Once Again, Let’s Save the Jetty


Pop quiz: what is 1500 feet long, 15 feet wide, coiled into a counterclockwise spiral deep in Mormon territory, and made of mud, salt crystal, and rock? If you’ve ever taken ARTH101, you know the answer is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a seminal piece from the Land Art movement constructed in 1970 in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In the 39 years since its installation, Spiral Jetty has faced a number of threats to its existence, from natural erosion to proposed oil drilling by Amoco. Last week Modern Art Notes reported on a new industrial challenge to the site, as Great Salt Lake Minerals hopes to expand its operations by 91,000 acres, essentially evaporating the lake bed upon which the earthwork rests.

Though many argue that Land Art is inherently at risk to environmental changes and should be left alone, it’s hard to imagine a laissez-faire treatment of Spiral Jetty considering its status as a case study for postmodern art. Smithson’s aesthetic influences for the piece ranged from the molecular structure of salt to Constantin Brancusi’s abstract portrait of James Joyce, and it’s actually been submerged for a good three decades of its life due to fluctuating lake water levels. Not to mention, the jetty is located in a remote corner of Utah hardly accessible to the general populace and before the advent of Google satellite, the best way to view it was (and may still be) Smithson’s half-hour documentary The Spiral Jetty, excerpted below.

The artist’s most well-known work, finished three years before his untimely death in a plane crash at age 35, is an elusive yet significant part of the postmodern canon, and one that we think deserves a shot at preservation. What say you: fight the man, or let nature do its handiwork via a mining company?

Read more about the environmental and industrial challenges facing Spiral Jetty on Modern Art News and specific details on the mineral firm proposal at The Salt Lake Tribune. And for an inside account of Smithson’s earthwork, check out Kenneth Baker’s article at Tate Etc.