On the northeast side of the Great Salt Lake, a little over a hundred miles from Salt Lake City, lies perhaps the most notable piece of land art ever made, and due to record-low water levels caused by a drought that threatens the very existence of the lake, the Spiral Jetty is more visible than ever.
When artist Robert Smithson created the 1,500 foot spiral sculpture in 1970, he — with the help of local crews — piled several thousand tons of basalt rocks and dirt sourced from the lake’s shore into the lake itself.
The result was large swirls of rocks that were mirrored side-by-side by swirls of water. Smithson was not building on the dry ground that visitors now see when they visit the iconic artwork; rather, he was building on — and with — water.
Over half a century later, the water that Smithson used as a key material in his earthwork could be gone in as soon as five years, begging the question, what is the Spiral Jetty without the Great Salt Lake?
A watery history
Smithson was well aware that building the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake would mean the artwork, like the environment around it, would be constantly changing.
Hikmet Sidney Loe, author of “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo,” and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told me that Smithson was looking specifically for a “dynamic environment to build his monumental work.”
The environment Smithson chose was so dynamic, in fact, that for long periods of time, the Jetty was completely submerged underwater. The Jetty remained underwater from 1972 to 1996 and then was once again submerged in 1996 before reappearing in 2002, according to a history of the Spiral Jetty published in the Deseret News on the artwork’s 50th anniversary.
Droughts have kept the Spiral Jetty above water and largely visible to visitors since its reappearance in 2002.
“From the moment Spiral Jetty was completed, it’s been changing,” Loe says. “And the changes that have been taking place out there, a lot of them are because of human action.”
Smithson was fascinated with the concept of entropy and how the environment, including the rising and falling water levels of the lake, would affect the artwork.
“The Spiral Jetty is physical enough to be able to withstand all these climate changes, yet it’s intimately involved with those climate changes and natural disturbances,” Smithson stated in 1972.
His untimely death the next year, however, meant that he wouldn’t be able to witness how entropy would affect his earthwork.
He certainly knew that the rising and falling water levels would impact how visitors could interact with the piece: When he was asked what he would do if the water level did not recede and the Spiral Jetty remained covered by water, Smithson responded that he would simply build the structure up higher, Loe documents in “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo.”
The irony, however, is that just 50 years later the problem of the Spiral Jetty remaining covered by water is nonexistent.
As Palak Jayswal writes in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Spiral Jetty has in recent years become a “symbol of the lake’s health.”
Essentially, the more visible the Spiral Jetty is, the lower water levels are due to drought. Jayswal quotes Lisa Le Feuvre, the head of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, who refers to Smithson’s work as “a barometer for the ways in which we are operating in a climate emergency.”
Largely without the water that Smithson listed as one of the materials that made up the Jetty, the artwork and how visitors interact with it is now negotiated on different (literal) grounds than it was nearly 50 years ago.
Visiting the Jetty
I recently decided to visit those grounds by taking the nearly two hour road trip from Salt Lake City to see the Spiral Jetty for myself. Despite having lived in Utah for most of my life, I had never been before.
It was larger than I thought it would be — and smaller at the same time.
I had seen plenty of aerial pictures of the Jetty that showed huge lines jutting into the lake bed, mimicking the shape of a galaxy. However, when I saw it in person, I was struck not by the large spiral I saw, but by the smaller details that made up that spiral.
As I walked onto the beach, I followed the path of rocks, mud and sand to the center of the spiral, noticing the clumps of salt on rocks, the small puddles with bubbles, sticks sitting in mud alongside the rocks, a few, sparse desert plants growing out of the sand.
Walking along the sculpture, the arrangement of rocks and mud on the lake bed made it hard to tell where the lines began and ended; there were lines that formed a path, but they were not pronounced, and they almost felt natural. In fact, from the perspective of standing in the jetty, the sculpture felt like a natural extension of the landscape.
When viewed from the ground, the Spiral Jetty blurs the lines between the natural and the unnatural. By doing so, it asks us to think about our influence on the landscape. It asks us to consider: How felt should our presence in nature be? What role do we play in the blurry liminal space between natural and unnatural?
For me, as I stood in the middle of the spiral, looking down at the rocks, salt crystals, mud and dirt that made up that spiral, I felt like a small part of the whorl of the universe.
The future of the Spiral Jetty
To experience the Spiral Jetty is to feel a part of it, but that privilege may not always be available to visitors in the future.
Loe says she’s “always a fan of people experiencing Spiral Jetty,” but her concern for the lake “as a whole is quite high.”
“Because of the toxicity of the lake bed, I don’t know what that means for people going out there and visiting and walking because it’s so dry out there. Walking on the lake bed might not be a really good idea anymore,” Loe said.
The more visible and accessible to visitors the Spiral Jetty becomes due to droughts and human activity that diverts water away from the lake, the less safe it may be to those visitors as they kick up and breathe in toxic dust.
Downsides to visibility
A Deseret News article published in 2008 lists the pros and cons of a low water level at the Great Salt Lake, with one pro being the Spiral Jetty “remains readily visible.”
“The visibility is not in question anymore. It’s always visible. It’s always there,” Loe told me.
But though that may seem like a “pro” — more people can experience seeing the iconic earthwork — it comes with more cons than pros.
For now, Loe hopes that those who do visit can recognize that their ability to see and walk on the Jetty comes at the steep price of dangerously low water levels. Loe says visitors should ask themselves, “What is going in with the landscape, and why now am I going to see Spiral Jetty when I’ve lived here my whole life?”
The answer? “Because it’s visible, because it’s dry.”
“Once they see how bone dry it is, visitors should question why: ‘Why is it bone dry out there? What does that mean?’” she said.
In the context of the drying up of the lake, the meaning of Spiral Jetty changes for visitors who interact with the piece in new and profound ways. As an art piece, Spiral Jetty can help us consider and care for the small things all while recognizing our parts in contributing to climate change more broadly and the drying of the Great Salt Lake more specifically.
When we stand in the Spiral Jetty and notice its small components — salt crystals, basalt rocks broken into pebbles, even sticks and mud, that come together to form something larger — hopefully we can recognize our part in the greater spiral of the natural world, before it’s too late.