Re-Thinking Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

Posted on March 11, 2008




Last month I wrote about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty threatened by an oil development proposal. Smithson’s Jetty is located in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The proposal if allowed would permit an oil company to drill test holes near the Jetty site. I have followed the blog’s and news stories and have read about Smithson’s ideas about entropy, the natural system of decay, of systems running down. And I am not the only one who is now asking the question, is saving the Spiral Jetty what Smithson would have wanted? His ideas evolved around the thesis that all systems eventually run down, they waste more energy that is useful in sustaining them, and they decay. Should we then interrupt this premise to save, preserve or restore the Spiral Jetty for our own interests? If the intention of the work was to decay back into nature, which it is, shouldn’t we just leave it alone? Shouldn’t we let nature take its own course? The area Smithson chose in the first place already had decaying oil rigs from the 1920s, it was one of the reasons he built the Jetty where he did. The presence of the old oil rigs in decay, fit into the idea that Smithson was attempting to emulate in nature. Drilling today or not, really does not detract from his ideas and his intention, it is just another chapter in the eventual change of all things natural and manmade. Is it our own vanity that wants to save the Jetty, never mind what Smithson intended in the first place. Today he would have had in all reality the same environmental reaction to his proposal to build the Spiral Jetty as the Oil Companies are experiencing in their attempt to drill for oil. He would have never been able to secure the permits and permissions to build such a project in the Great Salt Lake for any reason, art or not. In fact if you follow the comments on the story across the web many people think the Jetty is just as destructive a presence as the oil rigs. I think, I think that Smithson saw this too when he chose the site to begin with. He knew then that the Jetty would be submerged most of the time when the area drought eased. He planned on the natural colors around the area caused by bacteria and other biological and environmental factors; he liked the pink shade of the water they created. He liked the juxtaposition of the oil rigs that created their own Oil Jetty. Is it our passion for the environment today that suddenly makes us so aware of the destructive nature of post modern and contemporary industrial development? Are we unable to see what the intended purpose of Smithson’s art really was because we filter it through our eyes of today? If our passion takes over, and we can not see what may be far more important we may miss the point. Real progress comes when we challenge ourselves, our beliefs when we ask the real questions and listen to the true answers, even if they are not what we want to hear. That is when we grow as artists and I know when I am growing because everything seems to challenge what I think I think. Those artists who came before us made their contributions to our development, but their ideas were in their time. It is up to us to answer the questions again and again for our time and those who follow us will have to find their own answer to the same questions. But should we not listen to the answers that Smithson gave us through his work and the questions he asked. Should we change the question, the answer to suit our needs our vanity today. Will a generation tomorrow undo what we did or didn’t do? Would you repaint a Van Gogh?