In Utah This Week #113

July 17, 2008


The Downward Spiral

Drought reveals a once-submerged art installation, but oil finds may impact the landscape.

by Stan Sarkisov



Spiral Jetty
Free; no entrance fees.
Driving instructions and info at
For more info on the artist, go to your local library and check out "Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings."


The Downward Spiral  The Downward Spiral


In a hypnotizing spin, Robert Smithson examined each turn of the 1,500 feet of the Spiral Jetty. The camera spins as the helicopters turns with the coil of "mud, salt crystals, rocks, water" that the earthwork artist had just completed.

Jutting out from the black rock coast into a dried sea bed of stark white salt, the Spiral Jetty, an art instillation completed in 1970, is in a completely different environment from when Smithson used construction trucks to lay out the six-and-a-half thousand tons of rock, basalt and mud.

"I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through the lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks. My sight was saturated by the color of red algae circulating in the heart of the lake, pumping into ruby currents no they were veins and arteries sucking up the obscure sediments," Smithson wrote in one of his essays.
Smithson was overpowered by the red water and the black basalt encrusted with white salt.

Sparkling salt crystals are what are left of the magenta water that used to surround the Jetty. The entire project submerged under water two years after completion, but thanks to drought and receding water depths, the Jetty is plainly visible but has lost most of its red, pink and purple colors.

"Walking on the lakebed felt a bit like poking around another planet. The whites and faded blues and reds of the landscape seemed more Martian then Earthly," said Matt Laffey.

Laffey and friend Shannon Harmon, both from Chicago, were on a road trip through the West and stopped in Salt Lake City to visit friends and to visit the Jetty.

The two are sitting on the rocks of the Jetty, eating strawberries and Harmon retells how her college professor first mentioned the art piece.

"Sitting upon it I can't help but think about the ephemeral surface and then my own temporal existence," Shannon says.

When designing the Jetty, Smithson knew that it would undergo change and might one day turn into a skeleton of its initial existence. Elements of constant change and decay abandoned wooden piers, metal scraps, empty oil barrels and dried up seagull wings and bones littered throughout the Jetty site when Smithson started.

"The Spiral Jetty is physical enough to be able to withstand all these climate changes, yet it's intimately involved with those climate changes and natural disturbances," writes Smithson.

When he created this project years ago, it was on an empty site. The site is still void but change has been projected.

Rozel Point's land, the Jetty's location, yields oil. The Utah Geological Survey reports that 30 to 50 wells have produced 10,000 barrels of oil since operation, which ceased in the 1980s.

"Oil! Seriously. It's bubbling to the surface all over the lakebed near the Jetty," says Laffey. "You could probably fashion some sort of container from the rusted out junk and leave hundreds of dollars richer than when you arrived."

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining awaits additional information to supplement an application to drill about five miles from the "world [renowned] earthwork sculpture."

In a February press release the Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Michael Styler has said that their department "works on a daily basis to protect new and ancient cultural resources, including the Spiral Jetty."

The drilling has been met with opposition, and the department has received thousands of e-mails. Yet right now, it seems to be up in limbo.

"I suggest visiting the Spiral Jetty if not for the beautiful landscape, then to experience the magnitude of this interactive art piece," says Harmon.

The art will remain, but the landscape may be altered.