23 No. 6
publication of the International Sculpture Center
Jetty: The Re-Emergence
Collier and Jim Edwards
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Smithson, Spiral Jetty, April 1970. Earthwork in the Great
Salt Lake, Utah, as seen from the 1,600 pound Ikonos satellite,
423 miles up in space. ikonos satellite image provided by space
imaging. All images: © estate of Robert Smithson / licensed
Seen from a hilltop
at the north end of the Great Salt Lake, open-range grass and sagebrush
stretch north, the pastel Wasatch Mountains lie low along the eastern
skyline, and distant islands float in mirages to the south and west. This
landscape is vast, isolated, dreamlikethe perfect site for Robert
Smithson's meditative earthwork, Spiral Jetty. April of this year marked
the 34th anniversary of this causeway of basalt coiling out into the briny
rich with rain and even floodsSpiral Jetty lay submerged like some
prehistoric desert dragon, waiting on time and nature's cycles to resurface.
When it reappeared, after five continuous years of drought, it was no
longer a massive coil of black basalt but a glittering white spiral of
encrusted salta transformation even its creator could not have predicted.
The lake itself epitomizes
change and unpredictability. As the remnant of the ancient, fresh-water
Lake Bonneville, which was about the size of Lake Michigan, the Great
Salt Lake today measures 75 miles long by 50 miles wide and is second
only to the Dead Sea in salinity (between 10 and 25 percent). Early photographs
show people bobbing on its surface, unsinkable in its salty buoyancy.
The historian Dale L. Morgan calls it the Lake of Paradoxes
ironic joke of naturewater that is itself more desert than a desert.1
The lakes dimensions,
according to Morgan, can rarely be stated with any precision. All
its shores slope so gently that its shoreline is subject to extraordinary
fluctuation. A rise of a few feet in the lake level may change its contours
amazingly and add hundreds of square miles to its surface area.2
In addition to the
lake's magical shape-shifting, Smithson was no doubt drawn to its astonishing
and constantly changing colors. He selected a site at Rozel Point because
of the bacteria, brine shrimp, and algae growing there, which turn the
water close to shore the color of pale blood. Yet, within any given hour,
the water transforms to bright turquoise or coppery brown, pea soup green
or cobalt blue. Clearly, this offers the perfect setting for an exploration
of time, space, and mutability.
Of course, it is
only possible to speculate about what Spiral Jetty means:
its ambiguity is part of its transcendent effect. Smithson wisely chose
a spiral for his massive earthwork, a symbol at once ancient and universal,
occurring in many world cultures. Interestingly, he reversed the usual
direction of the spiral; its counterclockwise movement suggests infinity,
rather than the more typical connotations of moving water or a human odyssey.
Indian rock art
throughout the American southwest often depicts this reverse spiral as
connected to a horizontal line, which suggests a beginning pointthe
lakeshore in this case. In other instances, as in a petroglyph found near
Cedar City, Utah, the horizontal line might indicate the surface of the
ground, below which the spiral extends to symbolize a flash flood originating
below the crest.3 Smithson had a great interest in petroglyphs, and, even
after he completed Spiral Jetty in 1970, he continued to visit Indian
rock art sites in Utah.
Once Smithson decided
on the isolated location and the ancient form of his monumental earthwork,
construction began. Over the course of six days in April of 1970, Smithson
and two assistants used two dump trucks, a front loader, and a tractor
to move 6,650 tons of earth and rock from nearbyhillsides into the lake.
When they finished, the Jetty was a road 15 feet wide and 1,500 feet long,
coiled into a spiral.
As is true of most
earthworks, the size of Spiral Jetty is unrelated to its physical
dimensions. In spite of the abundance of secondary source material, Spiral
Jetty's isolation and its long submersion have made it relatively inaccessible,
ironically increasing its mythical proportions. Photographs and essays
provide an adequate conceptual understanding of the piece, but the primary
experience of visiting the site, and the pilgrimage required to get there,
enriches the experience enormously. Although it is remote, it is not completely
inaccessible, and, since its re-emergence, visits to Spiral Jetty have
pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty requires, first of all, a truck or other vehicle
with high ground clearance. This is no accident: one must earn this experience.
About 100 miles north of Salt Lake City is the Golden Spike National Historic
Monument, the site where the Eastern and Western railroads met and changed
the course of American history. In a probably unintended irony, Golden
Spike celebrates the closure of the American frontier and the engineering
ability to draw a straight line in steel across thousands of milesthe
opposite of Spiral Jetty's intention and effect.
Recently, the Dia
Foundation installed directional signage at key junctions along the way,
so it is even possible to get to the jetty from the visitors center at
the Golden Spike Monument without the aid of a map. From the Monument,
the last 15 miles of the journey are over dirt and gravel roads. Here,
a mile changes meaning, as it should, both on a rough road
and at the end of a journey. Directional guides do not indicate that the
pilgrimage includes a sense of a space that is at once austere and profoundly
beautiful. Almost immediately upon reaching the dirt road at the Golden
Spike Monument, you sense a change in the landscape. Driving through Promontory
Hollow onto a broad plain, the landscape seems to flatten out and the
sky appears to expand accordingly. Crossing cattle guards and driving
through an open range of grass and sagebrush, you head south toward the
north end of the lake. The Wasatch Mountain range can be seen to the southeast.
Even before rounding Rozel Point, you can sense the vastness of the lake.
Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
Other surprises occur
along the way like intentional, picturesque installations: an abandoned
and vandalized pink and white trailer; an amphibious tractor; a rusted
pickup; and, extending into the lake, a (drunken) line of salt-encrusted
pier posts, remains of an old oil rigging operation. Then, suddenly, Spiral
Jetty swings out into the lake not a hundred yards below the road. A simple
sign, black letters on white painted metal, announces that you have arrived.
In classic Dia Foundation understatement, there are no other signs or
information, and you are left to explore the work as you will.
Visiting Spiral Jetty
is a new experience each time, in every phase of its submersion and re-emergence.
The wind alters the intensity of the waters changing colors, as
does the quality of the light and the density of the overhead cloud-cover.
As you start to walk the spiral, you enter a kaleidoscope of moaning wind,
relentless light, and mercurial water colors. The surface is rocky and
uneven, but not that difficult to walk. It merely requires your attention,
on all levels.
Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
The late John Coplans,
who visited the site with Smithson, compared walking the jetty to time
travel: A spiral vectors outward and simultaneously shrinks inwarda
shape that circuitously defines itself by entwining space without sealing
it off. One enters the Spiral Jetty backward in time, bearing to the left,
counterclockwise, and comes out forward in time, bearing right, clockwise.4
As much fun as it
is to walk the exposed causeway of Spiral Jetty, which gives a 360-degree
view of the landscape from the level of the lake, the most spectacular
view is from the hill directly above. Walking up the hill, crisscrossing
through the boulders strewn along its slope, you gain several hundred
feet in elevation. This vantage point offers a breathtaking view of Spiral
Jetty and of the lake itself. The view is both spectacular and humbling.
In a certain strong light, the distant islands of the Great Salt Lake
seem to actually float as in a mirage, and the mountains, even deeper
in space, appear to be unreal, etched on the skyline. This is a lonely,
and at times, forlorn landscape. Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake is
a perfect setting for Smithsons most famous earthwork and for his
poetic discourse on entropy. Smithson, who was tragically killed in an
airplane crash in 1973, never was able to see his Spiral Jetty as it appears
today. But his masterpiece is now accessible to us. It is salt-encrusted
and mysterious and very much in keeping with Smithsons own sentiments,
as when, in 1972, he wrote, I like landscapes that suggest prehistory.
As an artist it is interesting to take on a persona of a geological agent
and actually become part of that process rather than overcome it.5
Doubtless, in time his earthwork will be flooded again, and then decades
later, re-emerge in another unpredictable state. No matter. Spiral Jettys
ancient form and quasi-mythical location will always beckon to something
in the human spirit, to something deeper than consciousness and certainly
deeper than words.
Ric Collier is
Director and Jim Edwards is Curator of Exhibitions at the Salt Lake Art
Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Editorial assistance was provided by Aden
1 Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Press, 1995 [originally published by Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1947]), p. 17.
3 LaVan Martineau, Rocks Begin to Speak (Las Vegas: KC Press, 1973), p.
4 John Coplans, in Robert Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture (Ithaca, New
York: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 47.
5 Dia Center for the Arts press release, New York, September 17, 1999.
Note: Odometer readings vary with each vehicle. The distances given
below are only approximations.
to the Golden Spike National Historic Site (GSNHS), 30 miles west of Brigham
City, Utah. Spiral Jetty is 15.5 dirt-road miles southwest of the GSNHS.
To get to the GSNHS (from Salt Lake City), take I-80 north approximately
65 miles to the Corinne exit (exit 368), just west of Brigham City, Utah.
Exit and proceed through Corinne, paying close attention to the signs,
and drive another 17.7 miles west, still on Highway 83, turn left and
follow signs, another 7.7 miles up the east side of Promontory Pass to
2 From the
visitor center at the GSNHS, drive 5.6 miles west on the main gravel road
running west from the center.
3 After 5.6
miles you should reach an intersection. From this vantage point you can
see the lake. Looking south-west, you can see the low foothills that make
up Rozel Point, 9.9 miles distant.
4 At this
intersection the road forks. One road continues west, the other goes south.
Take the south (left) fork.
Both forks are Box Elder County Class D (maintained) roads.
you cross a cattle guard. Call this cattle guard #1. Including this one,
you should cross four cattle guards before you reach Rozel Point and Spiral
1.3 miles south. Here you should see a corral on the west side of the
road. Here too, the road again forks. One fork continues south along the
west side of the Promontory Mountains. This road leads to a locked gate.
The other fork goes southwest toward the bottom of the valley and Rozel
Point. Turn right onto the southwest fork, just north of the corral. This
is also a Box Elder County Class D road.
7 After you
turn southwest, go 1.7 miles to cattle guard #2. Here, besides the cattle
guard, you should find a fence but no gate.
southeast 1.2 miles to cattle guard #3, a fence, and gate.
.5 miles should bring you to a fence but no cattle guard and no gate.
2.3 miles south-southwest to a combination fence, cattle guard #4, iron-pipe
gate, and a sign declaring the property behind the fence to be that of
the Rafter S. Ranch. Here too, is a No Trespassing
this gate the Class D road designation ends. If you choose to continue
south for another 2.3 miles, and around the east side of Rozel Point,
you should see the lake and a jetty (not Spiral Jetty) left by oil drilling
exploration in the 1920s through the 1980s. As you approach the lake,
you should see an abandoned, pink and white trailer (mostly white), an
old amphibious landing craft, an old Dodge truck, and other assorted trash.
From this location, the trailer is the key to finding the road to Spiral
Jetty. As you drive slowly past the trailer, turn immediately from the
southwest to the west (right), passing on the south side of the Dodge,
and onto a two-track trail that contours above the oil-drilling debris
below. This is not much of a road. Only high clearance vehicles should
advance beyond the trailer. Go slowly! The road is narrow, brush might
scratch your vehicle, and the rocks, if not properly negotiated, could
high center your vehicle. Dont hesitate to park and walk. The jetty
is just around the corner.
12 Drive or
walk 6/10th of a mile west-northwest around Rozel Point and look toward
the lake. Spiral Jetty should be in sight. The lake level varies several
feet from year-to-year and from season to season, so Spiral Jetty is not
always visible above the water line.
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