In 2019 I visited the “Spiral Jetty” twice: alone right after my arrival in Utah, and on the morning of a late summer day when I had to fly back to Italy. That was when I shot the video-performance “Vanishing Point” influenced by Smithson’s idea of entropy and disruption, and his interest in geology, time sediments, location identity (Kwon, 2002), and environment that are widely investigated in his writings (1996).
Dyer (2016) wrote about his experience of visiting the iconic Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” located at the Rozel Point peninsula on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Not only did he depict the earthwork itself, but also the itinerary that from Salt Lake City, passing from Odgen and Brigham city, leads to a 15.5-mile dirt road full of cracks and holes.
The landscape that unfolded from the car’s window during the travel reminded me of the unreal and abstract atmosphere described by Baudrillard (1989) in his chapter on American deserts titled “Vanishing Point”, from which I got the title of my work, together with his reflection of cinematic time. The “Spiral Jetty” film, shot during the construction of the work in 1970 and edited immediately thereafter, tried to bring back the proportion and the monumentality of the earthwork; also because of that, it was a mediated and layered experience: as stated by Uroskie (2005, 54), “[it] is constituted by an analogous layering or stratification of time: the present is palpably covered over by sheets of mnemic sedimentation, of read descriptions, seen images, and projected expectations.”
But due to the entropic changes and structural decay that occurred through time, the weather, and lighting conditions, the earthwork revealed itself as something completely new: not as a landscape of naturalism and realism, but of abstraction and artifice (Smithson 1996, 116). What struck me on the first visit to the site was the contrast between monumentality and decay.
The beautiful rose-colored shades of the place corresponded to Smithson’s earlier fascination with salt lakes, and the micro bacteria that give the water surface a red color according to William Rudolph’s “Vanishing Trails Atacalla” cited by Smithson himself (143). Moreover, the place contains deposits of oil that had been subjected to unsuccessful drilling attempts for decades. The “Spiral Jetty”’s site was selected about one mile north of the oil seep (146). In this respect, Lippard (2014), focusing on the Southwest, critically analyzed how in the capitalist system the resource extractions undermined the landscape quality. Indeed, the Dia Art Foundation organized a petition in 2008 to prevent Pearl Montana Exploration and Production from drilling boreholes in the lake to extract the oil (Dyer 2016), emphasizing land art’s relation with the environmental movement (Nisbet, 2014). Furthermore, the art installation had been underwater for thirty years. In 2002 a drought due to an on-going process of desertification, revealed the work again; and from that moment it has been mostly visible. Again, the consciousness of geologic time in a dialogue between past, present, and future: “It [the present] must instead explore the pre- and post-historic mind; it must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts” (Smithson 1968, 50).
Influenced by these suggestions, I went back to the “Spiral Jetty” site, together with Davey Davis who assisted me in shooting the work. I had in mind a very simple action that needed to be extremely precise to be effective. As I was also investigating the Italian artist and architect Gianni Pettena’s years in Utah (Scotini 2018) and his relationship with Smithson (1996, 297-300), I found out about the photographic sequence “Thames Tides” (1974) in which he was gradually submerged by the Thames water due to the tide.
Because of the structural conformation of the site, I decided to reverse this idea of submersion and to transform it into an anthropometric form of measuring of the on-going process of desertification, climate change, and entropy. I wanted also to underline the subjectivity of the scale of earthwork, which depends on the spectator’s point of view and position. I put the camera next to the last stone of the “Spiral Jetty”, cutting it out from the frame. From that point, I walked towards the lake until I disappeared in the water, as had happened to Smithson’s work for a long time. The distance that separated the earthwork from the water, covered by my act of walking, underlines how the landscape differs from the one seen by Smithson in 1970, and the entropic changes that will occur in the future due to environmental collapse.
Baudrillard, J. (1989). America. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso.
Dyer, G. (2016). White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World. New York, NY: Pantheon Book.
Kwon, M. (2002). One Place after Another. Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lippard, L. R. (2014). Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West. New York, NY: The New Press.
Nisbet J. (2014). Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Scotini, M. (2018). Gianni Pettena: Non-Conscious Architecture. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Smithson, R. (1996). The Collected Writings. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Smithson, R. (1968). “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” Artforum 7:1, 44-50.
Uroskie, A.V. (2005). “La Jetée en Spirale: Robert Smithson’s Stratigraphic Cinema.” Grey Room 19, 54-79.