Art in Limbo

It’s true.  The state of Utah now owns Spiral Jetty.  For the last decade, the Dia Foundation has paid Utah’s Department of Natural Resources $250 a year to maintain the 20-year lease on the land surrounding the earthwork.  In February, the Dia received and paid its annual invoice, only to have the payment returned in June with a note that the lease had expired—a fact that had somehow escaped everyone’s attention, including the DNR’s.  According to an article by Jennifer Dobner of the Associated Press, the oversight may have occurred due to the fact that the DNR’s Sovereign Lands coordinator, Dave Grierson—the man who should have sent Dia a notice about the lease renewal—passed away last year.  Conspiracy theories about drilling aside, the Dia maintains that it has a “collegial” working relationship with the DNR and that they are in the process of re-negotiating the lease.  But for the moment, the Jetty belongs to Utah, a fact that has the art community unsettled.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Image copyright Danielle Sommer.

I first visited Spiral Jetty in August 2007, thirty-seven years after Robert Smithson installed it and thirty-four years after his death. I’d heard that the water level was low enough that the jetty was visible again, so I made a point to visit it on my way from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois. I’d seen photographs, as well as the film of the construction that Smithson had made with his wife, Nancy Holt, but the physical experience caught me unprepared. Visiting Spiral Jetty in the flesh provides an experience of time unlike any other. Everything seems to halt, even as it remains in motion.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Image copyright Danielle Sommer.

My approach via the long dirt road was almost exactly the same as what Smithson depicts in his film: the loud noise of a metal carriage on a washboard road, the horizon line of Wasatch Range, the dust pouring out from behind me. For a long while the lake maintains its distance, and then all of a sudden you are upon it. I expected to see Spiral Jetty immediately, but this is not actually the case; first you need to pass a half-submerged fence, and then a derelict oilrig.  After seeing so many pictures where the Jetty fills the frame, its smallness compared to its surroundings was a little startling, but not nearly as startling as the color palette: the sky was blue, the lake was pink, and the jetty, a bright, bright white. Whereas in Smithson’s photos and film, the Jetty is the brown and gray of newly excavated dirt and rock, the Jetty I saw that day was encrusted with salt. Gleamingly white. Sunglasses white.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Image copyright Danielle Sommer.

What was most striking, however, was the silence.  Obviously, the sounds of the city were missing.  But so were the sounds of things like birds and insects.  Finally, after five or so moments of standing, listening to the vast and deep nothing, I could hear a splish-splash, like a tiny, passive kid waving his hands around in the bathtub. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, mostly because my sense of how far sound could travel in this area was drastically off. That is, until I heard a swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh that turned out to be scores of pelican wings flapping in unison.  There are rookeries nearby, and if you’re visiting at the right time of year, you can see—and hear—the pelicans passing back and forth overhead as they search out food, or just paddling about in the water. I heard them coming for over a minute before I actually saw them.

Robert Smithson on the Spiral Jetty (1970). Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgoni.

After the silence welled up again, I spent an hour or so walking Spiral Jetty, the sound of my feet crunching against salt crystals occupying the silence. From the jetty’s center, you see the earthwork from an entirely different perspective, losing any synthesized, overall view.  There are a few angles available in the story of Dia’s kerfuffle, including a level of bureaucracy that many of us find chafing.  Then again, most of us wouldn’t be able to manage the kinds of projects that Smithson and his ilk pulled off, which often involved negotiation with all varieties of publics. There’s also the awkwardness of having to put one’s faith in a gentleman’s handshake, which is where the fate of the Jetty currently sits.  I’d like to believe that Robert Smithson would find the whole situation at least a little humorous.  After all, his number-one articulated interest was the disintegration of systems. Then again, what a man articulates to be his main intellectual purpose and what he chooses to do when his livelihood is threatened rarely match up.