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Spiral Jetty is Utah's answer to Stonehenge and an early example of an art-form known as monumental earthworks. The jetty is a 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide coil of mud, rocks, and salt crystals along the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake (see location map below), south of Promontory Point. Spiral Jetty is located in a very isolated, arid area and any visitor should be prepared for a rough-road experience, 16 miles on unpaved roads.

Earth sculptor Robert Smithson (1938-1973) built the jetty in 1970 using heavy construction equipment to move some 6,650 tons of material into his spiral creation. Although Smithson believed that the Great Salt Lake was receding, it is not without irony that within two years after his sculpture was complete, it was underwater. The jetty was the victim of an intense wet cycle which began in 1972, and was exacerbated by the flooding of 1983 and 1984.

Photograph 1. Robert Smithson

Today the jetty is emerging from the Great Salt Lake, and well into its first rebirth. (But who knows how long the existing dry spell will last?) Writer Carol Van Wagoner visited the site in 1993 (when it was just emerging from the lake) and recorded the following: "The jetty offered a sensual experience. During its underwater years, salt crystals had grown on the rugged rock, giving it a cotton-ball effect."

According to his writings, Smithson wanted to find a body of red saline water. Bolivia had such lakes, but they were too distant. He heard about Utah's Great Salt Lake and decided to investigate. While visiting, he surveyed a site off Rozel Point and liked the area because it had primordial feel. In 1972 Smithson explained his fascination with the Utah rugged terrain: "I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is interesting to take on the persona of a geological agent and actually become part of that process rather than overcome it." Smithson's jetty was simple in concept and relatively straightforward to construct: truckload upon truckload of broken basalt was dumped to form a giant coil.

Three years after Smithson completed Spiral Jetty, he was in an airplane photographing the Texas site of his next monumental earthwork, Amarillo Ramp. The plane he was in crashed on a rocky hillside a few hundred feet from the site, killing not only himself but also the pilot and a photographer.

New York-based Dia Center for the Arts was given the jetty in 1999, a gift from Smithson's estate. The Center would like to make the remote artwork more visible and accessible, which was Smithson's wish before he died. Dia (www.diacenter.org) is a tax-exempt charitable organization established in 1974. It has become one of the largest organizations in the United States dedicated to contemporary art and culture. The acquisition of Spiral Jetty continues Dia's support of major earthworks.

Spiral Jetty

According to Melissa Sanford writing in the New York Times (2004), Dias has been giving serious thought to restoring "the contrast the 'Jetty' originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt crystals . . ., or whether the foundation needs to do something more."

However, that idea has met with a great deal of resistance. "Wally Gwynn, a Utah geologist and editor of Great Salt Lake: An Overview of Change, said 'Spiral Jetty' would be submerged again as soon as Utah's (current) drought ends. But he is not sure it is necessary to make the jetty more accessible.

'It has as much mystique underwater as its does when it is exposed,' he said. 'It's kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. We know it's there, even if we can't see it.'

Bob Phillips, a contractor from Ogden, helped Smithson build the jetty in 1970. Initially suspicious of Smithson's plans, he is now one of the earthwork's biggest fans. While the jetty was submerged, he said, he considered adding rock to it himself. But he decided it would be wrong to alter the piece in any way without Smithson to supervise the project.

'Smithson had something to do with every rock out there,' Phillips said. 'It would not be the same thing if somebody else monkeyed around with it. It would no longer be Smithson's work.'"

The fact that this debate is occurring would probably have made Smithson very happy.

Monumental earthworks originally referred to huge works of bulldozed earth that American artists began to construct in the late 1960s. Its meaning has since expanded to include large-scale works made of fabricated materials (ie. steel, concrete) as well as natural materials like earth, rocks, and trees.


Sanford, Melissa, 2004. "The Salt of the Earth," New York Times, Jan 13.

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