Being with Robert Smithson's ‘Spiral Jetty’, Utah

11 May 2018

Spiral Jetty

In this article, UQ Art Museum Director Dr Campbell Gray reflects on his time with Robert Smithson’s 1,500-foot long Spiral Jetty (1970). Thank you Campbell - and stay tuned to find out what Spiral UQ is all about!

Only the tips of the largest rocks were visible above the water line when I first visited Robert Smithson’s 1,500-foot long Spiral Jetty (1970) in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. There were sufficient rocks visible to faintly discern the spiral form as I stood on the lake’s shore. However from the top of the hill behind, I could see the large spiral shadow beneath the water and Spiral Jetty became more distinct.

The next time I visited, the water’s edge was easily 200 metres beyond the spiral’s farthest point from the shore. Against the reflective, crystalline whites and pinks of the salt-encrusted lake’s bed, the dark basalt spiral was both starkly visible and ominous. This was its condition every other time I visited – and there were many more visits.

On one occasion, as a professional development experience, I took the entire staff from the university art museum I was directing at the time. On another occasion I took the legendary art historian Michael Fried to see it. On yet another occasion I accompanied Dr Lyndell Brown and Professor Charles Green from Melbourne University as their guide to the Jetty. And again on another occasion, I took a small group of teenaged men to camp overnight there.

Spiral Jetty

For over 14 years, I lived less than two and a half hours drive away from this significant work of art and the more I visited it, the more I felt a stewardship for it. The highly complex experience of being with it in this particular location has driven this work further into my psyche than most. Indeed, my computer screensaver for more than the past decade (and across four or five computers that have served me during this period), has been one of my photographs of Spiral Jetty situated in its vast landscape.

Unlike a number of his earthwork peers, Smithson selected the site in part because it was not entirely natural. A few hundred metres south of Spiral Jetty, remnants of the site’s human history remain prominent, albeit decaying with time. Heavily deteriorated wooden piers of a jetty stand in the salted mud and stretch toward the lake alongside the remains of a long, low causeway that originally supported a railroad.
When I first visited, an old military amphibious vehicle along with other abandoned cars, which had been used as temporary accommodation, were scattered in a small area, but these have been removed and the area cleaned since the Dia Foundation received the site’s ownership in 1999. Nonetheless, scraps of the past are always found in the dirt and the surrounding scrub. As much as it has supported human activity for decades, it is an inhospitable environment.

The tarred road and cell phone reception ends at the Golden Spike National Historic Site where re-enactments of the trans-continental railroad’s completion occur. Spiral Jetty is another 26 kilometres further along increasingly rough tracks. There is no question that one feels isolated there, cut-off from anything that would provide safety should one get into trouble.

Spiral Jetty

It is a vast, barren but awe-inspiring landscape. I saw my first rattle snake there (I heard it before I saw it). The lake is not a pleasant thing. In wind, the lake’s salinity causes it to respond like syrup. It does not inspire a dip or even a paddle – salt is encrusted on everything the lake touches. The sun is harsh in summer and the cold is bitter in winter. Into this space Spiral Jetty is inserted and it turns the sensory chaos into an ordered spiritual event with each element playing a necessary role in the production.

Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson: Time Crystals will show at UQ Art Museum from 10 March until 8 July 2018 before travelling to exhibition partner, Monash University Museum of Art. See the UQ Art Museum website for updates on programs and events.

Robert Smithson: Time Crystals is a partnership between The University of Queensland Art Museum and Monash University Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art. It has been developed in cooperation with the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

Wondering what Spiral UQ is all about? Stay tuned…