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Discourse 24.2 (2002) 86-120

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Quiet Catastrophe:
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Vanished

Clark Lunberry


"For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which—by means of a sort of snapshot—we take cognisance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilising it."

—Marcel Proust,Time Regained

"The memory of what is not may be better than the amnesia of what is."

—Robert Smithson, "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan"

Maps to Nowhere: Seen from above, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty emerges dramatically from the rocky shores of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Like a swirling vortex steadied and then stilled, the earthwork begins as a straight line of stone extending far into the water, the form then curving, arching and coiling in upon itself until abruptly coming to an end. Rocks and boulders are seen in various shapes and sizes, with brown soil packed and flattened within the spiral, [End Page 86] making a broad path that one might walk upon. The water washes upon the earthwork's shaped shores, surrounding and filling it, a cloudy bluish to brown on the outside, and then increasingly, a murky, milky red toward its ever tightening center, moving from still to stagnant. To the side of the Jetty, small waves break the lake's otherwise smooth surface, casting patches of light caught in their crescence; blue sky and clouds are faintly reflected on the water, the bottom of the lake occasionally glimpsed through its shallow depths. And there as well, in 1970, seen alone on the shore of the lake is the late Robert Smithson, standing in silhouette and fixed in motion, a small figure alongside the sprawling dimensions of his Spiral Jetty. For his earthwork is enormous, indeed monumental, filling the page upon which it is printed, the photograph within which both he and his Jetty are arrested and recorded. Focusing further, we can see there on the paper (the past) in the present tense and then speak it; 1970 now. The image of the object convincing—as if one were there, as if it were visible—effectively persuading of presence. The photographed stones still—rising out of the lake, off the page—an inscrutable hieroglyph, a free-floating question mark written on water.

Like Proust's immobilizing "snapshots," the many photographs of the Spiral Jetty can be observed from above as though one were flying over them, the massive earthwork chemically contracted into viewable proportion. These contained images of the object appear as flattened landscapes transported and frozen in time, framed vistas that allow the directed eyes of the viewer to visually visit the remote site in Utah. Further, the photographs enable the observer to examine in careful detail not only that which has been, but also that which has in fact vanished. For Smithson's celebrated earthwork, covered over by the risen lake, is now no longer visible, nor has it been for some time. Aside from a brief reemergence several years back, 1 the inundating waters of the Great Salt Lake long ago essentially erased the stones from the scene, leaving barely a trace of the object, only the image remaining. And with its form underwater, what remains of the Spiral Jetty (along with Smithson's important parallel projects, his film and essay of the same title) are printed pictures and written documents of a material form that has otherwise disappeared.

More than any other medium, it has been photography that has most powerfully, pragmatically prolonged the life and sustained the legend of Smithson and his Spiral Jetty. 2 For those widely reproduced images taken at the time of the Jetty's completion have continued to convincingly render the vanished past into a visible, accessible present, permitting a detached examination of the earthwork's phantom [End Page 87] form and detail, a scanning and scrutinizing of its surrogate time and texture—the earthwork as a photographic...


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