The Beauty in the Mundane: Environmental Art and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

And I finally knew what he meant. There is something in Spiral Jetty that gives it the internal coherence, the completeness, the self-containment and instantaneity, that makes art. It is a physical quality of a supremely constructed entity, with complex internal relationships that harmonize into a glorious whole.

– Erin Hogan

 

The 60′s and 70′s saw a number of key artists move towards creating what we now more commonly refer to as environmental art. Back then, the terms ‘land art’ and ‘earthworks’ were more frequently used to describe this mindful movement. By focusing on our relationship with the environment, land artists use the earth as a vital part of their art, drawing our attention to how we interact with our surroundings. One of the most famous American earthworks artists is Robert Smithson, perhaps best known for creating the astounding artistic and natural marvel that is Spiral Jetty.

An aerial view of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty shows the immensity of this logistical feat and historical earthwork. Photo courtesy of www.ballardian.com.

A work like Spiral Jetty is indicative of our tenuous, sometimes beautiful, relationship with the world, pointing out the reality that – no matter what – earth will always have the last word. And thus, we need to work with it, and for it, instead of swimming upstream against its natural current. In 1970, Smithson resurrected a spiral-shape made of earthly materials (mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks) in the waters of Rozel Point, in Great Salt Lake, Utah. This unique, under-populated lake now has a reddish-colored tinge due to the natural process of salt encrustation. Logistically, this artistic feat was an immense undertaking, evidence of Smithson’s total dedication. In collaboration with construction companies, and various financial backers, the artist managed to create land art that still stands alone in terms of scope.

For me, Spiral Jetty – and environmental art in general – is all about the complex relationship between human beings and nature. Driven by our egos, and a desire for an illusion of permanence in this fluctuating life, we often do things akin to sticking our flag in untouched soil: we want to conquer the world; be remembered; and leave our mark. But what if, no matter how many flags we victoriously stick in the ground, our earth will always end up the ultimate victor? Our actions as humans hold much less weight than the effortless power inherent in nature.

Shortly after its inception, the giant, man-made spiral withdrew from sight, submerged entirely under water. It reappeared into sight decades later. Part of the work’s beauty lies in this irony: despite the huge amount of human effort that went into creating Spiral Jetty, nature will assuredly be its ultimate undoing. This was part of Smithson’s original intent for the piece. Spiral Jetty’s organic decay began the moment it was created, and will continue to do so until the end.

The artist was wholly aware of this inevitable fact, as entropy was a concept he used in much of his environment artwork. Spiral Jetty could even be viewed as an inanimate performance, culminating in a grand disappearing act, facilitated by nature. The beauty in this birth, and in the subsequent destruction is at the heart of much environmental art, including Jason deCaires Taylor’s  The Silent Evolution.

Eventually this entire mass of structured land will disappear back from where it came. As the water rises to hide the spiral, then lowers back down to reveal it, only nature knows the eventual shape this piece of art will take. Photo courtesy of www.search.xhibitor.org.

 The rocks and other materials of which Spiral Jetty was formed will eventually return from whence they came. It is human nature to try to cling to a semblance of permanence, to avoid experiencing the change that comes with life. Unsurprisingly, there are many people who are currently petitioning to interfere with the natural decay of Spiral Jetty in order to preserve it. Smithson, who tragically died years ago in a plane crash, would have likely not been pleased with this, as the piece is designed to show entropy in all its chaotic beauty; the art of letting go, of giving into our universe’s majestic omnipotence. What these petitioners illuminate is how much we instinctively try to hold on to anything we can; how much we try to avoid change; and our desire to, at times, gain the upper-hand in our never-ending discourse with our natural world.

In order to respect Smithson’s original intent of honoring the natural evolution that occurs in our aquatic environments, we can choose to practice letting go of the illusion that we possess things in this world. We actually don’t possess anything; this world is not ours to control, nor to dominate – it is ours to honor and learn from. By letting nature run its organic course, we can challenge ourselves to go with the flow of the reality of life, and its constantly shifting sands.

This image strikingly shows the intense, aesthetic effects of the red-tinged water and Smithson’s transient piece of land art. Photo courtesy of www.markworks.files.wordpress.com.

This dramatic structure also reminds us that we must constantly pay attention to what is happening within our environment, working to change along with it, in tandem. When we make an effort to notice the real issues with which our earth is struggling, and shift our actions to meet its new needs, we can grow together in harmony. If we stay stuck treating our earth as we have in the past, it will continue to struggle, while we force our way into the future through conflicting values.

Even simply switching from products that are wasteful to those that are recyclable will make a difference. For example, moving away from using a Brita filter that we are obliged to discard in the trashcan, and instead toward an all-natural, 100% recyclable Soma water filter is one of many easy ways to shift into an eco-friendlier gear. During our brief stay here on earth, our time will feel much more fulfilling if we treat our world with due respect, taking cues from conceptual land art pieces like Spiral Jetty.

When Spiral Jetty eventually decays in its entirety, returning again from where it came, our memories of this historical work will serve to acknowledge its original purpose: to recognize the beauty in our inevitable dissolution back into our all-knowing universe.

 

“From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. No sense wondering about classifications and categories, there were none.”

– Robert Smithson