In any textbook that aims to pack the history of art between its covers, you will probably find one work of modern art that belongs to Utah. It is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a work of rock and sand created on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Think of it as our very own Mona Lisa.
In 1970, Smithson had 6,650 tons of earth and volcanic rock pushed into the shape of a gigantic coil, projecting out from a place called Rozel Point into the shallows of the lake. Back then, he was one of a handful of post-minimalist artists who created “earthworks,” defined as art taken out of the gallery and made in remote and dramatic spaces, many of them in the American West.
Thanks in large part to a film Smithson made about the construction of Spiral Jetty, his work became iconic. Yet very few culture-vultures have experienced it in person; The New York Times, for instance, dubbed Spiral Jetty the most famous work of American art that no one has ever seen.
So I felt justified one Sunday morning in packing my family into the car for our jetty journey. Smithson designed his work to be hard to get to, seeing the long and lonely trip as integral to the total experience. He was certainly right about the “long.” We left Salt Lake City and eventually got ourselves to the Golden Spike Monument, 32 miles west of Brigham City, where helpful park rangers pointed out the artwork on a map. They also soberly suggested we bring plenty of water with us and a full tank of gas. If your car breaks down, they warned, there is only one guy in Tooele willing to come with his tow-truck, and he charges $500 cash up front.
The rest of the trip was an hour-long slow creep along a boulder-laden dirt road. If you have an SUV in the garage, this is the time to bring it out. Over the radio we happened upon a marimba solo and turned it up loud. The spare and resonant sound of that instrument complemented the cold blue sky and the contrasting brush that in November -- a month blessedly free from bugs -- came in one hundred shades of brown.
About one-half mile from our destination the rocks and potholes began to look impassable, so we left the car and walked. My daughter shrieked as a jackrabbit leaped from the sagebrush in front of us. We felt as though we’d dropped out of the habitable world. Gray sand, primitive, spiky flora, not a soul in sight.
In 10 minutes we could see our goal just over the ridge. Maybe this is how it feels to come across a crop circle, I thought. A spiral is such a frequent occurrence in nature -- think of whirlpools, fiddlehead ferns, seashells -- but against the rolling and uneven landscape of the lakeshore, this great whorl in the water seemed the creation of an off-planet force.
As we clambered down the rocks to get closer, plant life fell away and a manmade moonscape lay in front of us. The drought of past years has sucked away the water that at first surrounded the jetty’s outline. Salty gray sand glittered and crunched beneath our feet, but we could not only balance one foot in front of the other, we could also walk on the dry space in between.
It reminded me of the medieval labyrinths in cathedrals that I have always wanted to visit. When we got to the hub of the spiral, I couldn’t help feeling that we had arrived at some important and significant place. If the poet T.S. Eliot identified “the still point of the turning world” as our ultimate spiritual destination, Smithson figured out a way to bring us there, if only for a few moments.
In museums, conservators wage a losing battle against the ravages of time on masterpieces. But Smithson built creation and destruction, ebb and flow, into his work. When he completed Spiral Jetty decades ago, it was surrounded by water that had been tinged pink with algae and brine shrimp. Then the floods of the 1980s submerged the jetty completely, rendering it invisible for 10 years.
Now, it’s back, and the dry lakebed gives us a chance to go inside it. If you can, walk Spiral Jetty. Let it reel you in and send you back out. You will experience rocks, earth, sun, sky and water, all the building blocks of a living art.
Erika P. Munson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News. She writes in Sandy, Utah.