Magazine | November 21, 2016, Issue

Where Time Wears Thin

On visiting the ever changing Spiral Jetty

Somewhere in Utah — I’m about ten miles away from being ten miles away from anything, and wondering whether I should turn back. In the rearview mirror is the latest in a series of Violators Will Be Prosecuted signs, and I’m not dressed for prison — although, if we’re being candid, this seems like one of those shoot-first-invoke-the-law-later kind of places. I can hear Sam Elliott, deadpan: “I swear, Officer, I thought he was a waterfowl.”

“Here,” if it helps, is 60 miles north-northwest of downtown Salt Lake City as the crow flies, if the crow flew here, which it doesn’t; it’s primarily the aforementioned waterfowl — plovers and pipers and other assorted types of shorebird, and Pink Floyd, the Chilean flamingo who broke out of a local aviary in 1987 and, after several years spent enjoying brine shrimp au naturel, was last seen vacationing in Idaho in 2005.

The local classic-rock station is more favorable to the Eagles, I’ve discovered, though there’s no fast lane out here. There are miles upon miles of gravel roads. The 2016 Mazda6 Sport Sedan is many things: sleek, responsive, possessed of a decent set of speakers. It is not an off-road vehicle.

But, then, whoever said pilgrimages were supposed to be easy?

The New York Times magazine once called Spiral Jetty, my destination, “the most famous work of American art that almost nobody has ever seen in the flesh.” That’s because, about two years after its completion in 1970, Robert Smithson’s masterpiece disappeared. As high-profile thefts go, it was less To Catch a Thief, more Thomas Crown, given that the work didn’t actually go anywhere. It simply vanished — under 4.5 cubic miles of saltwater. It didn’t reemerge for three decades.

Built off of the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide earthen causeway — 6,650 tons of mud, precipitated salt crystals, and black basalt rock stretching out in a long, straight finger from the shoreline before bending into an Archimedean spiral. The construction took eleven days: six days for Ogden-area builder Bob Phillips and his crew, with the assistance of two dump trucks, a tractor, and a front-end loader, to shuffle the extensive materials into one configuration; two days for Smithson to muse, dissatisfied; then another three days for Phillips and company to re­arrange the site into its final form — this stovetop coil, or crozier, or giant curli­cue. Smithson called it an “immobile cyclone.”

That description was, as the artist acknowledged, imprecise. The nature of “earthworks” — Smithson’s label for this and several similar projects that constituted some of the original entries in the “land art” movement — is to respond to the vicissitudes of nature. Consequently, Spiral Jetty changes. It may be mucked over with algae, encrusted with salt, eroded by sand. It may be green, or white, or black. It may be invisible. No one sees the same Spiral Jetty twice. “Every object,” wrote Smithson, “if it is art, is charged with the rush of time.”

Speaking of which: How long have I been driving? A half hour? An hour? Longer? This road is winding through nowhere: plains with golden grasses lilting, stretching off toward mountains coated in grassy pelts. The Trans­continental Railroad was hammered finished nearby — but that seems distant now, by many miles, many years. I expect something different to crest the hills — a Shoshone chief galloping at the head of his band. Boys, bare-back, ride naked, / Leap on, shout “Ai-yah!” Shout, “Ai-yee!” –  / In unbridled glory.

Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973 over Amarillo, Texas, surveying his next project, no doubt noticed that time began to unwind en route to his site, and no doubt appreciated the way the quest complemented the creation. “The present,” he wrote in his 1968 essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” “must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts.”

That was what he saw in Spiral Jetty’s building site on his first visit. A mile down the shoreline are the remnants of an old drilling project long since abandoned: dead pumps, a rotting pier, splintered pilings. Smithson spotted in it “a world of modern prehistory.” “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive de­posits of sand and mud,” he wrote in 1972, recalling his first impressions. “A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures.”

He was right. As time slides backward along the road, that site, heaving into view around a final bend, takes on a paleontological aspect: the sun-dried skeleton of some Jurassic beast. Then, a thousand yards on, at the end of the road — Spiral Jetty, that great swirling rune, wayward Nazca Line.

Down the slope to the shore I go, past the rabbit brush sprouted up like antediluvian florets, over the rocks deposited by creeping centuries, onto the jetty, step by step over sand and char-black basalt, whorling inward to the center. The lake is out — drought season — leaving miles of gray mud flats stretching toward the horizon, and the sphere of midday sky vaults overhead, burning white with sunlight, and rust-red water collects in shallow pools along the jetty’s edges, and there is no one for miles, and everything is immense and clear and exquisitely still.

In that 1972 essay (“The Spiral Jetty”), Smithson took as his epigraph a line from G. K. Chesterton that tells of “the place where the walls of this world of ours wear the thinnest and something beyond burns through.” This was, he saw, such a place: a frontier, a threshold, where “no ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together.”

And this is Spiral Jetty’s centripetal tug. Such things — systems and structures and the rest — are the accumulations of time, lugged forward like hiking packs. Time is tiring. Sometimes it needs sloughing off.

Ever changing and so ever new, timebound but timeless, Spiral Jetty draws wanderers inward toward the liminal moment poised at the edge of no time and no place — of elements just dreamt up, of first things just come to be. “Following the spiral steps,” Smithson wrote, “we return to our origins.” And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.

Then, sheared clean, I am spun out­ward again, back into the world, “an explo­sion rising into fiery prominence.”

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