Art Land. On the Gradual Destruction of Robert Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty

Wilfried Dörstel

Just as I have always been far happier in art than in nature, nature has, all my life, been uncanny to me, while in art I have always felt secure.

(Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters)

Whenever I’m in the southwest of the United States and get a chance, I drive from the south in the direction of Wyoming to the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah to visit Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. That’s the name of the earthwork, the physical part of his piece—distributed across three “media” or genres—titled The Spiral Jetty. The joy and surprise of encountering it differently each time, either submerged or lying in the water, either covered with white salt in the pink shimmering brine or—as in the past two summers—dark against the grey crusty bottom of the lake, with the brackish water having receded almost a hundred meters, has been coupled with incomprehension and increasing annoyance since the beginning of the new millennium.
  Using the first photos of the spiral jetty after its completion as a source to compare the condition of the piece in its surroundings at the time of origin in 1970 with its state in 2016, and supplementing them with information from the text component of the work, the essay The Spiral Jetty from 1972, in which Smithson precisely characterizes the terrain of Rozel Point as the selected site of the piece, one must assert that its contexture, and with it the meaning of the material object as medium, have been erased at this location on the lake.


What has been erased is the interplay of the jetty designed as a spiral made of stones and soil with the surrounding site and the entropic processes that made up the hermeneutic core of the work, so to speak. The intertwining, both ontological-geological-climatic and intellectual-structural, formed a structure of material and virtual elements, a politics of a specific relational structure of heterogeneous elements that provided the site, entropy, and the artistic intervention.
  What remains today, after the amputation of the body from an extremity to be viewed, as it were, is the earth spiral in the lake as a photographic-picturesque part of a corpse; the object that art history and photography meanwhile insist upon as “Spiral Jetty,” the photographically trued-up art object whose operative, structural, or aggregate state is, cinematographically and metaphorically speaking, de-framed like an hors-cadre. For the visitors pilgrimaging there as well as for art historiography, “Spiral Jetty” is preformatted by the photographic and filmic gaze—trapped by the need to capture a personal meaning, a spiritual impression, contemplation, or the beauty of the site-specifically inhospitable, local universe in the rectangle of a banal, all too flat, all too simply contoured picture.
  Therefore, my annoyance, even outrage in the past summers is twofold, related not only to how the site and consequently the artwork have been treated, but also to a deeper, art-theoretical aspect. Not only because the reception of the earth spiral has allowed itself to be determined by its documentation, meaning based on the photo format, an approach to the work that Smithson had prospectively judged as a perception of the whole “from the decorative design point of view” (1969) with which the perception “from the point of view of the physicality of the terrain,” for example, is deleted; but also because the “decorative design point of view,” the (art-historical) point of view formatted by the photographic-picturesque framing of the image, has precipitated a number of altering interventions in the surroundings of the earthwork in the real terrain at the Great Salt Lake; because the ideology of the aesthetic camera eye and of aesthetic experience, which can be equated with the ideology claiming that art is first and foremost something to look at, did not shrink from reshaping the lake’s environment and topography intertwined with the earth spiral in such a way that it fits to its gaze format. And reshaping it in such a way that it also corresponds with both the institutionalized, minimalist, pure display of artworks and the demands of the automobile accessibility of nature in American national parks.

First erasure

In the past decades, there have been three altering interventions in the area of the earth spiral that have reduced this interplay.
  Smithson selected Rozel Point not only because of the reddish-pale pink water at this location, but above all based in the “incoherent structures” that he encountered in this deserted landscape. Where the gravel path meets the lake, at and on the jetty that had been built into the salt lake, he found rusty machine parts, old workshops a bit further out, dispersed rests of pumps, pipelines, oil barrels, tires, iron, wrecked cars, and skeletons of trucks. On a number of predominantly black-and-white photos taken by Smithson or Gianfranco Gorgoni, and even as late as the 1990s by others, one sees this junk of an industrial wasteland bearing witness to the production of bitumen in the 19th century and oil drilling in more recent decades, verifiably by the Lakeside Oil Company in the 1920s. What was left behind on the shore is a central motif in some of these photos, depicted against the surface of the lake and the distant mountains. It forms the initial horizon of the earthwork. In 1972 Smithson noted that the Salt Lake piece “is right near a disused oil drilling operation.”
  The point of reference of Smithson’s spiral jetty was therefore not emptiness, meditative contemplation, or escapism, which is conventionally associated with such semi-arid landscapes. He had intertwined the spiral not with (a) landscape, but concretely with this deserted terrain, a wasteland after an oil drilling operation was shut down—“and the whole northern part of the Lake [became] completely useless” (Smithson 1972). In his writings at the time, Smithson refers to this landscape as run-down, soiled, and devastated. For his other works, Smithson also selected areas with the remains of an historical unconscious, landscapes that “no matter how calm and lovely, conceal[s] a substrata of disaster” (Smithson, 1971).
  Until the first intervention took place. These “incoherent structures,” which functioned like a picture frame for the earthwork Spiral Jetty and with which the earth spiral was intertwined, disappeared at the end of 2005 in the wake of a large-scale cleaning of the entire shore area and the disassembly of the “oil jetty.” It is said that the cleaning was carried out by the state of Utah. What has remained on the since then well-tended shore area are the rows of most likely deeply driven stakes of the industrial jetty that can still be seen when walking on the spiral located around 500 meters to the northwest. Its silhouette may now paint the romanticism of a no longer walkable, ruinous jetty or an old, protective stage construction in the glimmering air.

Second erasure

The second reshaping intervention took place around five years later by the Dia Art Foundation and guarantees that the earthwork can be easily accessed by car. In the summer of 2011, I was surprised that I no longer had to leave my car in front of or near the industrial jetty and walk the remaining four or five hundred meters. Until then the last stretch had been an extremely bumpy and in the end almost inconspicuous dirt track hardly negotiable for vehicles with little chassis clearance. All of a sudden I could comfortably drive on a broad gravel path up to fifty or sixty meters in front of the work. What would be an adequate comparison? As if a highway had been built to the first base camp on Mount Everest.
  Due to the donation of the Estate of Robert Smithson, the earthwork The Spiral Jetty has been owned by the Dia Art Foundation since 1999. Since 1994, the foundation has been promoting, supporting, managing, and preserving art projects that would otherwise not be realized due to their size or make, including, for a long time already, the Lightning Field by Walter de Maria in New Mexico, Michael Heizer’s City project in Nevada, and more recently James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona. When the Dia Art Foundation took possession of Smithson’s earthwork, it announced that it would not only preserve it, meaning that the jetty would remain walkable, but also facilitate its accessibility. Quickly implementing the latter, motivated solely by the touristic need for convenience, it abolished a state without public debate that had been impressed in the ground by the required use of heavy construction equipment to heap up the spiral jetty on the embankment and that Smithson had left this way as both constructive and destructive marks. These traces of the construction measures, of the work, which are impressively documented at the beginning of Smithson’s film (the third part of the artwork) and in their connection with other topoi of the film—the mythical, geological, mineralogical, cosmic, and prehistoric—play a significant, sense-making role, are now eliminated.
  I would like to just briefly point out the principal problem being widely discussed in regard to contemporary art, and in particular to Land or Earth Art: Can works that change, disintegrate, or disappear over time be maintained or restored, and if so, according to which provisions? Heizer heated up the debate on Earth Art/Land Art a few years ago, when he considered trimming and hardening the walls of his Double Negative, which had been strongly eroded by the sun and the weather, with concrete—in contrast to Smithson, who always took the destabilizing, influential forces of natural and civilizational processes into account.

Wilfried DoerstelFig. 1

Smithson. Spiral JettyFig. 2

What poses a much bigger problem—because it is all but violent—is that the turning circle at the shore, on which the visitors park their cars at the dead end of the gravel road, seems to perceptually counter the spiral circle of the earthwork in the lake. The earth circle now interacts not with the history of the site and the present climate and its changes, but—in terms of the aesthetics of perception—with the shape of a bright gravel circle. The conditions under which the earth spiral is perceived have been newly determined. If one walks a bit uphill to view the spiral in the lake from a bit farther above, the relationship between these two ellipses that offer themselves as design elements on the level of perception gives rise to the absurd question of whether an internal connection or a connection meaningful to the artwork exists. In this case, the American idea of a national park that brings tourists by car as close and as conveniently as possible to the attraction creates an aesthetic calamity.
  As opposed to 2008—when the Canadian Pearl Montana Exploration and Production Company announced it would drill for oil on two oil platforms in the lake around five miles southwest of Rozel Point and parts of the art world, environmentalists, the public, and nature protection organizations voiced protest, wrote letters and petitions, and art magazines and daily newspapers published articles against the plan—as  far as I know, no one has yet complained about or protested against the subcutaneous destruction of the contexture of the earthwork and the deforming design created for the sake of easier accessibility. While in the face of the scenario of renewed oil drilling in the northern part of the Great Salt Lake the art magazine Artforum in April 2008 rightly presumed that Robert Smithson would probably not have been annoyed, but would have appreciated it, the two described interventions do not challenge a room for thought opened up by the work—in which the work grasped as a process of ongoing relations comes upon its echo. They instead alter the essence of the work. They conventionalize it by eliminating the other, dialectical side, the necessary non-site factor of the piece, and on the quiet deform the earth jetty to the ideal of a (photogenically) isolated, static object in a neutral space. This is all the more true of the third, most recent intervention that clearly goes in this direction.

Third erasure

During my visit last summer (2015), I noticed another new element blinking thirty yards uphill from the parking lot and turning circle described above: A belly-high column made of polished, light granite anchored in the ground by a plinth between the dark rocks on the hill—model: “overlook information panel.” The front plate facing the lake distinctly retraces the shape of the spiral. In just ten short lines, the bronze plaque on the column relates information on the artist, the origin, the dimensions, the material, and the reasons for the changing views of the earthwork to visitors looking at the spiral in the lake. Responsible for this is “Griffin Southern, Eagle Scout Project 2014,” which identifies the column as a well-meant “service project” of a social endeavor for the good of “the community” by the Boy Scouts of America. (In autumn 2015 someone apparently covered the shaft of the column with a heap of stones.)

Wilfried DoerstelFig. 3

Wilfried DoerstelFig. 4

Wilfried DoerstelFig. 5

In this constellation, Smithson’s earth spiral no longer speaks to us based on the intertwining with the surrounding site and within the horizon of the film and the essay that Smithson added to the earthwork as further components of the work. The location “without classifications and categories” (Smithson 1972), the shore of semantic dilapidation, is given an indicative gesture with the text panel and diagram that refers to the earth spiral as an isolated visual object, and thus a mental framing with which an order is generated once and for all: That which can be seen is enclosed in the museal dispositif. Its familiar display of educational text explanations according to a model that is also applied outdoors to monuments, memorials, or artistic designs of city squares, robs the spiral jetty—like a Freudian slip revealing the mentality of museal sense-making—of its structural and processual character, de-actualizes it and attaches it to the past, it focuses on the changes of the water level as the only context, and cements the view that what constitutes an artwork can be grasped by perception.
  It’s as if the sound were turned off—the sound of an “oil dance,” in which the drumming ritual is sampled with industrial ruins, the call of the white pelicans, and the architecture of the cosmos to the beat of the vertical and horizontal, the salt and the metal, the global and local, construction and destruction.


The spot one is now supposed to look at is no longer anchored in the work The Spiral Jetty. The earth spiral in the lake has been peeled out of the artistic phenomenon bearing this name, which also manifests itself through the dialectics or the interplay of site and non-site, and reduced to the status of an object. The “trued-up” framing, the repeated retouching on site, tells us that this object is to be dealt with by the experience of walking on the jetty (or “participating”) and above all through visual perception. Art as a history of the intellect and contexts of knowledge no longer exists.
  The surroundings of the material, earth-bound part of the work The Spiral Jetty are restructured by the described interventions to exclusively subject them to a specific, once again traditional and canonical, interpreting approach. The musealizing interventions shroud and encase the earth spiral and are geared to a specific understanding of meaning, or ensure the familiar cultural pattern required to this end. Because the framing takes place through the creation of facts and is materially permanent, it has a grossly distorting effect. In everyday life this is called manipulation. Manipulation of the site and thus of the gaze. The Dia Art Foundation has been responsible for this framing since 1999.

Fig. 1 
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Photo: Wilfried Dörstel, 2007

Fig. 2
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Photo: Wilfried Dörstel, 2013

Fig. 3, 4, 5
Griffin Southern, Eagle Scout Project 2014
Photo: Wilfried Dörstel, 2015

Wilfried Dörstel works as a freelance art historian. He is the author of the book  Ein Labyr ist kein Labyr. Carlheinz Casparis Modell ethisch-ästhetischer Selbstbildung zwischen Constant, Cage und den Situationisten published in 2010 by Walther König.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann