Collected Works: Art
by Robert Smithson
Land art, public art, sculpture
A sculptural coil spirals out into the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Built only from basalt rocks, it stretches to a mile and a half in length. Its pattern evokes snail shells and lollipops, belying the functionality of a simple jetty. During periods of rainfall, the entire structure becomes submerged, returning to visibility only at the next drought. Originally black, the stones have become encrusted with salt crystals over time, bleached to a shimmering white.
Embedded within the landscape, the sculpture responds to the conditions of its environment. Its materials were sourced from the surrounding area and were arranged according to an artificial design, in a meeting of the human and the geological. Though created relatively recently, the work could be mistaken for an ancient structure. Like the Mesopotamian irrigation system or the Nazca Lines, the sculpture seems to have existed so long as to fuse with its surroundings.
While vulnerable to the natural damage and erosion, the work is enshrined in the form of a film documenting its construction. The coil preserved on footage is likely to outlive its more tangible counterpart, codified within a seemingly imperishable virtual world. The artwork’s digital representation remains constant even as the physical manifestation is weathered by the elements, threatening to surpass or replace the original.
Smithson’s sculpture is built on a foundation of contradictions. It has the look of a natural wonder, but is yet to reach its fiftieth birthday. Despite its changing state, the work’s jagged edges are frozen on video. It is caught within continuous debate, accruing meaning as contentions wash around it. Whether following the flow of these disputes or surrendering ourselves to Spiral Jetty’s hypnotic swirl, we may admire its shape and, in reflection, opt to turn inwards too.
Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe & Sophia Martin-Pavlou
More to discover
You can visit Robert Smithson's official website here. Kemy Lin has written about the artwork for Hyperallergic, as have Ben Eastham for Apollo Magazine, Ric Collier & Jim Edwards for Sculpture Magazine, and 'The Source of Robert Smithson's Spiral', by Robert Sullivan for The New Yorker. More information about land art can be found on the Tate website.