. I’m not sure who made that statement, which pops up here and there in the Smithson literature. If Smithson said it, surely it was a supplementary notion. Nancy Holt informed me by letter that, at the end of the film on Spiral Jetty’s construction, Smithson ran to the end of the Jetty, and that she thinks he was making a statement that it was to be walked on. To that she added, «It is inviting to walk on it, to become part of it.» Problematic, too, is Michael Govan’s comment made to me that it was the responsibility of the Dia Foundation to carry out the artist’s intentions, which would mean making it possible for visitors to walk the Jetty’s length. I can’t imagine Smithson creating Spiral Jetty with any function in mind other than that it would exist in the historical flow of geology rather than the grand narrative of art history and art as spectacle, sort of like the hermit Thoreau holding a weekly open house at Walden Pond.
Spiral Jetty is of course not a jetty but a metaphor for a jetty. Certainly it is not a pier. People walk out on a pier, fish off it, tie up a boat to it. A true jetty is a sea wall, usually of loose and massive rocks, that extends outward to engage an open sea’s incoming tides and breakers that if unchecked would smash piers and boats (natural jetties are coral reef barriers). While some jetties have a top surface on which one can walk, it is the seaward side that defines a jetty. «Jetty» embodies the root word jeter, meaning to throw or to toss, as throwing back the sea, like a ballet dancer executing a pas jeté, brushing the air with her working leg when making a turn, appearing as if she were throwing the leg outward. A jetty’s function is to throw its sidewall against an incoming sea like a defending warrior’s unassailable shield. While Spiral Jetty is not resisting an incoming sea, it is resisting its own demise against the elements into which it has been inserted. After all, Smithson referred to his Broken Circle in Holland as a dike, and photographed the moment when the dike gave way and water rushed in. Spiral Jetty does indeed block water on a small scale, such that the water’s color produced by red algae is a shade darker on one side than the other, and were it not for an occasional overwash and periodic submersion, water trapped within the coils would harbor over time a more concentrated ecology of algae and bacteria—a supplemental micro-ecology like that of ocean tide-pools too high to be regularly refurbished, and of ox-bow lakes when cut off from a river, or like Salt Lake’s differential sides when divided by the impermeable causeway.
The rule of entropy was Smithson’s working principle. Entropy governs the natural transformation of the earth. Entropy thrives on the behavior of hostile substances and agencies, from plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions down the scale to rust and microbes—everything working against and breaking down each other. Nothing in nature emanated as a first instance from the infinite condition of the primal void. So within the process by which Spiral Jetty came about, one cannot find a marked beginning point, a single unique and knowable reference state called «the original appearance.»
The mind imposes origins when fitting segments of history to time frames, like framing pictures to keep their imagery from wandering off. Smithson metaphorically opposed institutional needs to restrict perception and art-world ideas that control art’s limits and conventions while funneling art history down categorical streams. He couldn’t have stated his position clearer than when saying, «Someday I would like to compile all the different entropies. All the classifications would lose their grid.» By grid, Smithson meant the confining condition of things enveloped within themselves, like art confined to the art gallery, the art museum, the art magazine, the art book, and so on. In this contemplative state of mind he was specific. He defined entropy as a condition that’s irreversible, and reinforced that statement by saying, «A closed system eventually deteriorates and starts to break apart, and there’s no way you can put it back together.»
If a closed system eventually deteriorates and cannot be put back together, wouldn’t Spiral Jetty end up being converted back into a closed system by the proposed restoration of how it originally, or at any one time, looked, the sense of the work becoming the appearance of an object? If I understand Smithson’s thoughts about the Jetty, he meant for it to depart from him and enter into nature’s process, with the artist as an agent of geology. In a 1971 interview, he said, «When you are dealing with a great mass, you want something that will, in a sense, interact with the climate and its changes. The main objective is to make something massive and physical enough so it can interact with those things and go through all kinds of modifications. If the work has sufficient physicality, any kind of natural change would tend to enhance the work.»
For over a million years, Jetty’s rocks participated in nature’s discourse on entropy, whether blown up by volcanic forces or broken up under ancient glaciers; in either case abandoned randomly where they came to rest, like puff ball spores on a small scale or universes on the largest. As I understand his process, Smithson forced a displacement in the route by which the rocks had reached their present state as geological outcasts, the rocks then becoming art materials only to be released back to geology in a new order and on a different but parallel track to an infinite future. As embodied in Smithson’s metaphors, the randomly dispersed rocks were forced into regularity unlike any natural force would have imposed, their status then an admixture of Smithson’s purpose as artist with nature’s circumstances.
By imposing an artist’s order onto a state of geological disorder, entropy would work against the imposed order like a block of marble in a life and death struggle with a sculptor’s chisel making it into something it is not. Spiral Jetty would enter into the site’s ecological headway and its infinite process that, by the rules of entropy, are fueled by strife. For every aspect of nature, including our own, struggles against decay of its materiality, with only air and water having no material substance but obliged to take the shape of their container. Nature resists static order and geological inertia by sending in erosive winds and waters, earthquakes, droughts, and tornadoes, along with such assault forces as noxious weeds, insects, and viral infestations. Salt Lake’s bottom must surely resent having to bear the load of Smithson’s rocks and is still shifting this way and that to lessen the discomfort. Salt, anxious to get out of solution and claim its integrity, is crystallizing and gratefully trimming the black rocks with white lace. Saltloving microorganisms and decaying brine shrimp, already giving the water its reddish color, are layering affection on the rocks as coral-making polyps do a reef. For almost thirty-five years, Spiral Jetty has been struggling to maintain its formal integrity against environmental onslaught—not as a work of art but for its own survival.
Has the Jetty at any moment been a closed, self-regulating system as if put in a frame or mounted on a pedestal? Is there any chance that someday its condition of resistance would balance forces that work to degrade it? Not by a long shot. Nature is unpredictable, unruly, and has been and forever will be out of balance. Until recently the concept of ecological integrity was based on a comforting belief in the balance of nature and natural harmonies, in the myth of ecological integrity as a construct of thought neatly furnished with trust in the efficiency of biomass energy and nutrient cycling without loss of calories. Yet, since the first cause of action in the primal void, before origins broke the symmetry of absolute homogeneity, no aspect of reality has existed in a sustained state of balance. The classical laws of static states and equilibrium no longer apply. For that matter they never have except in minds needing a sense of security in space and time. Nature is in a perpetual state of self-vandalism, corrupting our idealizations. Weather patterns and geological dynamics on the large scale keep the world in a state of nervousness and uncertainty.
In short, to claim a point of origin or any static state, such as a film still, for Spiral Jetty, one would be obliged to shift the entire process of its becoming from an open-ended to a spatially defined system that would have had an original appearance as an object of art, or, like photographs taken of it, punctuated appearances to which it might be returned. Then what Smithson had said about conventional restraints that confine artists and works of art to units in a grid, like prisoners to cells guarded by warden-dealers, would be entirely negated. Spiral Jetty would then be converted from the natural processes enacting its life’s context into an amazing thing of the sort that people come to look at, like Old Faithful and the La Brea tar pits.
Were people not so often excluded from the natural order of nature’s entropic disorder perhaps such an intervention in Smithson’s process would appropriately integrate with the larger process of Spiral Jetty’s genesis. As humans we cannot enter into nature’s process because we are already in there, however much we claim exemption by excluding ourselves while shifting around and burrowing into any discourse—animal, vegetable, or mineral. For a remote hand to add a layer of rocks to Spiral Jetty would invoke an entirely different discourse than should a tornado pass over Salt Lake and rip off a layer. I’m aware that we all would like to keep art out of the hands of nature as a buttress against nature’s discomfort in human hands. Think of those quietly resting basalt rocks scooped out of their sleeping place by a mechanical dinosaur’s jaws, hauled off and dumped in polluted water, given a new order not of their culture and forced to participate in human art, about which rocks know nothing and couldn’t care less.
If Smithson’s notion of site/non-site converts to sculpture/non-sculpture and says something about Spiral Jetty, let’s take care not to convert it into sculpture/sculpture by circumscribing it as a self-referential work of art to be looked at and walked on, acknowledging thereby its perceivable materiality, which is its least defining aspect. Tell the Jetty to stop adding salt, to keep its head out of the water, to behave itself like an oeuvre d’art should. One can do that with an objet d’art—varnish it, frame it, hang it in a gallery of gallows labeled like an animal or botanical specimen, invite people to walk by and pay homage to its self-sufficiency as an entity like no other.
When I think about Spiral Jetty’s years of obscurity under water and the exotic romance it has elicited in the minds of artists, art historians, and landscape architects who’ve made pilgrimages to it and not seen more than a ghostly outline beneath nature’s bilge water, Paul Gauguin comes to mind, his life scattered about in primitive places—Brittany, Martinique, Panama, Tahiti—to which he was attracted like Smithson to contaminated Salt Lake. I think of Gauguin’s years of self-exile in corrupt French colonies among the detritus of a demised cultures. In Brittany, on a remote westerly beach, I see black rocks with no reason for being there and no desire to be picturesque, coated not with glistening white salt crystals but with tar-like jet-black kelp buzzing with flies. Dislocated from art in Paris, like Smithson from New York, Gauguin rendered those rocks in a series of woodcuts and oils titled At the Black Rocks. In reflecting on these shared minds, I am not making an art historian’s connection between Gauguin and Smithson as equivalent romantics. I’m only saying that one can make a pilgrimage to the western coast of Brittany and experience Gauguin’s black rocks, and one can go to Rozel Point at the north edge of Great Salt Lake and visit Smithson’s black rocks. Would anyone suggest that we modify the black rocks in Brittany to look more like they do in Gauguin’s paintings? If not, what would authorize modifications to Spiral Jetty so the rocks will conform to how they once looked?
Rather than put Spiral Jetty on a life support system as to our time scale, let’s accept its inaccessibility and absolute silence appropriate to the measure of its geological time. The Jetty needn’t yield its sacred mystery to indulgence in tangible reality as implied by the expression, “made more accessible,” which one associates with opening a wilderness to sports and commerce. When under water, akin to Nellie the Loch Ness monster, let’s call the spiral not a jetty but «Jettie» and make up stories about it of the sort that Smithson would enjoy, like his own association of Jettie’s coil with Brancusi’s sketch of James Joyce as a spiral ear suggesting both a visual and an aural scale resonating in the eye and ear like spirals reverberating up and down scales of space and time.
While not able to see or hear the spiral’s presence when it’s under water, we will know it is down there and never tire of listening for it to groan above the sound of wind and agitated water, or imagining what it looks like—maybe like a gigantic stone serpent with its tail anchored on the beach, its coils struggling in the turbulence of a stationary vortex, a giant squid on a scale of immensity that draws whales into unfathomable depths where primordial creatures struggle in deadly embrace, their tactical encircling causing hurricanes that wobble the earth’s rotation and mock human efforts to construct shelters. In geological time, this serpent and squid’s thrashing around would be such that, on the scale of our sense of time, each lash of Jettie’s coil or the squid’s tentacles might take a thousand years to unfurl, like a luckless star spiraling into a black hole. So let us not force Spiral Jetty into art history or tourism like dinosaur reconstructions.
Short of time in our minuscule world, we will just have to be patient and make no rash moves, having faith that, in the embrace of silent art history and in the empty spaces of our mind we can look deeply into the abyss of geological time and see and hear things that may no longer be there.
Wayne Andersen is Professor Emeritus, History, Theory, and Criticism, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among the seminars he regularly taught at MIT were “Interventions in Landscape” and “Landscape Symbolism.” He is the author of many books, including American Sculpture in Process: 1930-1970; Gauguin’s Paradise Lost; Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Vulture’s Tail; Picasso’s Brothel: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and The Youth of Cézanne and Zola: Art and Literature in Paris. Cambridge University Press will release his Cézanne and the Eternal Feminine in fall 2004.
Author contact: email@example.com
For feedback from the first draft of this essay that pushed it to a higher grade level, my profound thanks to Nancy Holt. For reading the draft, my sincere thanks to Donald Ackland, Phyllis Andersen, David Anfam, Harry Cooper, Donald Kuspit, Peter Selz, and Michelle Stuart.
Quotations of Smithson’s writings are from Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Photographs of Spiral Jetty by Gianfranco Gorgoni are photocopies from the book cited above.