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It was the rose-tinted water that first drew Robert Smithson to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Stained by microbes that bloom in the salty water, the lake resembled “tomato soup”, he wrote. Smithson, who emerged with the first wave of great American land artists in the late 1960s, was searching for a suitable site to make a monumental work and was struck by the prehistoric atmosphere at Rozel Point, on the north shore. Salt crystals form strange, foamy mounds in the shallows. Black basalt rocks, spat from primordial volcanoes, lie like rubble. The Great Salt Lake is a “terminal lake” – in other words, no rivers flow from it. Smithson’s art until that point had been suffused with references to geology and popular science. This vast earthwork jutting into a remote lake was his most ambitious to date. To him, the site was “a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty,” he wrote, and pencil sketches show how he developed the snail-shell form on the spot.
In April 1970, after three weeks of shovelling 6,000 tons of rock with the help of a digger and front-loader, Smithson’s work coiled out from the lake bed. Water levels at the lake were then low, and a film that Smithson made at the time shows sunlight glinting off the shallow waters that swirled around his raised rock path. He intended it to be sturdy, to withstand visitors tramping along. The whole walk is 457m long, along a 4.5m-wide walkway, a counter-clockwise tendril resembling a prehistoric glyph. It is nothing that could be mistaken for a natural rock formation. Smithson guessed that Spiral Jetty would eventually be altered by the environment, but he probably wouldn’t have anticipated that it would be submerged by rising lake waters for so long. In 1973, at the age of just 35, the artist was killed in a plane crash while scoping out another site in Texas. For the next 30 years his greatest work lay underwater, only visible from directly above via aerial photography.
Fifteen years ago a drought began which has lowered water levels in the lake, revealing Spiral Jetty again and bringing back a trickle of visitors. Those who make the drive out here
often find themselves contemplating it alone, in silence. Since 1999 the Dia Art Foundation, an American non-profit organisation with a special commitment to site-specific art of the 1960s and 1970s, has been responsible for its care. Not that Spiral Jetty is preserved in the way a precious painting might be, or even most other pieces of public art. The basalt rocks aren’t cemented in place, or cleaned up, and it is free to visit. Smithson was fascinated by the idea of entropy, and Spiral Jetty is exposed to the impact of weather, climate change – and human visitors.
“You can show up in the middle of the night, any time of day, 24/7,” says Kelly Kivland, associate curator at Dia. “You might be alone. A lot of people have that experience, and that allows for a singular perspective. GPS has changed things, but it still takes about two-and-a-half hours to drive from Salt Lake City. You can’t land a helicopter nearby.” Besides, surely it would defeat the point to alight at this jetty so conveniently; everybody who makes it here reports that the journey is as spectacular as the final destination, itself a road to nowhere.