Sketches of the "Spiral Jetty", circa 1970. Reprinted with permission: © Estate of Robert Smithson, New York /DACS London, 2007
Constructing the Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photographs by Gianfranco Gorgoni. Reprinted with permission: © Estate of Robert Smithson, New York /DACS London, 2007.
The project of reimagining Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" from the Land art epitome to a new materialist participatory piece of art, engaging public attention and action.
"He leads us to the steps of the jail's main entrance, pivots and again locks his gaze into the sun"
R. Smithson, 1970, end of the film "Spiral Jetty", 1972.
The revision of the American Land art movement and its concerns with nature in many respects differ from the concerns of contemporary artists, art collectives and art activist. As a historical movement representing the late modernity of the 1960s and 1970s, Land art embodied humanistic pursuits defined in the Renaissance, placing an individual creator in the center of the universe. Following this anthropocentric ideas, Land artists focused on translating the Western concepts of thought into representational, aesthetic objects made of natural materials and spectacular in scale. However, at some point in the art revisionist process, numerous examples of famous interventions of Land artists into American nature started to be perceived as violent, colonizing and disrespectful acts of manifesting exceptionalism of American male individuals. Further reexaminations show more complex readings and avoid one-sided judgments.
My goal is to show the complexities of this historical process on the example of Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty: (1970) and propose my own interpretation focused on its environmental foundation: the saltwater of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, Utah, where it's located. By showing you a perspective on the following stages of reception of "Spiral Jetty" in a nonlinear way inspired by its twisted form, I will explain how this particular work becomes not only a model work for overlapping passages of readings, changes of art definitions, shifts in contextualized meaning and reasons art is created, but also a new materialist participatory piece of art, engaging public attention and action. In fact, through Jetty's "concern with retrieval" [Guilbert-Rolfe, Johnston, 1976: 73] and disorientation, I will inscribe this piece is our struggles with the Anthropocene, a period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on the climate crisis and the environmental changes.
Three methodologies are going to be particularly useful to explain my artivistic project for the epitome of Land art. The first one is Donna Haraway's notion of "situated knowledges", that arises from her criticism of objectivism and social constructivism, replaced by her with located, embodied and partial perspective that encourages the politics of solidarity [Haraway, 1988: 585]. Her theory of standpoints updates so accurately in the face of global warming. The second one is the feminist new materialism that since the 1990s. has been offering the set of theoretical accounts, among which the call for "return" to matter and "embodied circumstances and subject formation" [Sanso, 2018] will help me to accommodate the practices of participatory art to the current state of climate global warming crisis.
Last but not least, I am going to apply the recent concept of "dark ecology" coined by Timothy Morton to explain that the logic of reevaluation of philosophy, politics, and art that we call ecological awareness takes the forms of Möbius band, a strange loop or a riddle. Having these shaped references in his mind, the author analyzes the conditions, paradoxical coexistences and multiple scale phenomena of today's ecological crisis caused by the climate crisis. They help him to accurately describe how human's depression and desperation binds together with anarchy and comedy. [Morton, 2016] His way of telling a story of things strangely connected to each other focused my attention on the saltwater of Great Salt Lake, which is a secondary medium of the artwork discussed and a primary medium for tracing the environmental changes and embodied circumstances of the common struggle to survive.
Soren.harwardat en.wikipedia- Transferred from en.wikipediato Commons. Spiral Jetty from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April2005.
The first characteristics of Robert Smithson's famous work stress the fact that it is an earthwork sculpture with some swoops of modernistic references to Minimalism and Conceptualism with their auto-referential features classifying a gesture of the artist as a negative intervention in the landscape near Rozel Point. A heavy criticism of being a modernist macho, who, as Anna C. Chave noticed, performed violence towards nature, Smithson received due to how he achieved the shape of the natural jetty by using heavy machinery to move the rock from one place to another. Comprised of over 6,000 tons of rock, earth, and mud from the site arranged in a counterclockwise coil extending 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake, this work was no different form presumably liberating traditions of constructivist avant-garde or industrial Minimalist [ Anna C. Chave: 1990].
"Spiral Jetty" was not perceived only in terms of the negative legacy of Modernism. Shortly after Smithson's tragic death in a small airplane crash in 1973, his work has been submerged by the water lake for decades, and when it emerged again in 1999 it was already discovered as a posthumanist work fitting to some of the characteristics of new materialism. The effect of the violence of "bulldozers loudly ripping through the Earth" [Uroskie 2005: 70], paradoxically evolved into a new ecosystem of its own, described it details by Felicity Colman in the new millennium, who perceived in this work a time machine with multiple gears. Her shift of attention from the artist's usurpation of nature to the appropriation of nature resulted in a new reading with much attention paid to the multisensational analysis of the environmental aspects of Smithson's work. Going beyond the world of humans, her embodied observations focused on the salty crystals growing upon the art form on the Jetty, the activity of the rabbits and other forms of life inhabiting the spiral form, which, as she noticed, provokes non-anthropocentric configurations of perception, involving chaos, uncertainty, and ambiguity [Colman: 169].
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Frame form CBS film "Railroad divides Great Salt Lake into two parts: pink and blue” source: youtube.
The causeway built to link the shores of the Great Salt Lake in the 1950s. – a continuation of the transportation project launched already in 1902 – divided it into two parts, blue and pink. This way, the decision to improve the economy of the region through a shortcut caused the imbalance in the local ecosystem, where the pink color marks the saltiest water ever, creating the habitat of the halophile bacteria responsible for its color. The lake is sometimes called American's Dead Sea, although it is inhabited by plenty of migratory birds species or brine shrimps, who feed them and the annual income of Utah. Together with the extraction of minerals, such as salt, chlorine, magnesium and potash, the export of the shrimps creates a pillar of the economy of this region. However, due to the imbalance in the chemical composition of the water, the population of brine shrimps is decreasing - "tiny crustaceans can't survive in water that's too salty or too fresh" [Building America: 2016].
The logic of dark ecology offers anarchist support of Smithson's concept of entropy and traditional logic of monument to keep life energy in the form of dull infinity [Smithson: 1966], which nowadays we are encouraged to relate not only to ABC art sculptures or supermarkets, but also to many other shapes, not so apparent, however persistently contributing to the alarming states of the ongoing ecological catastrophe [LeRoy 2011: 39]. If this way, the spiral shape of a living fossil of Land Art, now located at the dried part of the lake with its receding and evaporating waters at least to some extent may remind you of a shrimp, just as it does to me, it means that the questions about the bad entropy and good entropy have already been provoked. In another manner, how would we make our efforts to maintain art historical discourse for the generations of the collectives of humans and non-humans on the verge of extinction to help life to survive?
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert
I would like to twist the argument of violence into one of violation of both art history's attachment to the "Spiral Jetty" prestige supported by the DIA Foundation who stewards it, and eco-critical aversion to reactionary art. Starting with the observation that visibility and appreciation of the Jetty strangely depend on the water level, let me suggest that neither the eye of the mythical powerful whirlpool allegedly connecting Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean and inspiring the old stories of the Jetty, nor the spines of the dinosaurs from the children's book can picture the scope of contemporary eco imagination provoked by this work better than a shrimp - a critter unlike the Jetty so modest in scale, withdrawn and vulnerable to changes. Would you admit their affinity? Moreover, the reference is not abstract, but concrete. It is anchored in the nonreducible fact that both artistic practices and theory have been undergoing changes over five past decades. The growing ecological awareness has supported this process in helping to include the multitude of different non-human organisms in the structure of Smithson's work.
Somewhere on the way to this point in my article stands Smithson and his thoughts about Land art work as a critical response to both mummifications of art institutions and commercialization of nature [McShine, 86]. In terms of specific conditions of how art and culture were made in the 60s. his perspective and commitment are obviously ambivalent. Commenting on the selection of the site for the Jetty, the artist wrote: "This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes." [Smithson, 1972]. Seemingly ambivalent must be than his anger with Europeans, who saw a return to nature in nostalgic terms of prehistory, timeless geology, or false ecological ideology, e.g. Joseph Beuys dusting the Nazi ideas of planting oaks on Fuhrer's birthday. [Markowska, 2020]. Eventually, what good stuff Smithson's Land artworks brought to Native Americans, whose sites he occupied and to whom he had respect? [nierodzińska, 2020]. To conclude this part of my article, we need to notice that the dispersed definitions of art will not solve the ethical questions, just as theory is not completed without practice, which in this case could be exemplified by a project of a real chance for counterbalancing the long historical process of environmental harm that the work supports.
Frame from "Spiral Jetty" 1972 film by Robert Smithson.
My project of updating Smithson's idea of the anti-monument emerges from the further recognition of the site of the Jetty. Except for the railway, it is saturated with the history of technology: the wreck of a Dodge truck, abandoned oil derelicts, like diggers, drilled wells, offshore drilling instruments, and natural oil seeps. All of these elements are signs of the masculine petroleum bad entropy. Not at all an ecofeminist landscape, although the massive protests of the environmental organization against the renewal of the drilling and oil industry in 2008 make it so, at least to some extent challenging the argument of art world protesting against "uninterrupted viewing experience of the art" [Capps, 2008].
Another layer of technology related to Smithson's work owns its status to his technophilic vision materialized in his 32 min. film of the same title as his work, providing an aerial macroscopic view of the "Spiral Jetty" [Uroskie 2005:72]. It made possible to see his work "being saturated in the giant lens of a Great Salt Lake" [Guilbert-Rolfe, Johnston, 1976:72] The top view of the Jetty submerged in the pinky water ignores the micro-experience of liquid, dense and disgraced environment of water ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake, which looks like an acid vision supporting transaesthetical and transhistorical experience of the work. However, one of the final frames of this disjunctive god-or-mechanical-bird-like view shows Smithson standing at the end of the Jetty, and in his essay on this work we can read what follows: "A withering light swallowed the rocky particles of the spiral, as the helicopter gained altitude. All existence seemed tentative and stagnant. The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing into tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into a unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus at the end of the spiral." [Smithson, 1972]. His description is ahead of art historical consciousness of his time. Not only it supports the classic interpretation of Rosalind Krauss, who elaborated on the contribution of "Spiral Jetty: to the process of decentralization of human subject through involving natural exterior space [Krauss, 1981], but also anticipates new materialist theories and understanding of technology as not at all an innocent tool to examine the reality.
The third layer of technology, not directly related to Smithson's work, is a computer model designed in the late '60s and early '70s by Kidd Waddell, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey "to simulate how the Great Salt Lake's water and salt flowed through the causeway and its culverts" to help to keep the chemical balance in two basins of the lake, so the shrimps have a chance to survive [Inside Track: 2016]. However, this is not a technology designed to preserve fragile lake life at first instance, but rather to support sustainable economic growth. Here, the question at stake is one about the good entropy and environmental commitment of technology stewarding to water, helping to deconstruct the privileged objectives of science and previously fortified bounders of social and political life, which nowadays is sensed as fragile and so much in need of innovative preservation programs. [Haraway, 1988: 576]
What gives hope to the existing nature-culture ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake is good entropy. By letting the water transform the conditions of the reception of his work beyond his control, Smithson could not predict the extent to which its manipulated salinity will transform the visibility of depleting natural resource Jetty mediates in heteroglossia conversation with the past, presence, and future.
Keeping in my mind Smithson's concern with commercialized white cube art galleries, I see my contribution to these multiple voices by stretching his idea of entropy beyond the 21st century onto commercialized water basins incorporated in the global system of consumption. I assume this perspective is hospitable enough to make shrimp-like Jetty a relational, credible and rational reference among the wastelands more and more drilled out of the water. Moreover, with the support of associated critters, it could help to fill the gap existing between theory and practice since the posthumanist attempts to rewrite the work's materialistic dimension according to nature's agency included exclusively intellectual operations.
To make this perspective come true, I am going to invite academic scholars from Art Department at UCLA, Santa Cruz the artistic activists form E.A.R.T.H. Lab, Santa Cruz as well as activists from Rozel Point, Utah to set up a rhizomatic group, transforming "Spiral Jetty" from the relic of Land Art into newmaterialist piece of participatory art. While the first two above-mentioned subjects have knowledge and experience in experimental forms of environmental theory and attracting the public sphere with eco-art, the latest anchors the need for situated knowledges in the local reality. The group will conduct theory-based research on the environmental aspects of the "Spiral Jetty" in the era of global warming, resulting in artrivist practices to secure the wellbeing of the fundamental elements of the ecosystem Jetty is a symbiotic part of. The project will be supervised by the expert on environmental performance, prof. Elizabeth Stephens, a Chef of Art Department at UCLA, Santa Cruz, who together with the artist, Annie Sprinkle, made a documentary film, The Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure (2017), incorporating a sensual experience and pleasure in the educational process.
E.A.R.T.H Lab – collaboration across disciplines source: https://earthlab.ucsc.edu/
My project will include:
feminist technology-based documentation of the current state of the water of Grand Salt Lake including microscopic images, experiments, embodied visualization of pollutions, exploration of the impact of local industry on the chemical composition of the water,
various different types of artistic works on the underwater life of the Spiral Jetty between 1973 and 1999 and its off-shore life now,
reclaiming Smithson's film Spiral Jetty through an emphatic ritual interacting with the pinky water bringing human and non-human actants of the participatory process into a journey back to the unicellular beginning of the world and the organic matter.
'Er in Utah Ego today translates In the Water We Trust.'
Keep your fingers crossed.
I would like to thank prof. Anna Markowska for consulting this text.
Building America. 2015. Striking a Balance on Great Salt Lake. 14, 06.2016, https://www.up.com/aboutup/community/inside_track/causeway-6-14-2016?fbclid=IwAR2ecqEsiU3yQq6uLlLZnR4tlfTHqDQWXraA8QQ8-XNsA-GjQt3-0MMSztc, (access: 17.01.2020).
Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, "Feminist Studies", vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn: pp. 575–599.Capps Kriston. 2008. No Art for Oil, "The American Prospect", March 19, https://prospect.org/culture/art-oil/ (access: 17.02.2020).
Chave C. Anna. 1990. Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power, "Arts Magazine", vol. 64, no. 5, January: pp. 44-63.
Colman Felicity. 2006. Affective Entropy. Art as Differential Form, „Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities", vol. 11, no. 1, April.
Guilbert-Rolfe Jeremy, Johnston John. 1976. Gravity's Rainbow and the Spiral Jetty, "October 2" (Summer) pp: 71–90.
LeRoy Frederik. Wynants Nele. Hoens Dominiek. Vanderbreeken Robrecht. 2011. TICKLE YOUR CATASTROPHE!: Imagining Catastrophe in Art, Architecture and Philosophy, Studies in Performing Arts and Media, Book 9.
Markowska Anna. 2020. Private information based on the scholar research on Smithson's during the work on her book Komedia sublimacji. Granica współczesności a etos rzeczywistości w sztuce amerykańskiej, DiG, Warszawa 2010.
nierodzińska Zofia. 2020. Private conversation.
Krauss Rosalind E. 1981, Passages in Modern Sculpture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London.
Sanso Kameron. 2018. New Materialism[s], Apirl 25, "Critical Postumanism" Genealogy of Posthuman, https://criticalposthumanism.net/new-materialisms/ (access: 20.01.2020).
Smithson Robert. 1966. Entropy and the New Monuments, „Artforum", vol. 5, no. 10, June 1966, s. 26–31, za: Unpublished Writings, [w:] Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, J. Flam (ed.), University of California Press, Berkeley, http://www.robertsmithson.com/essays/entropy_and.htm (access: 18.05.2016).
McShine Kynaston. 1999. The Musuem as Muse. Artist Reflect, The Musuem of Modern Art, New York.
Morton Timothy. 2016. Dark Ecology. For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press.
Uroskie Andrew V. 2005, La Jetée En Spirale: Robert Smithson's Stratigraphic Cinema, "Grey Room", No. 19 (Spring): pp. 54-79.