Spiral Jetty, earthwork extraordinaire

On the north edge of the Great Salt Lake, Robert Smithson's masterpiece sits peacefully, awaiting visitors willing to make the long trek to see one of the world's great land art pieces.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

A view of Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson's masterpiece earthwork, which is on the north side of the Great Salt Lake, about two-and-a-half hours from Salt Lake City. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ROZEL POINT, Utah--From afar, it's hard to tell what it is. And even as you approach it, it's not clear exactly how special it is.

Yet, walking through Spiral Jetty, artist Robert Smithson's masterpiece earthwork, which juts out into the north side of the Great Salt Lake, reveals the extent of its glory.

A 1,500-foot-long spiral built in 1970, Spiral Jetty has, over the years, disappeared under higher waters on the Great Lake, only to appear again. These days, the thousands of volcanic basalt rocks that make up the piece are fully there, though they don't stick up as high out of the water as they did in the beginning.

I got a chance during my Road Trip 2009 project to be shown Spiral Jetty by Salt Lake City art historian Hikmet Loe, an expert on the piece I was put in touch with by the Dia Art Foundation, which manages Spiral Jetty. We visited it on a gorgeous day, accompanied only by a few other people and scores of soaring pelicans. For years, Loe has been giving talks on Spiral Jetty, leading tours to it and, more recently, working on a book about the earthwork.

An earthwork, according to Loe, is a large-scale artwork that is "built on the land with materials of the land, and brings consciousness to the place that you might not otherwise have because you might not go to that place if it weren't there."

Photos: Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson's wondrous earthwork

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In the case of Spiral Jetty, all of that is no doubt true. The piece is close to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the spot where in 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad finally met up with the Central Pacific Railroad, forming the first Transcontinental Railroad. But if the Spiral Jetty weresn't there, it's unlikely many people would drive out to this remote spot more than two hours from Salt Lake City.

Walking out on the rocks, with your feet moving across soft salt crystals, is an exercise in beauty. Before you is the vastness of the Great Salt Lake, the Wasatch Mountains, several other mountain peaks, a huge sky, seemingly ecstatic birds, and an amazing work of art.

It's not enough to view it from above. It takes walking slowly around the arms of the spiral to get even the smallest sense of what Smithson had in mind. Yet for years, no one had even that much chance.

As Loe writes in a book chapter on the piece, "It is a permanent installation in a lake that continually covers it up, only to reveal it every few years to travelers seeking art in a desert."

Not long ago, Spiral Jetty's future became uncertain for a different reason.

In 2008, a Canadian oil and gas company called Pearl Montana Exploration and Production filed an application to do exploratory drilling in the Great Salt Lake, potentially as close as 3.5 miles from the earthwork. "The drilling itself, as well as any subsequent oil extraction," reads a note on the Spiral Jetty Web site, "could disrupt the artwork's viewshed, compromise the physical integrity of Smithson's extraordinary sculpture, upset the area's isolated character, and degrade the natural environment of the Lake."

Subsequent public outcry, however, seems to have colored the state of Utah's view of the application, and the state turned it down. And while Pearl Montana may resubmit the application, the Web site reads, for now, it has no specific plans to do so.

Building a masterpiece
Building Spiral Jetty took just six days, an amazing fact when you consider that it required 6,650 tons of earth and basalt, which were taken from nearby--though workers took pains, on Smithson's orders, to cover up and clean the site the rocks and earth were taken from. "The use of massive caterpillars and huge dump trucks, while standard equipment for the time, lent an air of antiquity to the project," Loe wrote. "In the film 'Spiral Jetty,' Smithson romanticizes the monstrous quality of the machinery by comparing them to dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

I don't know about that, but I will say that walking out on Spiral Jetty, with little more sound than that of the wind and a few birds, was a chance to take part in something worldly. It was a chance to be out in the lake, on my feet, in a way that would otherwise be very unlikely. And it was an opportunity to participate in art in a way that's not usually possible. It reminded me, in some ways, of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, another masterpiece that takes you out into something that normally you just look at from the edge.

If you're not in the Salt Lake City area, and even if you are, it's a trek to get to Spiral Jetty. But I can't think of a better way to spend a day.

For the next several weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.