Exploring the West's land sculptures -- made by artists and industry

  • Spiral Jetty: Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't.

    Steven R. Harris
  • The Roden Crater by James Turrell (under construction since 1979 in the Arizona desert).

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Workmen stand near the draped 340-ton granite rock that would become the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's newest installation, Levitated Mass. Heizer conceived of the work in the 1960s -- around the time of his Double Negative -- but wouldn't find the right rock until decades later

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Stills from the 1968 film Mono Lake, shot by Smithson, Heizer and Holt on a trip West.

  • Benches and dump trucks at the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, which fascinated Robert Smithson.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • ATK rocket garden on the route to Spiral Jetty.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew that actually built the Spiral Jetty, tells his story to a group of art historians and architects from Switzerland.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Approaching Sun Tunnels, by Nancy Holt.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A highway underpass on a back route to Michael Heizer's Double Negative mirrors the sculpture.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Double Negative as it appears today.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Spider encountered while the author was searching for Double Negative.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Industrial West salt flats gas station

    Jonathan Thompson

 

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SPIRAL JETTY

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us.” -- R.M. Rilke, Duino Elegies

Two days after my negative Double Negative trip, I stand on a concrete platform at the edge of the three-quarters-of-a-mile-deep pit of the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine near Salt Lake City. Trucks the size of houses rumble along the terraces that line the pit's slanted, snow-dazzled slopes, and the after-springtime-storm sunlight imbues everything with a sort of fuzzy softness.

Many of us are drawn to such weird places. Some 40,000 people per year pay the $5 entry fee to see the Bingham Pit. The Center for Land Use Interpretation leads tour groups into landscapes like this one, onto nearby bombing ranges -- even to oilfields in Los Angeles. The day before, I had marveled at the way a hazardous waste incinerator's smoke plume reached up and touched the tempestuous sky. Is our attraction to ruined landscapes similar to that of a passerby gawking at the steaming, blood-strewn remains of a car crash? I wonder. Or is it just a variation on the classic nature lover, entranced by the play of evening light on a rugged mountain peak?

Joseph Imorde, a German expert in Baroque art and a visiting scholar at Los Angeles' Getty Museum, stands next to me on the platform, here with a group of about 20 Swiss art historians and architecture students. This is their first stop on a weeklong tour entitled "Art, War and Energy in the American West." I've stowed away for a couple days, including this stop at the mine. "Sublime," mutters Imorde, gazing out at the pit. Then he says it again, his face overcome by what appears to be reverence. It's the same word John Wesley Powell used to describe the Grand Canyon during his 1869 expedition.

Philosophers have long tangled over the definition of "the sublime," but they generally agree that it is something that both attracts and repels us, that is beautiful but somehow terrifying. The light playing on the snow-covered terraces of the gaping Bingham Pit is, indeed, beautiful. It's also scary, an instance of human-caused geological change occurring in real time. Even back in 1974, a mining executive estimated it would take $7 billion and 66 years, at the rate of 400,000 tons per day, to fill in the pit -- if, that is, anyone ever tries to "reclaim" this landscape. The Anthropocene, indeed.

"We find ourselves simultaneously awed and disgusted; impressed and depressed" by sites such as these, writes Jonathan Maskit in Line of Wreckage: Towards a Postindustrial Environmental Aesthetics. "The power of technological culture to transform nature is made manifest here in its starkest form. And yet, we do not turn away. We both rue what is no more and are smitten by what is." Maskit proposes that we formally classify such sites as the "Interesting," or "that characteristic of an object of aesthetic appreciation that leads us to think otherwise."

Land artist Smithson was a devotee of the Bingham Pit, drawn as he was to "low-profile landscapes ... the quarry or the mining area which we call an entropic landscape, a kind of backwater or fringe area." He wanted to build a revolving disk in the base of the spent Bingham Pit that would monitor and record nature's long reclamation of the site. Kennecott wanted nothing to do with it, and anyway, it wasn't done mining: Even now, the company has plans to expand operations. A mining company in Creede, Colo., did offer its tailings piles to Smithson for reclamation art back in 1973, but the artist died before he could do the project.

Six years after Smithson's death, Robert Morris, a conceptual artist with his own notable "portfolio" of land art, tried to resurrect Smithson's mine-reclamation dreams, seeing such work as a great way both to restore spent industrial sites and fund art.

"What ... could be done for the Kennecott Bingham site, the ultimate site-specific work of such raging, ambiguous energy, so redolent with formal power and social threat, that no existing earthwork should even be compared to it?" Morris said. "It should stand unregenerate as a powerful monument to a one-day nonexistent resource ... the mines ... the Four Corners Power Complex, the dams of the ‘30s. ... All of these structures are testimony to faith in science and technology, the practice of which has brought the world to a point of crisis which nobody knows how to resolve.