The Spiral Jetty comprises at least three things:
A jetty: a structure which projects out into a body of water from its shoreline.
A work of art on a grand scale, made of moved earth and referred to by its creator Robert Smithson as a site.
A collection of "maps, diagrams, photographs, and material samples [by which] he effected a complex dialogue between the actual site and its means of representation in a museum or gallery context,"1 referred to as a nonsite.
With funding generously provided by art patron Virginia Dawn, the Jetty was built in April of 1970 at Rozel Point, Box Elder County, Utah, not far from Golden Spike National Historic Site Park. It stretches out into the shallows of the eastern side of Gunnison Bay, the north arm of the Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake was split into northern and southern arms in 1959 by the construction of a rail causeway for the Southern Pacific Railroad. As a direct result, the arms' relative salinity levels were drastically altered, since the south arm (Gilbert Bay) of the lake receives the lion's share of the snow runoff each year.2
The Spiral Jetty was built in six days by Smithson and two helpers, who used "two dump trucks, a front loader, and a tractor to move 6,650 tons of earth and rock from nearby hillsides into the lake."3 The jetty projects out from the lakeshore on a long, straight stem, and terminates in a widdershins spiral, a shape often depicted in Native American petrogylphs. The body of the coil is 1500 feet (457.2 m) long and 15 feet (4.6 m) wide, and, when it is above water, the whole coiled structure is visible from space4 at one-meter resolution.
A great irony3 of the choice of location of the Jetty is its close approximation to Golden Spike. While the Jetty is a spiral, Golden Spike commemorates the last spike driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, a direct, linear joining of the the East and West coasts.
The huge Jetty was once a road of dirt and black basalt5 speckled with a hoar of white salt crystals, creating a striking contrast to the backdrop of lakewater made red from pigments found in bacteria, brine shrimp and algae tolerant to the extremely high (~27%) salinity2 of the north arm. Towards the center of the spiral, the concentrated salt underwater fades the red to a delicate pink. While usually reddish, the color of the water may vary even hourly to a cobalt or turquoise blue, a green described by some as "pea soup", or even copper, all further varied by the vagaries of wind, cloud cover, and light.
The structure is meant to be walked upon, and while it is remote, it nevertheless enjoys regular visitation by devoted pilgrims who are delighted by its eerie beauty. The site can be accessed through Golden Spike via a long (approx. 15 mile), rough, narrow, unpaved road that passes through both public and private lands. It requires a high clearance vehicle and careful counting of cattle guards to get there. Directions may be found at Sculpture.org.3
Public service announcement regarding travelling to the Spiral Jetty: You will be in Utah. Cattle guards are sometimes used in lieu of fence gates. A cattle guard is a group of horizontal pipes set into a ditch, spaced widely enough to deter herd animals from crossing the gap. You can easily drive a vehicle across a cattle guard. Cattle gates are fence gates. You do not need to open any gates to get to the Jetty. Do not trespass, open a gate that is not yours without permission, or (worse yet) fail to close said gate in cattle country if you are at all fond of your current good state of health and approximate proper count and localization of body parts. Do NOT piss off cattle ranchers. Seriously.
A brief, Jetty-centric biography of the artist
For a more general bio, please see Robert Smithson.
Robert Smithson (1938-1973) was born in Passaic, New Jersey, though he later moved to Rutherford and then Clifton at around age nine. Whether he is related in any way to the founder of the Smithsonian is an open question, but by that age he had already developed an interest in both art and natural history — especially prehistory, the primitive, and petroglyphs. He didn't quite finish his high school degree, finding great distaste for his school's constrictive teaching of art, and struck out on his own. He eventually earned scholarships to the Art Students League and the Brooklyn Museum School, but never attended college.
He travelled extensively throughout his life in the United States and in Europe, focussing on natural history and architecture. In Rome, he was fascinated by sculpture and the labyrinth-like passageways of the Renaissance-era churches. In the United States, the West held a great attraction for him. He once was lucky enough to be allowed to see a Hopi rain dance at the Oraibi pueblo.
In 1972, he was interviewed for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. During this interview, he shed some light on how the evolution of his personal philosophy eventually led to the creation of the Spiral Jetty.
Smithson first became interested in Borges' use of leftover remnants of philosophy around 1965, as he came to realize that such a system described his own world view:
Smithson: ... [T]he system is just a convenience, you might say. It's just another construction on the mires of things that have already been constructed. So that my thinking, I guess, became increasingly dialectical. I was still working with the resolution of the organic and the crystalline, and that seemed resolved in dialectics for me. And so I created the dialectic of site and nonsite. The nonsite exists as a kind of deep three-dimensional abstract map that points to a specific site on the surface of the earth. And that's designated by a kind of mapping procedure. And these places are not destinations; they're kind of backwaters or fringe areas.
....[A] lot of the nonsites are in New Jersey. I think that those landscapes embedded themselves in my consciousness at a very early date, so that in a sense I was beginning to make archaeological trips into the recent past to Bayonne, New Jersey.
Cummings: So in a sense it was a real place that then became abstracted to a nonsite?
Smithson: Yes. And which then reflected the confinement of the gallery space. Although the nonsite designates the site, the site itself is open and really unconfined and constantly being changed. And then the thing was to bring these two things together. And I guess to a great extent that culminated in the Spiral Jetty.
Interview with Robert Smithson for the Archives of American Art / Smithsonian Institution, conducted by Paul Cummings on July 14 and 19, 1972
That was the same year the water of the Great Salt Lake rose and submerged the Jetty. Apparently unbeknownst to Robert Smithson, the lake's water level was extremely low at the time of the Spiral Jetty's construction. The lake's average depth is only 35 feet (10.7 m) and its sides slope gently, which causes the lake's area coverage to be extremely sensitive to changes in water level. Known historic extremes are 950 square miles (2460 square km) in 1963 and 3300 square miles (8547 square km) in 1986-7.
Though there was some talk of building the Jetty higher after it was submerged, he never did so.
Only a year later, Smithson died in a plane crash in Texas. He had been surveying a site for his next earth-moving project, the Amarillo Ramp. In 1999, his estate donated the Spiral Jetty to the Dia Center for the Arts, a tax-exempt charitable foundation based in New York City.
Recent history of the Jetty
The Spiral Jetty remained underwater until the summer of 2002, when the level of the lake fell again. The structure re-emerged, prompting celebration by lovers of art and nature everywhere. When it did, it looked nothing like its former self. It had been completely transformed during its time underwater by acquiring a heavy crust of salt deposits which turned the entire Spiral a pure, glimmering white. I doubt Smithson planned this evolution, but I think he would have been stunned and delighted by Nature's helping hand in playing to his theme of mutability.
Now, in the early summer of 2005, increased snowmelt runoff from nearby foothills has increased the level of the Great Salt Lake enough6 that the Spiral Jetty has begun to sink once more into the depths, and the runoff from the taller mountains has only just begun.
Smithson would be proud, I think, if he could hear the news. His work of art will continue to evolve for centuries to come. How's that for a legacy?
1. Spiral Jetty Press Release
2. Utah Geological Survey: Pink Water, White Salt Crystals,
Black Boulders, and the Return of Spiral Jetty!
4. Space Imaging's Image of the Week — November 11, 2002
5. Link to a photograph at RobertSmithson.com
6. The Spiral Jetty is not visible unless the water level of the lake goes below 4,197.8 feet (1,280.2 meters) in elevation. Same reference as footnote 2.
Google image search for "Spiral Jetty"
Sculpture: Spiral Jetty: The Re-Emergence
After Years of Drought, Salt Lake Rising
Salt Lake Tribune: Floods pump life back into lake
Art uncoils from depths of lake
Frieze.com "Now You See It"
Robert Smithson Essay
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty
Dia Art Foundation
USGS: Great Salt Lake, Utah
Contains a link to a detailed map, though the map does not, sadly, show the jetty.
National Park Service: Golden Spike
First Pulse Projects — Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty
More pictures, a short movie clip that didn't work for me, and assorted links.