Looking for Spiral Jetty
I first came across Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) as most people do, in an art history book. There it was, fifteen feet wide, 1600 feet long—a giant stone-and-gravel earth work coiled in on itself, lying in a lake, a frozen vortex. Though I was a little suspicious—wasn’t art supposed to hang in museums?—something about it intrigued me. Its scale for one thing, not to mention Smithson’s audacity. What’s more, it seemed old from the moment it was created, almost as if the Great Salt Lake had been brooding over a favorite archetype for aeons and had just recently allowed it to hatch and surface. This was in the early 1980s. During the next twenty years, whenever I flew into or out of the Salt Lake Airport, I always scanned the water from the plane. Never mind that the jetty was completely submerged, and had been since 1972. Never mind that I was searching the wrong end of the lake. I believed if I zenned myself into tranquility, and willed the lake into cooperation, I might get lucky and glimpse the jetty. Maybe it really was the gigantic snake it resembled and, under the cover of water, moved at will. I saw nothing. But seeing nothing, I thought of Atlantis. Which left me sad and exhilarated and wanting to believe in mystery.
Spiral Jetty is commonly referred to as the most infrequently seen major contemporary art work in the world. Recently, broad prevailing climatic patterns conspired to change that. By fall 2002, after five years of Utah drought, the Great Salt Lake was at its lowest level in thirty years. And Spiral Jetty was once again visible. After a friend’s rhapsodic recommendation, I decided to see for myself. I had on my side a delicious Saturday in October and a short two-hour drive from my home. I had a map and detailed directions pulled off the Internet. I had my artist wife Jacqui to serve as guide, and our two children, Derek (12) and Brooke (9), to provide color and commentary. I had the devotee’s sense of pilgrimage, the adventurer’s sense of wanderlust and let-happen-what-will-happen.
Between the third and fourth drafts of this essay, I grew weary of italicizing Spiral Jetty. It was more than the inconvenience of reaching over to click the mouse. Italics seemed to lie, or at least distort. Certainly Spiral Jetty was art, but increasingly Spiral Jetty was place, and at times spiral jetty felt like land form. I can see my quandariness taking me far afield into abbreviation, pet names, neologism, so I have made a pact with myself: to be of three minds only. Sometimes ambivalence marks affection.
I drive I-15 regularly and manage, during most trips, to ignore what I see. But this trip, with Spiral Jetty as destination, even the most mundane objects stood out, multiplied for once by their secret life as art. A cheaply-made, white brick church: worship inside a nautilus. An inflated stegosaurus overseeing an end-of-month used-car blitzkrieg: mysteries of the past. A labyrinthine corn maze: a manifestation of the collective unconscious. Even the freight train heading south, graffitied with illegible ballooned up names, seemed apropos. Here was the work of a graffitti artist or lonely hearts poet, who, like Smithson, intuited the pull of the conceptual: sending a piece of oneself on tour, entering hundreds of cities on the sly, interrupting a dazed fieldhand outside Abilene or an under-aged couple necking at a railroad crossing in Peoria. It was as if Spiral Jetty were magnetic north, causing everything in its wake to vibrate with newly charged ions.
jetty \je-te\ n, pl jetties. —n. 1: a structure of stones, piles, or the like, projecting into the sea or other body of water to protect a harbor, deflect the current etc. 2: a wharf or landing pier. 3: a protecting frame of a pier. 4: a part of a building that projects beyond the rest. 5: a protecting outwork: bastion, bulwark. [1375-1425; late ME get(t)ey < OF jetee, lit., something thrown out, a projection, to throw]
Just past the halfway mark to Spiral Jetty, Jacqui pointed out the window: “See the B?” Half a mile away, a white, concrete letter seventy feet high emblazoned the foothills of the Wasatch Front. I suppose Westerners began this tradition of placing initials above their settlements out of pride. Pride for a town, or a high school—in this case Bountiful, which the highway mercifully skirted. “When Lee Biggs was in his seventies, he used to walk up there every morning,” Jacqui said. Lee Biggs was her grandfather. She always called him by both names—a formality that made him more skinny and cantankerous and down-home wise, especially now that he was dead six years. “He’d walk up to the B, then over to the V,” Jacqui said. “Three miles in all.” It took me a while to find the V. “What’s the V for? Some school mascot— Vandals, Varmints, Vagrants?” “No idea,” Jacqui said. The letters were ludicrous and charming, and grew more so the longer you looked at them. Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce wanted to extend an invitation to very high-flying, very literate Canadian geese. Or lay down verbal clues against a case of collective amnesia sweeping the town, rendering everyone forgetful of where they lived. What would these letters have meant to Lee Biggs? Their prominence was not unlike a beautifully useless jetty on a saline lake. The difference: Lee Biggs and 37,000 Bountifulites knew what B and V stood for. The difference: few observers would call the B and V sublime.
Jacqui read aloud a Smithson essay she’d brought along. His work in 1968 with salt lakes in California, spurred by interest in Bolivian saline lakes stained red by micro bacteria, led him eventually to Rozel Point, on the north end of Great Salt Lake, where he discovered water “the color of tomato soup.” Here, on a shoreline dotted with industrial debris and machinery left over from attempts to extract oil from the lake, he had a vision of sorts:
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. This passage was followed by patches of extraordinary purple prose. Yes, Smithson was illuminating, chancy, richly suggestive, but also abstract. Abstract and overreaching. Our drive north became a study in contrasts. Outside the car, a predictable suburban landscape of tract housing, trailer parks, strip malls. Inside, a torrent of descriptions so dense and bizarre, so torqued with technical and hallucinogenic language that I felt I was inside one of those fast food salad containers that has been violently shaken until every sentence drips with too much dressing.
Perhaps I’m just as guilty as Smithson. Two days before our trip I found myself trying to explain Ihab Hassan’s “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism” to sleepy English majors. One student was completely baffled. “Okay,” I said, “let’s try an example.” I wrote Robert Smithson’s name on the board. “Anyone heard of him?” No one raised a hand. “How about Spiral Jetty?” Three hands went up. “An earth work created in 1970,” I said, “in the Great Salt Lake,” then I sketched in relevant background. On the blackboard I rendered Spiral Jetty the best I could—a bass clef with a bad case of inner turmoil. I mentioned Cristo and his two-and-half-mile fabric fence in Marin County, and Walter de Maria’s New Mexico field filled with lightning rods. Then I launched into a series of questions. “How is this piece different from a painting? Where does its meaning inhere—in conceptual framework or execution? In putting together enough funding to move several tons of the earth’s surface from one location to another? In Smithson running along it and looking up at a helicopter? In the black-and-white photo that graces dozens of art history books? In being underwater for thirty years, then reappearing? In afficionados flying in from all over the world to view it, as they’ve been doing in great numbers this fall? In a professor like me asking questions he can’t answer about a piece of art he’s never seen?”
At Promontory, Utah, ten miles shy of Spiral Jetty, where the Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific in 1869, where immigrants and former slaves put down their picks for thirty-five minutes so Leland Stanford could drive a golden spike, we stopped for a restroom break. Afterwards, we approached the counter at the Visitors’ Center.
“Can I help you?”
The park attendant, mid forties, had the croakiest smoker’s voice I’d ever heard.
“Yes,” I said. “What can you tell me about Spiral Jetty?”
She reached for a photocopy of a New York Times piece from a few weeks before, and handed it to me. “Now that it’s reached masterpiece status”—she paused to make quotation marks in the air—“everyone wants to see it.”
She went on to explain the impact since late August. Thousands of people pouring in from New York. Frantic long distance calls asking which airport to fly into, though there’s only one. Visitors getting run off the road. “Those New Yorkers waiting till November to book a flight are taking a chance. If we get an early snow, the county will just close down the road.”
She looked hard at me. “You need to know there are no facilities down there, no fresh water. And the salt, it’s dangerous. If you fall down it cuts like broken glass.”
It wasn’t until this point in the conversation that she let slip that she herself hadn’t seen Spiral Jetty.
“Really?” Jacqui said. “It’s only ten miles away.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” the attendant said. “I want to see it. And our supervisor, he’s seen it. We might go as a staff at the end of the month.”
In the near-empty parking lot, I started up our Toyota van, then slowly drove the perimeter, in a giant circle, cranking the steering wheel a little more tightly to the left with each revolution. Derek and Brooke put their hands up and leaning did the wave. Finally, we came to a dead stop, as if we had located some cosmic epicenter and expected to be beamed up into a celestial pleasure bus.
“What was that about?” Jacqui said.
“Getting us in the mood.”
Immediately after Promontory, the road turned primitive. We navigated by cattle guard, fence line, and broken corral. And because our car was originally from Canada, we multiplied dirt road and dead sunflowers and anthills by .61 to convert map miles into car kilometers. We dodged boulders, slid carefully over potholes, and thanked the shaky hand that painted SPIRL JETTY and an arrow to the right on a rotting piece of wood. Twenty-five minutes later, we parked beside an abandoned and preposterously pink mobile home, one side torn open. This, according to our directions, was the final landmark.
“Was this in a war?” my daughter asked. She rubbed a cluster of bullet holes in the chassis of an amphibious vehicle the size of a tank. We’d pulled off to the side of the road, gathered our supplies into two backpacks for the walk down to the shore, and locked the car. This vehicle and the spent carcass of a Dodge truck beside it resembled dinosaurs that might have pulled themselves from the saline muck and expired. I wanted to say, Depends what you mean by war.
“Probably not,” I said. “Just someone taking target practice.”
“Where’s the jetty?” This time it was my son. I hate it when he gives voice to my own questions. Here we were, but where was it? Between us and the lake, which he was dutifully scanning, lay a cornucopia of rusted machines and oil barrels, car parts, cable, and from a seepy hole beside the lake, a stench so rank Brooke plugged her nose. Directly in front of us lay a jetty—one used to transport drilling equipment, but no spiral to it, no curve at all. From the end of the jetty, and running parallel to the shore, a line of ancient timbers stuck up from the water. Smithson’s perspective was dead on: shoreline as modern wasteland. Yet there was something beautiful in the bleakness, not unlike a post-nuclear landscape in an Andrei Tarkovsky film. You’re trapped by the camera into slowing down. And in slowing down, you go inside yourself.
We picked our way along the shore, everything masquerading as what it wasn’t. Dirty sand: salt. Snowdrifts that have melted and re-frozen: salt. Patchy pieces of ice: more salt. The dirt in the snow drifts: millions of dead flies. A broken kite: a dead pelican. A kid’s matchbox car striped yellow: a decomposing Jerusalem cricket. My son lifted it in his hand. It was huge for a cricket, and terrifying. He wanted to take it home till he felt how mushy it had turned. When we reached an especially white patch of salt, I picked up a crystal the size of a rice grain and tasted the world. As bitter as it was clean. A couple hundred yards away, a series of white bumps extended into the lake.
Yes, Spiral Jetty—and above the lake line, but only in places. Most of it buried in six to eighteen inches of water. Every inch of every exposed rock coated in thirty years of salt, and wherever we cast our shadows, shadowy blue. The jetty seemed worn out, art hardened back into landscape. Where was the early 70s jetty, the jetty I’d been carrying around in my head, the one I could run from beginning to end, with my own feet, just as I’d seen flesh-and-blood Smithson do. Or as flesh-and-blood as video allows: Smithson running the backbone of his creation. Or not running, but hopping from rock to rock since the jetty even then was uneven, bigger boulders on the edges to anchor the smaller ones. Over the broken surface he goes, a helicopter capturing all this from above. Smithson, looking back over his shoulder, shoulder-length hair streaming. Is he being chased? Is this his celebration run after being marooned? Smithson hurrying now, turning inward, left, always to the left. Smithson stopping finally at the center, where there’s no where else to go.
Nothing prepares you for the color of the water. Like tomato soup, Smithson says, thanks to micro bacteria. Yes, but tomato soup made not with water, or milk, but cream. A salmony color you’d be happy to find in front of you in an Indian restaurant, thick with chunks of tandoori chicken. An eerie, beautiful color licking salt-white boulders. I kept expecting to see a freshly slaughtered whale nearby. And glaciers. I kept expecting to feel cold.
More than see Spiral Jetty, I wanted to walk it. To walk it, to run it, to hop from rock to rock as Smithson had, to circle inward, and find myself at the end of something, winded and surrounded by water. Yes, we had brought extra shoes, as my friend had recommended, but I didn’t think I’d need to wade the entire jetty. I put on ancient Nikes, Jacqui and Brooke pulled on snow boots, and Derek surprised us all by staying on shore to look for Jerusalem crickets. At first we tried to keep dry, but there was danger in rock hopping, and soon the rocks would be too far apart, so we splashed into the cold water, and began slogging through the salt. With each step, our feet sank a little. The jetty was a white underwater path, marked by the darker water on either side—red and murky and ominous. Ominous? How ridiculous, I thought. If I fall in, I fall in. Sure I’d get wet, but the water was only four feet deep, if that. This was the pep talk I gave, first to myself, then to Brooke. The sensation kept creeping back: we’re in the Arctic. The further we walked out on the jetty, the more ice flows we saw. No, pieces of salt floating.
Throughout the afternoon, lines from “Anecdote of the Jar” kept slipping into my mind. “It made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill” and “The wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.” A Wallace Stevens poem I didn’t much care for as a student, though it’s grown on me since. A poem of liminal spaces and transformation. Which is how I think of Spiral Jetty: a jar Smithson and crew placed in a Tennessee called Utah, though somehow that gives too much agency to Smithson. Since arriving, I had come to think of Spiral Jetty less as Smithson’s brain child, and more as lovely devastation—an odd, corkscrewing piece of civilization turned wild. And this tiny section of Great Salt Lake a natural place made richer and more problematic by human incursion.
“Like wading in jewels,” Jacqui said.
Which was a romantic and beautiful way to say it, except that the smaller jewels kept getting in our shoes. Grittier than sand.
“They hurt my feet,” Brooke said.
So we’d stop periodically, sit down on a rock and wash the salt crystals out of our shoes by sloshing them in water many times brinier than the ocean.
I stopped at the outside rim of the spiral. Water wherever I looked. Smithson, staring at the same water, had conceived of Spiral Jetty. An immobile cyclone. Flickering light. A landscape that appeared to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness. A spinning sensation without movement. A rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. Though I distrusted his tendency to skate for paragraphs from one abstract epiphany to another, largely leaving behind the landscape and a contextualizing eye, I did not distrust his underlying intuition. There was a fluttering stillness here. I scanned the horizon, cataloguing where it was I was. To the east, beyond the shore, the highway that had brought us here, and beyond that, the Wasatch Front. To the south: Antelope Island, too far away to see, where early settlers ran cattle, and which was now home to a herd of buffalo, herded once a year into a corral where a man with a portable computer read the microchip in each left ear. To the west, the Salt Flats, where daredevils and engineers gathered yearly to squeeze a few more miles per hour out of rockets strapped to cars in hopes of breaking the land speed record. But those places were far away. I had to take them on faith. For now I was on the edge of a landlocked ocean, the remnant of Lake Bonneville. Wispy clouds helped to delineate the sky. All I could hear was wind and the licking of water.
Halfway toward the center of the jetty, we heard a hum from the west. Jacqui picked out a small plane. When it passed over, dipping its wing for a better view, we waved. After its fourth pass, Brooke said, “Is he trying to get us in trouble?”
“No,” Jacqui said, “just looking.”
Looking, but from far away. And here we were, wading. Wading and complaining about salt crystals in our shoes and feeling found and then lost again. How many works from art history let you walk all over them? It struck me then that the people in the plane were completing a lazy museum stroll, albeit from a private plane. And our waving was part of their Spiral Jetty.
Tired, bored, her feet hurting, Brooke sat down on a giant mushroom of salt to wait. There were fewer boulders now to mark the edges. Jacqui and I walked along without her, keeping to the salt path. All at once, dark water on three sides instead of two. We stopped. Part of me wanted to step into the deep. Jacqui kissed me.
“What was that for?”
“Bragging rights,” she said.
I am tempted now, as I wasn’t then, to draw conclusions. To say that Spiral Jetty is like Crick and Watson’s double helix. Like Yeats’ falcon, turning and turning in a widening gyre. Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Like the whiteout my father experienced on a highway in an Idaho snow storm, so disoriented he pulled over and closed his eyes to prove he wasn’t moving. Like a journey that takes you where you want to go by going somewhere else. Smithson himself said it was like the portrait Brancusi drew of James Joyce as nautilus shell. It took twenty-five minutes to wade to the end of the jetty (or was it the beginning?), fifteen to wade back to shore. Spiral Jetty is like all these things, and none of them. As Emily Dickinson said, “We both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”
“Look, ” Derek said, as we neared shore. He pointed to a giant smiley face he’d drawn in salt and beside it his own spiral jetty. Then at a rock. “Before, it had feathers sticking out from under it, so I started digging. Underneath I found another dead pelican. I buried it again, but deeper. Now no one can tell.” “Any other creatures?” I asked. “Nope,” he said. “Too salty.”
We rinsed off our legs the best we could with drinking water and changed our shoes. Or rather, Jacqui and Brooke changed theirs. I kept my squishy Nikes on. We drank some juice, then began the hike up the hill to see the jetty from above. I held myself back from looking, willing myself forward another fifty yards, a hundred yards. I liked the restraint, seeing by looking away. We followed a horse trail, dodging manure, and kept climbing through the bitter hot smell of sagebrush. We stopped and turned around. We were seeing the same picture we had just been a part of, the same picture we had shown the kids a week before, at breakfast, when we explained the trip. Our younger son, five, whom we had left home, had seen the picture from across the table. He thought it was a giant question mark in the sky. When he learned a jetty sits in water, he cried. Most things, I wanted to tell him, just “sit in water,” until inflected by context. By wet feet and hunger, by legs itchy with dried salt and by a giant question mark touching down from the sky like a tornado and by Derek yelling, “I almost got him,” then running toward us with his thumb and finger lifted, as if in blessing. In his hand he held a piece of lizard tail the color of earth, twitching still, as if it had a mind of its own.
Lance Larsen’s most recent collection of poems is Landscape for Several Pairs of Hands (University of Tampa Press 2004). His poems have appeared recently in Paris Review, Southern Review, Grand Street and Agni, and new poems are forthcoming in Orion, River Styx, and Many Mountains Moving. His essay “Looking for Spiral Jetty” placed first in the 2003 Writers at Work nonfiction competition. Professor of English at BYU, he is married to mixed-media artist Jacqui Larsen.