My architectural curriculum included art history where I learned about the new earthwork art movement—taking art out of galleries and museums and engaging the audience in a more encompassing experience. I then vowed to visit Robert Smithson’s earthwork masterpiece, his 1970 ‘Spiral Jetty’ sculpture located at Raze Point in Utah’s Salt Lake.
The sculpture consists of a counterclockwise spiral made of 6,500 tons of basalt that two dump trucks and one backhoe dumped into the lake along a pattern that Smithson had staked out.
The sculpture’s seemingly isolated setting was not accidental. Close to the Golden Spike National Historic Site and in eye sight of an abandoned oil refinery, the location reminded Smithson of his home town of Passaic, NJ; a town littered with old factories, quarries, and other remnants of the industrial revolution: abandoned hopes—ruins in the making.
All guidebooks advise would-be visitors to fill up their gas tanks and bring gallons of water, adding explicit warnings that there would be no Internet. Born before the age of the Internet, I felt fully prepared and braced for whatever was to come our way. With great anticipation, I filled the tank of our rented SUV, stocked up on drinks and snacks, and hoped for an impromptu adventure requiring my Boy Scouts’ rescue and survival skills. Pushing ahead, road signs vanished and the landscape opened up as fences disappeared and cows roamed freely; no other cars in sight. Just the outline of the meandering gravel road lay ahead of us, a foreboding desert landscape with the early April temperature rising fast.
What was he thinking, what possessed him?
Twenty bouncy and dusty miles later, we perceived the sculpture in the far distance. “Is that all it is?” I thought disappointingly as the dirt road died in an improvised parking area.
One’s first instinct would be to rush down and explore, yet we decided to hike to the nearby mount for an exploratory picnic. From this vantage point, the sculpture became alive within the still and lifeless waters of the Salt Lake. The earthwork feels minuscule within the lake’s vast 1,699 square miles (five times the area of New York’s five boroughs) with a 27% salt content. VERY salty, I did taste it. (Note that the human body contains 0.15% of salt, the oceans 3.5%, and the Dead Sea 33%.) Under the extreme heat, life moves at a very slow pace; no trees in sight, just rocks, low brushes, shrubs, and some occasional errand seagulls. Death is omnipresent.
In contrast, spirals symbolize creation, life, ever expanding growth in geometric perfection and were used by many ancient cultures to represent cosmic energy and sweet water. They are representative of the cyclical nature of life from birth to death to rebirth and can universally be found in every ancient culture throughout the world. (Rembrandt’s Philosopher, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Höweler + Yoon Architect’s Float Lab).
Similarly the images of a labyrinth (combinations of circles and spirals) represent wholeness while the journey towards the center represents the journey to our own center, a metaphor for the path we walk throughout our lives. “The truth lies in the journey.”
Within these opposing concepts, Smithson created the ‘Spiral Jetty’ embracing the design’s complexities and contradictions. Similarly, the sculpture is subject to the cycles of the environment. Smithson built the sculpture during a drought, fully aware of the lakes changing water level and color (at times pink or red depending on the salt and bacteria content).
Two years after completion, the sculpture totally disappeared underwater only to re-emerge twenty years later covered with salt crystals. Smithson himself anticipated that the sculpture would be subject to cycles of nature and environmental vicissitudes. With continued erosion over time, it would cease to exist, hence adhering to the concept of entropy: expression of disorder and randomness or the degradation of a system over time towards death and disorder. As such, the sculpture embodied both the spiral’s concept of life and growth, juxtaposed to entropy’s concept of destruction and disorder, all set within a mud bed of salt.
After lunch, we climbed down from our perch and made our way to the sculpture.
Just like in Gothic times, I walked the curve, round and round and round and round, feeling the push-pull of mass and void, rock vs. mud, under the hot sun of high-noon. The water’s shimmering reflections added to the site’s dizzying effect within a vast expanse of nothingness. In the sky, spiral like clouds were shaping.
Last time I experienced such a mesmerizing feeling of total awe was when visiting Stonehenge.