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Saving the Spiral Jetty

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“People who tell us that the solution to our problem is drilling offshore are peddling our addiction,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “The drug is oil, and they don't want us to get off it.”

With the latest brouhaha in Congress over George Bush’s recent lifting of a presidential moratorium, established by his father George H.W. Bush in 1990 limiting offshore drilling along our southern coast and parts of Alaska, it doesn’t take an oil rigger to figure out that our dependency on the “black gold” and its derivatives permeates virtually every aspect of our lives. It affects us in our addiction to foreign oil, the prices we pay at the pump, how much heating oil we can afford to stock up on, and the candidate we will choose in this year’s presidential election. Lou Reed sang about another type of addiction, heroin addiction. Here’s a small excerpt:

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, its my wife and its my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead.

Or out of gas.

Oil is America’s heroin. A habit no methadone or corn oil is going to replace anytime soon.

I don’t want to argue the pros and cons of oil dependency. I do want to see fewer Hummers on the road, and a few less Republicans steering this doomed “Raft of the Medusa” we call government. However, on a smaller scale, oil has seeped into areas of our lives we likely never even considered shoring up – our appreciation for art. And since I know more about art than I do oil drilling (not surprising), I would like to demonstrate how a public outcry earlier this year and a recent trip to the Great Salt Lake of Utah, increased my love for one and my distaste for the other. My thanks go to an iconic figure and his mythical artwork entitled “Spiral Jetty.” Who is this personnage? His name is Robert Smithson, artiste extraordinaire.

Spiral Jetty

Smithson is someone you would call a “learned man,” a colloquialism at best but entirely accurate. I’ve only minutely scratched the surface and range of his writings and artworks, available to us today via countless photographs, publications, archives, film, and documentation, which were for the most part produced before a tragic plane crash in 1973 took his life. He was 35 years old. His intelligence and a keen perception of people and things, grouped with an insatiable curiosity, led him into fields outside of art such as science, crystallography, geology, indigenous cultures, film studies, astronomy, and literature, and on and on.

A brilliant man and artist, he would forever change the physical landscape and how we perceive it. Should you ever have the good fortune to delve into some of his writings or read what has been written about him, you’ll find the word entropy used quite often to describe the basis or foundation of his thinking, philosophy and sculptural underpinnings. What does it mean and how does it relate?

Entropy (definition Merriam-Webster): 2a the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity; b a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.

Smithson was a Land artist, part of a larger group of sculptors (working outside in nature), whose movement or trend, if you will, was later christened Earthworks. This new direction in art was attributed to its original founders, Robert Smithson and Claes Oldenburg – better known as a pop artist. In 1967, Oldenburg created what would later be recognized as the first earthwork. He paid a union grave-digger to dig a six foot long trench (shortly thereafter refilled in) or a “Hole” as it was titled, in the middle of New York’s Central Park. This act would also serendipitously open the doors to future art movements that would produce Conceptual and Minimalist sculptures. As I write this last sentence, I’m painfully aware of the sometimes hedonistic and inclusive nature of the art world at the expense of the society in which it exists, hermetically carrying about its business, naming its own movements, interests, and direction. The question I am often asked — “Is it art?” — continues to plague me to this day.

Suzaan Boettger, author of Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, writes, “Oldenburg’s Hole was the first contemporary sculpture made directly in the ground. Yet it was dug at a time when the use of those unrefined materials specifically associated with the surface of the earth – dirt and sand – was gaining increasing importance in sculpture. In the United States the most immediate artistic precedent was the project (Robert) Smithson described in his 1967 article Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site.”

Whether something is art or not, can be answered perhaps, in how it changes your perceptions, assumptions, and ideas about the ordinary.

Satellite view - the Spiral Jetty on the far left, abandoned oil jetty in the middle, and the dirt road to get there, on the right.

However, entropy and earthworks meant different things to different artists of this generation. To hear Smithson tell it, we’re all victims of our own self-induced entropy by being consumers, with the resulting havoc it has on the environment (waste) and our destructive obsession to standardize social etiquette, habitats, and work. Sadly and a bit prophetic, some 35 years later, Smithson is still right.

In April of 1966, Artforum published Smithson’s more sober "Entropy and the New Monuments". Boettger writes that “For his first essay in this influential journal Smithson made the bold inversion of declaring that the severe and hulking (often greater than human scale) geometric sculpture that would come to be called ‘Minimal’ displayed the condition of entropy, a term in physics for a state of decreasing order.” These sculptures would “bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age.” Smithson’s fascination with all things entropic, of systems breaking down, of decay and ruin was a large part of his art-making practice and his worldview. Often critical of an ever conforming society, he often used minimal sculpture as an analogy by, “likening this work to the cold glass boxes along Park Avenue, which helped foster the entropic mood.”

More importantly though, it was how he positioned himself as an artist, in relation to events going on at the time. Boettger again writes:

Although Smithson’s sensitivity to deterioration and loss came out of personal experience and provided a perspective for him on art, architecture, and geological sites, the concept of entropy also offers an apt metaphor for the societal mood of the late 1960s. It describes the public’s apprehension over the deterioration of nature from pervasive pollution, of the country’s slackening economic pace under the burden of the Vietnam War, and on the social level, a late-sixties society that was itself undergoing disruption. The experience of increasing disorder in a system could serve as a macrocosmic explanation for the sense that, under the stress of civil rights protests, antiwar divisiveness, and the broad rejection of tradition in all forms of art and social mores that was destabilizing familiar conventionality, the country itself was experiencing breakdowns and fractures.

Sound familiar? Hindsight is 20/20 as you know, and I admit, it is quite easy to compare and contrast events of the past with events of today, finding similarities to prove a point. My interest in bringing this up for discussion is to exemplify the cohesive thinking and complete system of beliefs held by Smithson and his fellow artists. Does this mean the time is right for another Earthworks movement, since even today, we’re experiencing similar social and economic breakdowns? Probably not. Beyond the prohibitive cost and funding needed, I can imagine only too well the slew of permits and ordnances it would require even to begin. But you could, I believe, argue that the push toward everything “green” to regulating your carbon footprint is – now that every corporation in America wants to be seen as David against a polluting Goliath – just another form of Earthworks, commercialized and packaged for those who can afford to play and pay. Inasmuch as Smithson viewed his work and the work of fellow minimalists as homage to the “anti-monument,” and the entropic sedation of the grand public, there was also a concerted effort to counterbalance the previous 10 years or so of Abstract Expressionism that had the art world in its throes.

In avoiding the engrenage of a commercialized art world – galleries, patrons, collectors, museums, auctions et al, well on its way to becoming the norm (see 1980s) – and by building your sculpture under the stars, it did two things: create an instant shroud of the unknown or undiscovered, requiring an eventual pilgrimage, and the assurance that the artwork in question would be un-sellable, not like some painting on some gallery wall. You couldn’t exactly possess some bulldozed trench in the middle of the Nevada desert now, could you?

The biggest difference I believe, between Smithson and artists working today is that they lack the drive, political discourse, and incentives (personal as opposed to commercial) that such an ambitious project like the “Spiral Jetty” would require. The art world today is also in a state of entropy, surely what Smithson would label in a state of “cultural confinement.”

In "Entropy Made Visible – Interview with Alison Sky" [The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt], Smithson talks about the energy crisis during his lifetime as yet another form of entropy. It’s difficult not to make the same associations to our own current energy crisis in 2008. He states, “…the earth being the closed system, there’s only a certain amount of resources and of course there’s an attempt to reverse entropy through the recycling of garbage.” This recycling, this attempt to reverse entropy, also exists within the art world and especially within the art market. By recycling the art stars and eventually consuming them as mere combustible products, organizing blockbuster exhibitions, granting unwarranted retrospectives, and increasingly inflated auction prices. Art it seems is à la mode.

My point is this: times have changed obviously, and America a lot. Are we better off than we were in 1968, the age of world revolution? It’s debatable. Was 9/11 just another form of entropy too? Maybe. There exist issues in America, and problems of values, morals, religion, black, white, borders/no borders, the economy, Bush, and then more Bush, with no end in sight. Have we lost our innocence or us as individuals? Our collective virginity? Certainly so. I guess it doesn’t matter. But where is the art in all of this? I keep going back to the art and its artists. Who’s taking up the slack where Smithson and others left off? I would like to know, I would like to meet them and shake their hand. Have I lost faith, have I lost art? Help me.

The solution, I believe, is ideas. You need an idea, the desire to see it realized, the courage to take the risk, the perseverance to continue when it is crumbling around you, and the vision, strength, and stamina to see it through. You may not think dumping 6 ½ tons of basalt rock into a lake bed in the form of a reverse spiral is significant. You may even think it is a waste of time, energy, and resources. I’m here to tell you differently. If you haven’t yet stood on the edge of the Spiral Jetty as I have, and like many before me, looked out across the lake and saw where the horizon line designates where one of the Earth’s four sides ends, then you won’t be able to understand the human spirit and the innate desire to create.

I stand and dream. I see an abandoned oil jetty in ruin from the 1900s (Amoco Oil tried to resurrect one in the '70s), 500 yards to my left – man’s failed attempt at reverse entropy. I am on solid rock, on a solid shape, created in harmony with nature, that is slowly being absorbed, coddled, blanketed by the ebb and flow of a lake, its salty breath heaving in and out, its even respiration ever steady, not ready to stop, not crumbling, not retiring as the jetty holds this part of the Earth together. The Spiral Jetty is a gift to the Gods, an ancient symbol, a testimony and a sacrifice on the altar of a red algae sea, poised gracefully (delicately) within the landscape, it is a marker of time and of a man’s imprint. I stand, pelicans fly overhead, F-16s follow, and then there is silence. Only the airless vacuum of the sun’s rays and blinding white heat, glistening off the icy white crystals floating like miniature icebergs or clinging to molten rocks, licking their pocked faces, filling their orifices with slippery fluids, ebb and flow, hardening, crystallizing, growing, expulsion, rebirth. I am a sacrificial lamb, a victim to the lake that drains the moisture out of my body, I am ALIVE. I am such a small insignificant part of this vast ecosystem, helpless, defenseless, and puny. I am grateful to be here.

At the Jetty

Smithson created a roundabout to infinity; he is nature’s beloved architect. To the very bowels of the earth, he has staked a claim where Man is allowed to stand freely, on par with the Gods if for only a moment, before we are sent back down the entropic slide into Hell. Time is of the essence now, and we are threatened – you, me, the jetty and art. The Spiral Jetty has finally emerged from its archaic slumber within recent years, having been submerged or partially for most of its life, the lake waters dropping, in part due to record dry seasons. I dare say global warming? It has risen like a Phoenix from the womb, from its source, for a reason. What should we do with it now? Let me help you decide.

Robert Smithson on the Spiral Jetty:

My concern with salt lakes began with my work in 1968 on the Mono Lake Site-Nonsite in California. Later I read a book called Vanishing Trails of Atacama by William Rudolph which described salt lakes (salars) in Bolivia in all stages of desiccation, and filled with micro bacteria that give the water surface a red color. The pink flamingos that live around the salars match the color of the water. In The Useless Land, John Aarons and Claudio Vita-Finzi describe Laguna Colorada: ‘The basalt (at the shores) is black, the volcanos purple, and their exposed interiors yellow and red. The beach is grey and the lake pink, topped with the icing of iceberg-like masses of salts.’ Because of the remoteness of Bolivia and because Mono Lake lacked a reddish color, I decided to investigate the Great Salt Lake in Utah. [From The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt]

Red sea

The Spiral Jetty spirals out from the shores of Rozel Point, located on the northeastern side of the Great Salt Lake, on the western side of the Promontory Mountain Range that forms a peninsula there. If you recall your American history, you’ll remember that Promontory was the town where the first transcontinental train passed, linking the west and the east coast, with one Golden Spike. The Spiral Jetty is located within the Golden Spike National Park just outside of Brigham City, Utah (about 65 miles north of Salt Lake City). The jetty shoots out from the bank into the lake, and coils left to right on itself for approximately 1500’ until it forms a spiral. It is roughly 15’ wide and is composed of earth, basalt rocks (deposited from the great Lake Bonneville Flood about 15,000 years ago), salt (from the lake), and the red algae water it sits in. It is stunning. It is also threatened by oil drilling.

In 1999, the Spiral Jetty was given as a gift from Robert Smithson’s estate to the Dia Art Foundation, where it has been under its supervision ever since. Ironically or tragically, depending on how you view it, the Dia is also trying to save another seminal land art work by Walter De Maria, entitled "Lightning Field". Threatened by real estate and industrial developers, the Dia’s goal is to raise 1.1 million dollars to essentially buy off the over-zealous land owner, and insure, according to an April 8, 2008 article in The Art Newspaper, “the right to restrict real estate and industrial development. This would create a three-mile radius around the installation. The restrictions on the property will bind all future landowners and become part of the chain of title for the estate.”  If you haven’t guessed by now, and despite whether or not you like art, it too needs to be preserved and protected – maintained – much like any other institution (private or governmental) or someone’s personal property and heritage.

Jetty close-up

It is very difficult to argue aesthetics over financial gain, but it needs to be done and needs to be put into a proper perspective. It isn’t a matter of comparing apples and oranges, but a matter of one industry threatening the livelihood of one artist. The Spiral Jetty, if anything, is an important reminder of the power of art in the right context. The need to create for an artist, any artist, is as strong and as powerful as any entrepreneurial adventure. Art is the intangible vs. the tangible; food for the soul and mind vs. cold hard cash; a beautiful sunset, the smell of your lover’s perfume vs. entropy – it is all this and much more – passion, creativity, ideas, expression, your individuality, and your essence as a human being. Art is not a game of chance, it is not haphazard, it is not play time, but it is real, well planned, and generally very good. Bad art is none of these things. It all comes back to the ideas and the source of their inspiration. Art is there to create something you’ve never seen before. It is a Muse you bring to life. This is what Smithson had to say about Rozel Point when he first glanced upon it:

As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant 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.” And this: “My dialectics of site and non-site whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still. The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. [From The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt]

These are not visions of a madman, but those of a genius. There is no cash profit to be made in the experiencing of art, only the profit of having truly lived through it. Don’t believe me? Go to Rozel Point, you’ll see what Smithson saw, and realize that you too have a dormant earthquake inside you. Trust me.

But, there are sceptics. Those include the owners of 50,000 acres or so of open leased land ripe for oil exploration and development within the Great Salt Lake region, and one company in particular, Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, LTD who has allegedly filed a permit to do just that, five miles from Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. This would of course, interrupt the aesthetics and viewing line of “the lake [that] became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence.” It would be the death of poetry as we know it. You might say to yourself, “Who cares, it’s just an oil rig, and besides, it takes an eternity to travel the fifteen miles of dirt and gravel road, avoiding potholes and basalt rocks, nobody is going to make the effort!” You might be right, but yet the Spiral Jetty exists in all its beauty and is now an integral part of the lake’s Pleistocene history.

The biggest difference however, between Smithson’s jetty and oil exploration is the level of harmful intervention and disruption it causes to its surrounding environment. Not to mention its cost. I have no data on how much Smithson spent in 1970 to build the Spiral Jetty. I can only imagine that it is infinitely less than what Pearl Montana will be spending to get the “heavy oil” out of the ground. From the Friends of Great Salt Lake website:

The type of oil in the West Rozel field is commonly referred to as a “heavy oil” and the oil is tar-like in viscosity and contains a great deal of impurities, including over 12 percent sulfur. Because this oil is so thick, it is often lumped into the same category as tar sands for discussion purposes and, like tar sands, is difficult and expensive to extract from the ground. In-situ pumping of tar sands typically involves either the injection of super-heated steam or dilution of the oil through chemicals in order to facilitate pumping to the surface. With heavy oil, however, most producers attempt to extract the oil using “cold production” which calls for pumping the oil at ground temperature. John Chen, Heavy Oils, SIAM News, Vol. 39, No. 3, April 2006. Using this technique, only a small percentage of the total oil reserves, about 5 percent, is typically extracted. Amoco’s discovery well, for instance, only produced from two to five barrels of oil per hour during production testing and through 1993 a total of only 33,028 barrels of oil have been produced from the West Rozel wells.

This is certainly, hardly enough to alleviate the current oil shortage and high prices at the pump.

The Friends of Great Salt Lake, Utah Waterfowl Association, National Audubon Society, Audubon Council of Utah, including the four local societies of Bridgerland Audubon Society, Great Salt Lake Audubon Society, Red Cliffs Audubon Society and Wasatch Audubon Society, and Utah Airboat Association all agree that there are conflicts and risks associated with development of these oil and gas leases, including leaking wells, visual impacts and recreational and wildlife conflicts.

Outside of environmental impacts, the “visual impacts” are much tougher to justify as valid reasons to not drill for oil. Not everything should be sacrificed for art obviously, but neither should our future be sacrificed for oil, when there are several renewable energies to be developed. Which, potentially, might be more cost effective and energy fruitful than trying to get 33,000 plus barrels out of the ground in this one particular spot. It has also been reported that the US is already sitting on 68 million acres of leased land that may not be fully exploited for exploration and drilling – so why look for more? All things being equal, I can only imagine that there are other sites beyond the Great Salt Lake that might have resources that are much cheaper to get and refine and could have a lower impact on the environment. I’m making it sound simple, but it would behoove us to work in areas of already leased land that have a higher priority of success and output. But this still doesn’t address the aesthetics of art and the fate of the Spiral Jetty.

The story broke earlier this year of potential drilling near the jetty, alerting art constituents everywhere to sound the alarm, and broadcasted on several art blogs such as Art Fag City, Modern Art Notes, boingboing, and many like them, including a passionate letter from sculptor Nancy Holt (who was married to Smithson), but there has since been some debate about whether or not Smithson would be outraged by big oil troubling the waters once again. For the most part, the debate centers around and cites his ideas about entropy. Some argue simply that the jetty wasn’t built to last, and that Smithson knew and somehow desired the process of entropy to overtake his chef d’oeuvre.

One particular point of view that epitomizes the discussion comes from David Eubank and his blog, david eubank on art. He says,

I have followed the blogs and news stories and have read about Smithson’s ideas about entropy, the natural system of decay, of systems running down. And I am not the only one who is now asking the question, is saving the Spiral Jetty what Smithson would have wanted? His ideas evolved around the thesis that all systems eventually run down, they waste more energy that is useful in sustaining them, and they decay. Should we then interrupt this premise to save, preserve or restore the Spiral Jetty for our own interests? If the intention of the work was to decay back into nature, which it is, shouldn’t we just leave it alone? Shouldn’t we let nature take its own course?

No we shouldn’t. I believe there are a few simple facts that are being overlooked in regards to Smithson’s intentions for the jetty. The first is that he secured a 20-year lease on that outcropping of land. Had he intended the jetty to dissolve into the lake in a much shorter time, there would have been no reason to prolong the experiment. Besides, the thick coating of salt crystals that line both the inside and outside perimeters of the jetty is, I believe, certainly enough cement to hold it together for many decades to come. Second, the conditions and site, the non-site, was already in his head; he produced this in a 16mm color documentary film (shown in a gallery) combining footage of the actual jetty and films taken in a natural history museum, that linked the two togeher – both “sites” were carefully chosen and interdependant on one another. Thirdly, language, which Smithson viewed very much as sculpture allowed him to construct the jetty in his mind and in actuality, using the building blocks of words, to define, clarify, and probe his relationship to the environment. Language also helped him define his sculptural process and working methadology.

The jetty’s force and energy contained in a spinning counter motion may have been Smithson’s way of reversing the pull of entropy, in some heroic tipping of the balance in favor of life and longevity. Erosion is normal, hundreds even thousands of years; Smithson understood this and used the materials at his disposal, natural materials, pushed up from the Earth – not created by Man. The Spiral Jetty is not a closed system, it was never meant to be shut down; its magnetic draw and beauty will turn forever and ever for the good. An oil rig was never Smithson’s idea of a sculpture.

Nor is it mine. I drove the 15 miles of dirt road – a very short journey considering I had departed earlier that morning from Springdale, Utah (Zion Canyon) – by passing through Golden Spike National Park, and down to the dilapidated oil jetty near the lake’s shore that many mistake for Smithson’s jetty, then promptly turn around and come back, wondering if that was all there was to see (so says the Park Ranger). Verging to the right, and slightly elevated on a small bluff seasoned generously with basalt boulders baking in the afternoon sun, I stop, and gingerly climb down the embankment, joyfully playing “hot lava” with my two children, leaping from one boulder to the next. I then proceeded to walk the jetty’s 1500 foot long coil – faint ghost-like traces of the dumpster’s wheel tracks that had jettisoned their many loads, have fossilized and trace the way like two fingers dragged through dust.

Finally, I stop. I find myself at the center, and while standing in that epicenter, in that vortex, time stops as well. Silence. Only glaring white light now, frozen salt, blackened boulders, a 360° panoramic view of the hillside, Cub and Dolphin Islands, the horizon, lake meeting sky, blue sky, red sea, white pelicans, and the faint outline of the northwestern shore of the Great Salt Lake. What I see and felt was, what Smithson saw from the center of his dream, from his own private Idaho:

North – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by East – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northeast by North – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northeast by East – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
East by North – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
East – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water…” [From The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt]

Rock salt

So what is left to do? According to the Dia Foundation website, the public comment period for Pearl Montana’s alleged drilling application was February 13, 2008: “By that date, the State of Utah received over 3,100 emails and letters, as well as 300 phone calls, from concerned parties in the United States and abroad.” Not what I would call a massive public outcry, but significant enough I suppose, for the art world’s rather individualistic and preservationist attitude. In large part, the Spiral Jetty suffers from a lack of understanding and knowledge on one hand, and a new found interest on the other (due to this current affair), that up until now had waned due to its iconic yet unknown status. The same dilemma that the Statue of Liberty must suffer I’m sure, which most of us probably believe, will always be there until we finally get around to visiting it.

Smithson wanted to get his work outside of the gallery and museum walls and as far away from any “cultural confinement” that he felt could force artists into “fraudulent categories.” He didn’t, as a friend told me recently, “ask for anyone’s permission.” No, he did not, and this is the sort of bravado the art world needs more of today. The fact that the arts intelligentsia wants to bring a renewed interest to the Spiral Jetty for reasons outside of Smithson’s and for the moment, for reasons out of everyone’s control, may not be exactly the kind of unbiased attention he was hoping for. What it does do is bring back the discussion on the importance of art in our lives and the preservation of the precious natural resources we still have available to us, not to deplete them, but to learn, explore, and derive inspiration from them – and I don’t mean using them to fill up your car’s tank.

Here are two suggestions that will help insure that this process of art and life “becomes the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence” and that it continues in good faith and good will: One, go visit the Spiral Jetty. A detailed map of how to get there is available on the Dia website. And two, even though the comment period has officially ended, please continue to write or send an email to the Utah Governor’s office, voicing your opinion. The battle may have started, but the fight still needs to be fought. You can contact Jonathan Jemming, Director of the Resource Developement Coordinating Committee at 801.537.9023 or by email or visit the committee's web page.

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