Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is arguably the most famous, least experienced work in the earthworks/land art canon. Most know it from iconic aerial photographs, some by Smithson’s accompanying text and some by his dry, factual, yet far-reaching film. Few, it seems, make the pilgrimage, much less during winter. Built in 1970, the 6,650 tons of black basalt (a volcanic rock also common to the moon and Mars) was paved into a 1,500-foot counter-clockwise coil. “Spiral Jetty” was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the artist’s estate in 1999. Underwater and invisible for nearly 30 years, “Spiral Jetty” resurfaced in the early 2000s. Artist/girlfriend Suzanne Stroebe and I ventured twice into the frigid landscape of Northern Utah to Rozel Point, the home of “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake. The first time we visited was January 2, a temporal alignment of sorts. It was Smithson’s birthday; he would have been 73, had he not died prematurely in 1973. We visited the site for the afternoon, and returned on January 4 to spend an incredible 23 hours with the jetty and its desolate, frozen lunar landscape.
“Spiral Jetty” lies on what has been called America’s Dead Sea, two hours northwest of Salt Lake City. Heading off the main highway, we passed a sprawling, million-square-foot Wal-Mart distribution center; a granite facility; hot springs eerily misting the roadside; and a rocket testing facility (in line with Smithson’s love for the sci-fi future). We stopped briefly at the Golden Spike Monument, where the competing east and west transcontinental railroads were joined in 1869. Was it another temporal coincidence that, around its centennial, Smithson and artist/wife Nancy Holt created the short film “East Coast, West Coast” which contains their brainy/dreamy sparring, enacting ironic stereotypes of an emotive California artist and intellectual New York artist in 1969? (Smithson, a New Jersey-native, paradoxically played the “cooled out” California artist, who simply wanted to “groove on some grass,” while Holt portrayed the career-driven New York intellectual). Golden Spike Monument, like the jetty, is a symbol of outmoded progress and a signifier of earthworks in its own rite: the Sierra Mountains were blasted for tunnels and gravel for the tracks.
On first approach, the jetty appeared extremely small. “That’s it?” I recall uttering in disappointment. I viewed it outside of any viewfinder, other than, initially, a windshield. Smithson discusses scale in his eponymous essay, saying that the spiral fluctuates depending on your location, and to be inside the jetty is to be out of it. Photography dictates scale, in part, by its containment within a frame. The more the jetty occupies a photographic frame, the larger it appears in relationship to your eye. Outside of the jetty, my perception of its size was dependent on my proximity to other people. Without architecture or multiple people to provide varying cues for scale (the first day we passed only two cars en route, and the second none at all), the jetty’s size seemed very nebulous and shifty. The surrounding landscape, like objects in a rearview mirror, also appeared deceptively close: I underestimated distances walking the jetty’s length (a full 10 minutes) and from a surrounding series of cliffs (once ocean shelves, a 30-minute walk from the jetty). While on a human scale “Spiral Jetty” is monumental, in a geological/geographical/cartographical/historical succession, its presence is diminutive.
The jetty was in a severe low tide, which created pools of ice and snow. The space between the outer and middle ring was snow-cloaked, and between the middle and inner ring, an indecipherable phrase had been carved into the sand and sealed by a layer of ice. This plein-air scratchitti could have been done during earlier seasons and preserved by ice, like an ancient marking captured in amber. At sunset, the spiral glowed, a fiery sun reflecting off the Great Salt Lake. As I thought about the Smithson-esque elements in the vista—the idea of the water as a thermal mirror, a burning, mythical sun, and the un-visible crystalline salt particles—I felt how sublime and picturesque the view also was. I saw a Monet painting in the distant pastel isles (Smithson imagined van Gogh at his easel in the sun-baked lagoon). Suzanne walked the spiral. As I filmed from a viewshed, the ant-sized speck of her form glided along the basalt-punctuated snow. Smithson was fond of the Heraclitian fragment: “The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion.” “Spiral Jetty,” though, is tossed with deliberate design, in the sunset—a quintessential Romantic trope. The dusky amber and pinks drenched the entire sweep of vastness in Thomas Cole’s or Frederic Church’s transcendental, spiritualistic light, yet lacking the containment of a painting’s frame.
Our original plan was to set up a tent and camp in the snow, but when we arrived in Salt Lake City to 8-degree weather, we decided to upgrade our economy car reservation for a Ford Explorer, which could also serve as a shelter and guarantee passage though ice-glazed, unpaved roads. The vehicle became a mobile bivouac: a container of warmed air, viewfinder through which to see and write about the landscape, sequestrator from my growing frigophobia. Not to mention a leech of fossil fuel. Over the course of the night, the Explorer felt just as cold as outside, though we decided that the thermometer that indicated 18 degrees must not have been accurate, when we awoke the next day to find all the windows covered in a sheet of ice (created from the condensation of our breathing) from inside of the vehicle. The water we brought had also frozen. It was about the worst sleep I’ve had in the past decade. Bundled in thermal underwear, multiple pairs of socks, down coat, mummy sleeping bag with draw-string pulled tightly, exposing a scant slice of nose and mouth, I was still extremely cold. In the night, Suzanne suffered a panic attack induced by claustrophobia, thrashing in her constricted sleeping bag.
The next morning, requiring some civil hotel rest and comforts, we left an hour before having spent an entire day. I may have over-romanticized the camping, and awoke feeling remorse, rethinking whether the previous day’s wanderings and sunset warranted the night’s frigid sleep. I wanted to believe that my relationship to the landscape was beyond one of cultural consumption and signification: visiting remote places in a sport utility vehicle (further enhanced by the name Explorer), amassing my carbon footprint with Frontier Airlines, gathering the coordinates of “Spiral Jetty’s” by a geocacher’s web postings (and blindly guided to them by a Global Positioning System). Culture continues to supplant nature. Maybe that’s what Smithson meant when he said photography makes nature obsolete. We often lack an authentic and purely physical encounter with nature. My most acute contact with nature and myself was when I climbed alone to the summit of the nearby cliffs at the jetty, experiencing an incredibly sublime panorama encompassing hundreds of miles in every direction. I learned later that Suzanne was meditating nearby: in her black coat she blended with the basalt rock (even within normal earshot we could not hear each other). I had literally lost myself in the landscape. My awe quickly grew into an agoraphobic and monophobic terror when I realized that if I fell and screamed, no one would immediately know or hear.