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The Spiral Jetty


1. A Paragraph of Observations Becomes A Paragraph of Questions Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty is a mark made in space subject to natural processes of materials. Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty tests the boundaries of compositionality and what an experience of an art work can be in appearing as a mark in space, a series of photographs that many visitors take and publish, and a video and essays Smithson himself created about the Spiral Jetty. Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty makes us think, after weve read what Smithson thought, of entropy, violence, the redness of redness as redness has it. Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty is an exploration of materiality and is it a shape of time, it can be said to be, as philosopher Gary Shapiro suggests, but rather Spiral Jetty, as a spiral, presents in its length of 1,500 and its width of 15 the shape of a dialectic between site and non-site [1], which is to say, this dialectic between non-site and site and its pointing toward interior and exterior space implies a positionality for the artist and as you walk along Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty you physically experience a turning in and out, a looking round, a negotiation. Where does the artist fit into this exchange between site and nonsite? What is the relationship between an artist and the art worldnot a question of total escape since that is impossible (isnt it?), but a question of prepositionality: beyond, outside of, or else across from, toward. In resisting the museum (where all the pretty pictures hang, forever, see?), the Spiral Jetty as a site contests the museums idea of art as existing in an historical line of legitimacy and art as an inheritance that should be preserved. At the same time, Smithson himself made a film about Spiral Jetty and wrote about Spiral Jetty, thereby passing on the images of Spiral Jetty to the art world he seems to resist (Shapiro 55). And Im not interested in how Smithson has been incorporated into the art-historical narrative as the pioneer and theorist of earthworks (Shapiro 21). And Im not interested in looking for any statement the art work might make. Isnt looking for statements that an art work makes merely a way to further impose ourselves on the work and doesnt the work itself resist that and impose its own scale as its statement and oh how nice this is very sublime and when will you make your pilgrimage to see it? Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty is a mark made in space subject to natural processes of materials. Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty tests the boundaries of compositionality and what an experience of art work can be. 2. The Problem of the Human Figure: You Can See More When You Stand at the Periphery What are we viewers to say about the immediate experience of the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, one where, say, we havent read the many fascinating articles on the work? To what extent does the work rely on people writing about it to be fascinating even as the fact of a still-on-going conversation about the work does signal something Great about the work?

The answer depends on several parts. It depends on how the viewer focuses and considers the work, it depends on how the viewer looks with or without disinterested contemplation (Clement Greenbergs phrase, which he used in making a case for abstract art) and it depends on the critical background of the viewer as well as if the viewer is seeing it in real life or in a photograph (Greenberg 69) [2]. My question focuses on the Spiral Jetty in Utahthe ostensible center of Smithsons projectbecause unlike the photos and maybe even the video, it can let the viewer experience what Smithson calls the surd of the Spiral Jettythe irrational zone where ambiguities dominate and contradictions bubble out (Spiral Jetty 3). The work makes us value how the body can occupy the space rather than the way the eyes can look at a representation and occupy it via a trained imagination. The Spiral Jetty is an installment against our narratives and our impulse to narrate. By narrative, I mean both an established sequence of events and a grand ideologically-shaped representation of history. For example, the Spiral Jetty contests the sublime, which is a mood prompted by some overwhelming or awe-inspiring natural feature (Survey 8); after all, the Spiral Jetty never rises more than a few feet out of the Great Salt Lake and though it is made of natural materials, it certainly doesnt seem possible that it could have arisen there out of natures pockets [3] (Shapiro 25). At the same time, its scale seems to play into the sublime by inducing disorientation and defamiliarization for us viewers [4]. We move through the space over time and as we engage the space, we are grounding a certain concept of process as well as performance and what does this say. This says that the Spiral Jetty enjoys teasing us by situating the self quite curiously in relation to scale and to ideas of time: geographic time, human lifespan time, art-historical periods (The Spiral Jetty doesnt like periodizing). This is to say, relationality is central and a lack of narrative exposes a new open physical experience for the viewer. This is to say, the Spiral Jetty does have a narrative of entropy and its entropic ends twinkle way out beyond our lifetimes. Until there is no one to report to anymore, one of these days [5]. 3. Words Color The Truth: The Critics Position, The Artists Position Smithsons Spiral Jetty is an invitation to analysis and our impulse to analyze as general viewers and as critics. Or is this distinction misleading? The difference between a general viewer and a critic is, finally, intentionality, but what diverges after that? I am a general viewer but am playing the part of a critic. Should I adopt a view of noninvolvement, so that the spiral seizes more directly into my view? To trust the eye and ear and the distinterestedness of the mind is certainly one way to go (Smithson, The Spiral Jetty, 1972). The Spiral Jetty is disinterested, too: it says nothing and lets others say and sa y, and it remains united with the temporal surfaces that entropyit is this faint quality (of mercy?) that is most disconcerting to me, especially since its so large in scale Smithson himself is anything but disinterested in his impulses. Smithson doesnt seem to be interrogating his medium (that of the earth) the way that Greenberg said modernist painters did. Smithson is well aware of his materials meanings (the dirt, crystals, salts, etc., can reinforce and challenge the shape of the thing it makes and the shapes of what surrounds, like the horizon). And in writing about the process of making the Spiral Jetty, he narrativizes that process as triumphant (sound the horns) and makes his fascination quite clear in his excited scribblings

about fluttering stillness (Spiral Jetty 1972 3). I think, though, he is more interested in the inevitable melting into ambiguity where no ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions [can] hold themselves together [6] (Spiral Jetty 1972, 3). And laterentropy. The Spiral Jetty as a mark made in space is not the same as the Spiral Jetty Smithson recordsthis is to say that there is a difference between a thing and what we say about a thing, even though what we say about a thing influences the thing itself. There is a difference between what Smith envisions and what the viewer envisions; this gap always rides along, attending to the work, and intentionality doesnt matterit is the effect of the art on the viewer that matters. I do not mean that intentionality cant be interesting; it can, and Kenneth Bakers Talking with Robert Smithson clarified for me much of what Smithson intended and what he, and Baker, saw in the artentropy, dialects, abstraction, groundedness, scale. But the point is that the viewers intentionality is as at stake as the artists. The world where only the artists intentionality matters is the world of the void. To what extent is entropy the final word on the project? We should also think about whether our critical adding-ons will become the Spiral Jetty itself when it finally falls apart assuming we dont intervene and try to preserve it. It seems that our critical writings are just more temporal surfaces for the Spiral Jetty to make its point. Only when we no longer discuss the work will the entropy even begin to end, and even then the fate of the Spiral Jetty rests in whichever band of time we are looking at: for in the ultimate one, that of the cosmos, all that matters is that it once existed and that it was and was not ours.

NOTES [1] Site: a work located in a specific outdoor location: the Spiral Jetty is an example. Nonsite: a work able to be displayed in a space like a gallery. RS: the information on the site is scattered, whereas the information in the Nonsite is contained (Interview, 148) (emphasis added). The site and the nonsite point to each other; Smithson is thinking about nonsites in relation to his work with mirrors, which Ive chosen to exclude from here not because its not relevant but because I want to work with other materials to cast some light on the Spiral Jetty itself. [2] Clement Greenbergs advice, given in the context of responding to abstract art, becomes complicated in the context of the Spiral Jetty for several reasons. Smithson himself was wary of the idealizing tendencies of abstraction and had a complex relationship with abstraction. On the one hand, he notes abstraction fosters a sense of absolutism, of arriving at a state of purity that involves a kind of insular studio consciousness (151). He also points to the role of the photograph in erasing abstraction; since abstraction is so involved in spirit-building and convincing people theyre on the right track and that they have some kind of purpose, the photograph comes along and completely erodes that whole hope (156). His focus seems to hinge on the actuality of the Spiral Jetty even as he worked on complicating it by producing more representations of it in film, photographs, and writings. (We are using abstraction here to help us find the right track.) [3] The effect of the sublime relies on nature as a backdrop and enabler of scale as well as an active agent in its composition. The sublime also has a relationship with spirit-building and the right track that RS cites in the note above. [4] We have three distinct sets of eyes: the general viewer, the artist, and the critic. Ill hop over to these distinctions later in the essay. [5] The Spiral Jettys reach toward entropy also offers an interesting indictment of technique and in turn, the hand of the artist who enacts said technique. The Spiral Jetty suggests not so much that technique ultimately doesnt matter but that technique can be, when left to mingle with nature, an interesting interaction that lets nature claim co-author status in a prominent move against these narratives of sublimity and periodizing. [6] RS: As I looked at the site, it reverated out to the horizons only to suggest an immbole cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and the lake remained rock still.No sense wondering about classifications and categories, there were none (Spiral Jetty (1972) 3). The lack of classifications and categories shouldnt be taken as a signal to reject the problems for us viewers: classification and categories, ideas and concepts, structures and systems, because only for the Spiral Jetty itself in Utah do these things not matter. But whenever we appear in our pilgrim gear these problems reappear.