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We can’t ‘save’ Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and it would be wrong to try

8 October 2015

Human intervention into the natural landscape is a hot topic in contemporary art. Deliberations over whether we now live in the Anthropocene era – a new period defined by man’s irreversible impact on the geological record – and theoretical movements such as speculative realism – which seeks to consider the world from perspectives other than the human – all reflect the broad consensus that our species has made, and continues to make, considerably too great an intervention into the natural environment. The vogue is to consider how we might remedy or rein in our inclination to reconstruct the physical landscape of the world to serve our purposes, be they practical or aesthetic.

In that context the recent debate over whether direct action should be taken to protect Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, perhaps the quintessential work of post-war American Land Art, seems rather like a throwback to the old days. The fact that it is endemic drought that threatens the Great Salt Lake in Utah, home to Smithson’s beautiful, coiled extension of land into water, is darkly ironic: one human alteration to the landscape negatively impacted by another. Constructed during a previous drought in 1970, the work was submerged by restored water levels and only emerged again a decade ago. The fear now is that a new and more extreme water shortage means that the pinkish salt bed that surrounds the jetty is too exposed, changing the character of the work.

I visited Spiral Jetty in 2013, as part of the Land Art trip run by Gerson Zevi to take artists around those canonical examples of the movement located in the deserts of the American southwest. Smithson’s work is situated in the north arm of the largest inland body of salt water in the western hemisphere, many miles removed from the nearest occupied building and unencumbered by visitor centres, gift shops or signs. On first glimpsing the jetty from the crest of a hill, I was thrilled by its unexpected delicacy, its absolute prettiness. Photographs of the work tend to emphasise its monumentality, and discussion around it to focus on the none-more-macho scale and physicality of its construction, which required earth-moving machinery to plough 6,500 tonnes of rocks down a hill and into a lake. In the context of a vast expanse of shallow water, however, it seems no more than a tiny, crustacean extrusion into an almost unbounded flatness.

Smithson's work was submerged for years, but has resurfaced as water levels in the region fall.

Smithson’s work was submerged for years, but resurfaced as water levels in the region began to fall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

That daintiness was exacerbated by the blushing halo to the jetty created when the low sun glanced off the exposed, pink-encrusted salt crystals around its basalt rocks, and it is this to which some now object. Smithson is reported to have chosen this section of the lake precisely because of its pinkish gleam, but whether he did or didn’t should have no bearing on the decision of the three organisations charged with maintaining the work (Dia Art Foundation, the Great Salt Lake Institute and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts) on whether to take direct action to increase the water level around the sculpture.

The notion of further altering the flow of water around the lake to preserve the illusion of unchanging permanence that we attach to works of art strikes me as perverse. It is, or should be, a basic ethical principle of works constructed in the natural environment that they should be subordinate to it. Meaning that as the landscape changes, so the work must change. Those tasked with Spiral Jetty’s maintenance have a responsibility to preserve the sculpture’s physical integrity, but no licence to alter the conditions of the world around it to suit an imagined ideal of its presentation. A landscape is not, after all, a white cube gallery – one can’t just tweak the light levels or touch up the walls. In the short history of Spiral Jetty is encapsulated that of its environment, the fluctuating water levels testament to broader and potentially cataclysmic wider changes, and one can reasonably assume (given his recorded statements) that Smithson would have welcomed that fact. To treat Spiral Jetty like a museum-housed objet d’art would be profoundly to misunderstand its intention; to change the world to suit the work would be a travesty.

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