by Erik "earth work" Lopez
What do Robert Smithson, 6,500 tons of basalt and earth and some salt in a lake have in common? The Spiral Jetty, of course! Completed over a span of six days using some dump trucks and a front-loader among other "artistic tools," the Jetty stands as one of Utah's largest "lasting" legacies (next to Karl Momen's Tree of Utah). On a good day, when the water level is below 4,000 feet, you can see the salt-encrusted weariness of the basalt and earth mix that starts at Rozel Point in the Gunnison Bay and slowly coils inward three times in on itself. This is a small glimpse of a man and his earth art.
Smithson chose the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding areas for his art not only for its unique color, a red or pink due to algae and brine in the high salinity water, but also for its unique mythology and sense of history. One such myth concerns the lake's connection to the Pacific Ocean. The notion that the lake must be connected to the Pacific Ocean by a subterranean channel at the head of which a huge whirlpool threatened the safety of lake craft was not dispelled until the 1870s. Also, not too far from the Jetty there is an abandoned sea-salt extracting plant. The ground around it is littered with discarded machinery, dead birds and amazing industrial debris. The environment around and leading up to the Jetty plays a key role in experiencing and interacting with what has now become known as one of the most famous pieces of "land art."
Theoretically, Robert Smithson drew heavily from the idea of entropy. Entropy for Smithson is not so much a slow and steady disordered decline, but instead a much more positive decay. Ideally, the Jetty will stand not just as a monument that will disappear after decades of dormancy, but instead will cause us to forget the future in an active display of fighting against dynamism or change that typifies the struggle for art's legitimacy. Instead, Smithson is rooting for, and achieving, what Dan Flavin calls an "inactive history" – that the earth will return to its same state after a period of being marked. By using natural instead artificial material, Smithson's work straddles the line between a past and present, a presence and absence. One way that this works itself out can be seen most readily in the way the Jetty, for long stretches of time, is underwater and unable to be seen, but at the same time it is one of the only things, artwork or otherwise, than can constantly be seen from space. All the while it continues to be whittled away by its own ponderous historical weight.