Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 2 - 'Spiral Jetty' by Robert Smithson

A single track ‘road’ spirals some 1500 feet out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It was constructed from black basalt and agregate, using earth movers and road-building techniques and stood dark and stark against the waters until it repeatedly submerged and resurfaced with deeper precipitations of bright white salt crystals each time. Now, whenever it appears above water, in years of low rainfall, there is very little black - it looks like it has been covered by freshly fallen snow, in the drought heat.

The mineral rich waters have deposited silts of graduated colour within the spiral waters according to their density and the depth of water. The jetty itself becalms the water so a choppy surface outside the structure eventually reaches mirror stillness at the centre, presenting a perfect reflection of the sky. When the brine shrimp that live in the salt rich waters turn deeper red and move to the surface to breed and spawn, the usual dull rusty colour of the water deepens to a blood red against which the spiral stands stark and bright white.

Spiral Jetty is the most iconic work to come out of the early days of Land Art – or eARTh as it is sometimes known. (See what they did there? The middle three letters of ‘earth’ spell ‘art’, and Land Art uses the Earth itself as its material, and if you take the remaining two letters from the word ‘earth’ they spell… ‘eh’?) Look at nearly any book about Land Art, or ‘art in the environment’, and you will see prominent images of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, constructed in 1970 and still ‘in progress’ to this day. It is a great site specific work of sculpture, conceptual art, art in the environment, monumentalism, television, viral art and pretty much defines the Land Art movement…

- site specific: because it can only exist in the location in which it was constructed, move it and it will change, and so will the locations it is moved from and to.

- sculpture: because it uses the language of sculpture by being three dimensional, referring to the landscape and the human form, by having rhythm, balance in its pattern and interplay between its positive and negative form producing a gentle tension.

- conceptual art: because it primarily exists as an imaginary object which creates emotional and intellectual reactions – it has become an iconic work of art even though it has only been experienced, first hand, by a handful of individuals, and for a good portion of its existence it was not only remote, but completely submerged – we have experienced it via media such as film and photography, the writings of Smithson himself and the critical opinions of others, therefore it is the concept we experience, as conveyed by various media.

- art in the environment: because that is exactly what it is! Smithson had the concept in mind and was scouting for locations, but it was a direct reaction to experiencing that particular location and its surrounding environment that dictated its placement scale and precise form.

- monumentalism: it is art on a very large scale - its only modern precedents were civil engineering projects and architecture, though it does reference ancient earthworks and that is the preferred label used by Smithson for his land art, Earth Works.

- film: because Smithson envisaged the best way to exhibit this piece would be through moving image and made a film to document Spiral Jetty, shown as part of an exhibition of photographs, and it was one of the key works included in the pioneering ‘television galleries’ that Gerry Schum made for German television.

- viral art: because it uses media and dialogue to disseminate its concept and is extended by the on-going visual recording and discussions – as stated earlier, not many people have actually gone out and visited this piece, being in a remote area of the Salt Lakes in Utah, yet millions of people are familiar with the Spiral Jetty’s form and understand its scale… it exists in our individual, internal landscapes of memory and imagination as well as our shared landscape of culture and the global media (such as this weblog) that binds it together.

So is this petrified whirlpool the spiral of life energy, the DNA helix, the dynamic future of the human race, the unfurling fern, the spiral galaxy… or is it the spiral of the water as it all goes down the drain?

The spiral is one of the oldest symbols made by humans – it appears on aboriginal Australian rock paintings where it is thought to represent the sun and life energy. Palaeolithic standing stones at sites such as Newgrange bear spiral patterns and of course it features prominently in Viking and Celtic knot work right up to the Christian era. Part of the symbolism of the spiral and other interweaving black and white knot patterns was the co-dependence of this world and the otherworld – or the living guided by, and always close to, the influence of the ancestors. So many ‘new age thinkers’ were delighted when the DNA that governs our life and growth, and links us to our ancestors, was described as a spiral, or a double helix…

We live on a planet within a spiral galaxy. Perhaps, because a jetty is a type of pier it implies some sort of setting off, into the lake, into the gulf of space… but also a road which is in spiral form, ultimately, does not get you very far. So if you read the jetty as a metaphor of travel, it is either pessimistic - in that it does not really lead anywhere, or optimistic - in that it spirals in on a focussed and specific destination, a destination that is only given real meaning by it being at the end of the journey. The journey remains ever present as the path already trodden is close by and always in view… so is the way as yet untrod. The beginning and end form a cohesive whole with the journey itself… And if you want to visit this work of art, you too would need to embark on quite a journey.

At the core of the work is Smithson’s concept of ‘sites’ and ‘nonsites’. One of his modus operandi was to bring material from the landscape and display it in a gallery with references to its place of origin, such as photographs and maps. This, in effect, was exhibiting the concept of another place in the gallery - but what he used to represented the place, did not really look much like it. A map is not the territory. A word is not the object. He called this representation, situated within the gallery, the nonsite. So the gallery experience of this representation created a dialogue of place between the ‘real’ site and the nonsite. This also evoked a conceptual journey from one place to another – between site and nonsite. The somewhat abstract array of rocks, earth, maps and photographs conjured up the idea of a place in the viewer’s imagination, although these tangible materials came from, and represented, a very real place in the real landscape.

Perhaps this should really be my number one in this top ten… it was my ‘wake-up call’ to ‘proper art’ and expanded my awareness of what good art could be at an early stage in my study of art. This paved the way for my appreciation of much of the art that I still enjoy today. I do not think I would have so readily welcomed the work of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, and many more (including Richard Long, of course) if I had not been primed by Spiral Jetty. It is a great, breath-taking, monumental piece of art, but it also deals with many deep concepts, ideas of representation, historic references, environmental issues, scale, science, communication, time, interaction, dialogues of distance, landscape, imagination... It questioned the whole system of gallery exhibition and associated issues of ownership and art collecting.

 It is beautiful.

This work also features in the book Evolution of Western Art

More about Spiral Jetty and the works of Robert Smithson at his estate's official site...

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