How the Spiral Jetty Got in the Great Salt Lake

Spiral Jetty
The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. Photo by Karen Hess.

It sounds like a cocktail or a racehorse, or perhaps an ill-fated American remake of Chris Marker’s time-traveling French flick La Jetée, but the Spiral Jetty is one of the first monumental efforts in environmental art.

Next April will mark the 50th anniversary of the Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s elegant, enigmatic sculpture jutting like an enormous fiddlehead fern curl from the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Created in 1970, the jetty is a 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide curlicue of salt crystals, basalt rocks, and mud that anticipates the work of a later environmental sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy, by at least a decade (Goldsworthy was only 14 when the jetty was constructed).

Spiral Jetty by Karen Hess.
A view from inside: The Spiral Jetty was underwritten with a $9,000 grant from New York’s Virginia Dwan Gallery. Ownership of the sculpture was donated to the nonprofit arts organization Dia Art Foundation, which maintains both the lease of the sculpture site and its stewardship. Photo by Karen Hess.

In its initial incarnation, the Smithson and crew moved 6,650 tons of rock over six days to create the spiral but the artist was unsatisfied with the result. Within a week, he and the team augmented the sculpture to its present form, which required three additional days of arduous labor and moving 7,000 tons of rock. Within a couple of years of the colossal effort, the sculpture became submerged underwater due to an unexpected rise in the lake level.

A podium at the Spiral Jetty site. Photo by Karen Hess.

The work only re-emerged in the 2000s thanks to persistent drought. Unfortunately, Smithson did not live to see it — he died in 1973 in an airplane crash. Now, the spiral jetty looks like a totemic question mark on a landscape in the midst of climate change.

Somehow, Smithson had the wherewithal to document his endeavors on film and produced a 30-minute documentary on the jetty project. The complete film is presently unavailable, however, below is a brief edit available on YouTube.

By Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell is the writer-director of the films Pill Head (on Amazon) and the upcoming Wolf Story. He is the author, most recently, of the novel "Quantum Deadline" and editor of The North Bay Bohemian and The Pacific Sun. Learn how he went from small-town newspaperman to a feature film director here.

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