Brenda  Brown

The site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness.  From that quivering space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty.  No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. . . . It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsation and the lake remained stock still.

Robert Smithson, "The Spiral Jetty," 1972
The work of artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) includes writings, films, drawings, photographs, sculptures inside galleries, sculptures outside in expansive landscapes, and various fusions of the above.  But the most famous is Spiral Jetty.  Extending out into Great Salt Lake like an enlarged 3-D negative of a finger-drawing in sand, the sculpture's photographed image has come to signify the first generation of earthworks as well as the Smithson oeuvre and ethos.  Yet this influential artwork, whose scale and remoteness compressed Smithson's ideas into a minimalist distillation, is also a changing construction in a unique landscape.

The jetty, which was covered by lake-waters a few years after it was built, re-emerged last summer and autumn due to low lake levels induced by drought.  Heralded in October by Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times Magazine ("After spending 30 years submerged in murky water, 'Spiral Jetty,' Robert Smithson's great earthwork, has reappeared" read the subhead) this event, however temporary, prompts observations on Spiral Jetty as newly experienced as well as reflections on its history and effects, here especially as pertaining to landscape architecture.

Built in 1970, Spiral Jetty reaches into Great Salt Lake from Rozel Point, on the lake's northeastern shore in Box Elder County, Utah.  As the crow flies, it sets some 65 miles northwest of Salt Lake City and about 40 miles south of the Idaho border.  Desert lies west across the lake; so do some of the mountains whose November snow-topped peaks can be seen 20, 30 and more miles distant, and Hill Air Force Range, whose speeding jets are occasionally seen and heard.  It is reached via 15.3 miles of unimproved roads southwest of Promontory, location of Golden Spike National Historic Site.  Although the actual golden spike stayed in less than a day (quickly dispatched for display at Stanford University to glorify magnate Leland Stanford) the site marks where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met in 1869 to establish the country's first transcontinental rail-line.  

Southwest of the gap between North Promontory and Promontory Mountains, the land opens up and descends into what looks an old flood plain and then, closer to the lake, into mudflats.  Aside from changes in how far the water reaches inland, the scene appears little changed from when, nearly twenty-five years before Smithson found it, Dale Morgan described it in The Great Salt Lake, marking the landscape as one of the few superb places to view the lake.
. . . it is worth bumping and bouncing over the old road to Promontory to go on a few miles beyond the gray, pyramidal     Golden Spike Monument and experience the shouting presence of the northwestern arm of the lake.  Except for the twisting, rutted road and the unsteady line of dusty telephone poles, this is the lake of history that lies abruptly under sight.  The gray-green sage and greasewood seem withdrawn and unfriendly, the darkly green blotches of the juniper immensely unrelated to human existence, the far curve of the lake shore new and undiscovered; you know this is how it always was, back to the time when the first immigrant company went to California this way.

. . .  The lake is too difficult to approach to be taken for granted; the tang of surprise and the shock of recognition are part of its character (p. 20).

Last November, viewed from Rozel Point's gently curved headland, the spiral-form jetty, sun-lit, partially emerged, seemed both smaller and larger than all those low aerial photos and film shots suggest. The landscape as a whole - the hills, mountains, sky, floodplain, mudflats, and most of all, the lake, are larger, more complex, changing and captivating than anticipated; in fact they come close to dwarfing the jetty.  It appears small, obviously human-formed and oriented to the scale of the human body, whatever one knows of the famed heavy machinery and tons of materials it took to build it.  In this it sharply contrasts to the abandoned oil-rig site, less than a mile away, jutting into the lake straight and far, a picturesque, sublime, industrial age ruin, seemingly scaled for incessant use by super-sized machines.  But the jetty, now covered with white salt crystals, gleaming, glistening, a spiral made of spirals, interlocked macrocosm and microcosm, is also big enough to alter water-flows and in so doing it renders local spatial variations to the lake-water's color.  And if one descends the headland and walks the 15-feet-wide coil 1500 feet to its end, especially as emergent rocks become increasingly small and few, Spiral Jetty becomes even larger.
* Excerpt from beginning of article, “Cultured Pearl,” by Brenda J. Brown.  Published in Landscape Architecture magazine, May, 2003, pp. 70-75, 104-109.
previous 2.JPG
next 2.JPG