Preserving Spiral Jetty means preserving the space around it

By Hikmet Sidney Loe*

Article Last Updated: 02/29/2008 07:35:22 PM MST

 

Upon hearing of the oil exploration proposal submitted by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production to drill In the north arm of Great Salt Lake, near the earthwork Spiral Jetty, I wrote to the state expressing my opinion that any drilling in the vicinity of Spiral Jetty will cause this internationally important work of art serious damage.
This opinion is based upon the following observations, gleaned from studying Spiral Jetty and its location at Rozel Point, for the past 13 years.
Since 1995 I have visited Spiral Jetty a number of times, alone and with national and international individuals interested in experiencing Spiral Jetty. I have seen fellow travelers engaged in a profound experience at Rozel Point as Spiral Jetty draws the visitor into the landscape.
This art work - built with rocks, mud, salt crystals and water - immediately draws the visitor into a visceral experience with the land that is unusual. Visitors engage with Spiral Jetty by walking on it, swimming around it, climbing Rozel Point to view it, flying over it, floating by on kayaks.
The power of this art work is realized repeatedly as visitors use Spiral Jetty as the catalyst to really begin to see what is around them. What is the water like, with those white puffs of foam floating on top? Why is the water red in this part of the lake, but not others? Why is the lake so salty?
There are so many questions that emerge from being at this one place. It's such an incredible experience, and a real honor, to be with other visitors as they begin to see land in a new way, based upon seeing Spiral Jetty, which complements the land and dominates thought.
To have drilling within four to five miles of Spiral Jetty causes great concern and questions that should be answered. What would the drilling do to the water? To the micro-organisms that live there? To the area's wildlife? To the pelicans, the cranes, the countless other birds, that fly endlessly overhead?
What if there's an oil spill or an accident? How would that be explained, dealt with, cleaned up? What impact would the barge(s) have as they travel back and forth across Great Salt Lake? Would their vibrations cause a shifting to the surrounding land?
I mean this last sentence in the most literal sense - would the barges in any way impact the placement of the rocks that form Spiral Jetty, causing shifts or displacements? And why, after so many failed attempts to extract oil from this region, would there be sufficient cause to believe that any future permits should be allowed?
Seeking oil in this remote region is not a new endeavor. Exploratory teams have been at and around Rozel Point since the early 1900s, with no luck. Members of The Stansbury Expedition of 1849-'50 found petroleum at the north end of Great Salt Lake at Rozel Point, but any attempts to extract oil from the region at and around Rozel Point have not yielded significant commercial quantities of oil.
What the area has yielded, though, is an ongoing interest in the landscape that has sparked the imagination of artists and visitors alike. The artist John Hudson was a member of Stansbury's team and recorded impressions of this magical and often hallucinatory landscape in his daily diary.
In 1895, the artist Alfred Lambourne lived on Gunnison Island (site of the today's proposed oil drilling), and he recorded the experience in his book, An Inland Sea. The island was shared for a time among the artist and bird rookeries where thousands of birds were born. Lambourne's writings as well as his drawings evoke a paradise that one can only imagine, as Gunnison Island is uninhabitable today.
While Hudson and Lambourne did not leave their artistic mark on the land, Robert Smithson, the American artist who created Spiral Jetty, did. Rozel Point has been home to Spiral Jetty since 1970 and has drawn thousands, if not tens of thousands, of visitors to the site.
On any given day, while visiting Spiral Jetty, one encounters others on the same quest. And while we may all be at the same spot, looking at the same art work, we will see the world differently and become more alive because of having stood on this particular piece of land.
The power of great art is a gift that moves us deeply and shows us a new way of inhabiting our world. The power of Spiral Jetty is the power of place - the place of Rozel Point in the north arm of Great Salt Lake.
I hope that the local, national and international input the state has received related to this drill exploration permit sheds new light to the concerns so many of us have for our environment and for what is truly Utah's most famous work of art.
As Spiral Jetty nears it's 40th year (2010), please help to preserve the north arm of Great Salt Lake so that art and environment remain intact, whole and worthy of countless future experiences that show Utah - and Spiral Jetty - in its best light.

* HIKMET SIDNEY LOE is an art historian at Westminster College and a fine arts librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library.