50 years of “Spiral Jetty” in Utah

Vor half a century in early April 1970, Robert Smithson commissioned a Utah construction company to build a spiral pier in the Great Salt Lake. Heavy trucks toppled black chunks of basalt into the water in the next few days, and despite a change in the original planning, the fill was quickly completed.

It runs from the bank at a right angle on a straight line into the lake and then turns to the left in a spiral. However, this does not narrow towards the center like a snail shell. The distances between the arches remain the same, and so the whole facility shows that it has no ambitions to blend in with the environment as organically as possible. She wants to remain a foreign body.

Moles below the water surface

After its completion, the “Spiral Jetty” disappeared under the surface of the lake for almost thirty years due to the rising water level. The boulders only came to light again in 2002, now in a white salt crust. Before that, the work was hard to find, and when you found it there was nothing to see. Tacita Dean documented her ultimately unsuccessful search in 1997 in a small radio play.

Recently, more and more art tourists have come, but for most who are interested in the work, the journey is too difficult and too expensive. For them there are photos and especially a half-hour film made by Smithson himself. With this and with an essay published in 1972, the artist has decisively shaped our image of the “Spiral Jetty” to this day.

A particularly succinct shot can also be seen in the last shot of the film. It is misleading in several ways. Compared to the mountains in the background, the spiral appears much too large, the straight connection to the shore appears less rigid in the oblique view, and the rigid distances between the arches are no longer noticeable. It also seems natural to look down on the building from the air.

This is not possible on the spot. Under the peculiarly casual constraint of the ambience, you walk straight 250 meters on the path that Smithson has given us, then another two hundred meters in a counterclockwise rotation to the center of the spiral. It doesn’t go any further here. You are in a dead end. What now?

The film gives the answer. After Smithson has repeated twenty times what his work consists of: “Mud, salt crystals, boulders, water”, you can see how he is visibly euphoric as he approaches the end of the freshly built dam. When he stops there, the camera separates from him and rises into the air. You can hear propeller sounds from a helicopter, which immediately reminded me of Vietnam in 1970.

Then until the end of the film you only see bright sunlight that penetrates the spiral like the radiation of an atomic bomb. In his essay, Smithson opens up a furious abundance of associations. We are talking about the beginnings of life in salty water, the world before man, the tyranny of the sun, collapsing matter, crystallized protoplasm and bloody eyes, the relationship between Helios and Helix and many other things.

Those who have reached the end must retreat

Whoever stands at the end of the jetty cannot rise up into the air or escape into the unreal sphere of risky assignments. The excess of theoretical charging only increases disappointment at the actual situation where everything is smaller and less important. At the end of the jetty you don’t even know where you are. Only one thing is clear: you have to retreat.

At the same time, Bruce Nauman was constructing his corridors, which also force him to turn inside. It is all about the subjects’ self-perception. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty had something else in mind. He was interested in the fate of nature, not that of humans. The path on the pier does not lead to freedom, because you are not even free in the open. In fact, in no other Land Art work are you harassed as much as here.

Smithson saw the justification for this in the second law of thermodynamics, according to which each system strives for the state with the smallest energy differences. In an irreversible process, all of the energy gradually turns into heat and everything solidifies in entropy. The location of his intervention alone symbolizes such an irreversible hopelessness for Smithson, because the water that flows into the Great Salt Lake cannot get out anywhere. It has to dissolve in the air.

We are not well disposed to nature

If Smithson’s spiral is to embody the principle of entropy, naturally any attempt to counteract its own unstoppable decay is forbidden. Visitors should take small stones with them, leave garbage, move boulders and paint. In its ruin, the large spiral mole only realizes the principle of its existence.

Smithson wasn’t looking for a blue flower in nature. He seemed naive to glorify nature. We are not well disposed to nature. It strives for entropy. Therefore, life is not their goal, but death. Today the great plague proves that such nature pessimism is not that wrong.


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