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Essay

IN JULY OF 2014 I went to find Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Utah desert, about two hours by car from Salt Lake City. Massive, remote, and seemingly useless, Spiral Jetty has the feel of a lost work—one so far out of sight as to be out of mind:  most of us don’t even realize we’ve lost it. Finding it, I would only lose it again, leaving it there in the desert desolation where it remains. What good, then? What good looking for something I had not lost only to lose it after finding it?

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Completed in 1970, Spiral Jetty is recognized by most art historians and critics as exemplary of a movement they call “earthworks” or “land art” [see front cover]. It is a fifteen-hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide spiral path coiling counter-clockwise off the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Spiral Jetty is made of over six thousand tons of rock and earth drawn from the site by a local contractor and his crew using dump trucks, a front loader, and a tractor.

A few years after its completion, above-average snowfall and freak flooding caused the lake to rise, and Spiral Jetty disappeared in the waters. This changed shortly before the new millennium when water levels dropped and the work resurfaced. The water that had swallowed it gave it back, changed, enriched by the layers of salt and other minerals, continuing the creative process launched by Smithson. For a while, Spiral Jetty flickered on the edge of visibility, rising or falling from view as water levels fluctuated, each time emerging other than it had appeared when last seen. If the jetty aimed at monumental permanence, it was certainly not permanently the same. Its changes were a sign of life: it was growing. Visitors did not know what to expect. Going there was like visiting a mad old recluse, a desert hermit who was certain to be there but whose moods were unpredictable—he might not even answer the door when you knocked. The Dia Foundation, which now owns the work, still offers a link to a website where visitors can check water levels so they know what to expect.

At present, Spiral Jetty is ordinarily about half a mile from water, forsaken and forlorn in an increasingly hot, dry, and growing desert. It is still called “the jetty,” though the term seems obsolete—as “the jetty” is now the end of a long road that spirals down to collapse in sand and mud, its reach to the other shore fizzling out in dissipated longing in the shadow of mountains fading away in the hazy distance.

A burst of academic interest followed its reemergence. Major cultural institutions showcased Smithson’s work, and books and catalogues were published. My own interest was academic, to be sure. I had recently published a book in which my encounters with earthworks were central to an account of what I called “enchanting secularity.” I meant “secularity” in the sense of turning toward the world, and by “enchanting,” I meant to suggest that such a turn need not mean forgoing awe and wonder. A study of Smithson would fill a significant lacuna in that book and better ground my scholarship in the history of art.

But I was also hoping to find something else. What it was, I did not have a clear idea. It had been a long summer at the end of a long year. I had been on a sabbatical leave from my university and felt that I had little to show for it—fragmentary journal entries, aphoristic notes, but precious few pages of methodical progress toward the book I had thought to write. I had lost a line of thought, several lines of thought, and was wandering around in my head and my notebooks without seeming to advance. I was trying to write about happiness, and it wasn’t making me very happy. I was trying to write about the life of hope, and my life seemed mired where it was, without much of a future. A similar disenchantment had set in with the other work, the hobbies and tasks that had, over the years, provided what the literature on happiness calls “vital engagement”: tending the garden, splitting wood, cooking—little of this was appealing.

A destitution was growing inside me that put me at odds with my projects. The industriousness that might have kept me on the straight and narrow was collapsing.

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In a 1972 essay, “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson describes his own search, the one that eventually took form in Spiral Jetty. He says he was seeking “red”—described by G.K. Chesterton in the essay’s epigram as “the most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe…the place where the walls of this world of ours wear the thinnest and something beyond burns through.” Smithson’s search for the thin edge of the world took him through several sites (Mono Lake, another lake in Laguna Colorado), several books (one describing the reddish waters of a Bolivian lake), and several rumors (passed on by park officials and other locals), before he investigated the Salt Lake. Though the essay’s language is not explicitly religious, Smithson comes across as a seeker, a restless spirit whose searching will be met less by finding than by receiving. Scouting the lake, he notes, “I was not sure what shape my work would take.” He did not know what he was seeking until he found it, and the work would take shape only after he was seized by a vision. Spiral Jetty is his response to that vision, his testimony, as it were.

Smithson tells of venturing into a desert landscape where forms collapse and content dissipates. The valley “spreads into an uncanny immensity,” hills appear as “melting solids,” and “sandy slopes turn into viscous masses of perception.” The whole region has a “shattered appearance” that climaxes in the view from the center of the spiral. Smithson lists twenty compass directions—the sixteen quarter winds plus the four cardinal winds—line by line, each entry reporting the same view: “Mud, salt, crystals, rocks, water,” an indifferent equivalence of empty winds. In his 1970 film Spiral Jetty, Smithson reads the same list aloud in a bland monotone, as if sounding the drone that remains when all things are gone.

Along the road, he reports seeing “countless bits of wreckage…left high and dry…trapped fragments of junk and waste [and finally] two dilapidated shacks looking over a tired group of oil rigs.” It is the derelict remains of industrial activity, the extraction of oil from the earth. To Smithson’s eyes, it appears as “evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” but he ventures ahead. He does not come to this destitute place only to desert it, but to venture into it, passing through it deeper into the desert and soon arriving at the shore of Rozel Point, where he reports being seized by a vision:

As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizon only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.

His tone is ecstatic, mystical. It registers a vision that has come over him, a revelation in which the evidence is blinding, saturating and exceeding all his mind could contain.

After this revelation, the narrative resumes: “After securing a twenty-year lease on the meandering zone, and finding a contractor in Ogden, I began building the jetty.” The future opens. The work begins. He is happily absorbed in the business of making it.

I should be so lucky.

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The jetty was built in just under a week. It is remarkably beautiful, its form achieved with exacting care and sensitivity to line, shape, and proportion. The contractor reports that a week after its completion an agitated Smithson called and declared it was not right, that the spiral needed another turn and the end had to be torn out. “It’s fine, but it’s not right,” Smithson told him. They resumed work and developed the site into its current form. The contractor saw the difference: “It went from ‘That’s a good-looking dike I built’ to ‘My word, that’s sensational the way that looks.’”

This suggests that Spiral Jetty is built with concern for sculptural qualities and is meant to be contemplated by an observer. But the Dia Foundation advises, “Spiral Jetty is a site to actively walk on rather than a sculpture to behold.” One of the remarkable things about it is that both are true: Spiral Jetty appeals to both sides of an aesthetic that is often divided between contemplative experiences of looking at art and immersive experiences of moving about in installations. Critic Michael Fried makes this distinction in his influential essay “Art and Objecthood,” which criticizes the insinuation of the immersive into art on the grounds that it destroys the “presentness” communicated by a great work. Presentness is what Fried calls the quality of a work that shows itself instantaneously—“at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest.” This type of art is transcendent, Fried implies, elevating the viewer beyond mundane duration and the ravages of time. What Fried calls “objects,” in contrast to art, lack this quality. They are given in an experience that unfolds over time. The viewer is not raised above time but immersed in it by a work that needs him to move around it in order to appear. The work thus belongs to the same mundane situation as the experiencer.

Spiral Jetty is to be sure a very worldly thing to be experienced in time by walking, but it does not fail to communicate some form of life-affirming elevation. From the perspective of Spiral Jetty, the redemption of secular experience proposed by Fried’s presentness seems like an escape, a world-denying flight from the twists and turns a life moving through time might take. Spiral Jetty moves us in the opposite direction—“earthwards” (the title of one of the earliest books on Smithson’s work). Like much land art, it turns us resolutely toward the world, between earth and sky, but the lesson I learned from it is that this worldly turn need not entail a suffocating disenchantment, that a life shaped by its movements might be a life well lived in time.

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Not just any movement through time is learned at Spiral Jetty but movement of a particular shape, a spiral. In imagining the shape an ideal life might take, the spiral does not seem especially promising—it brings to mind phrases like “death spiral,” “downward spiral,” or “spiraling out of control.” The shapes more commonly associated with an ideal life are the circle and the line. They give form to happy times.

The circle tells of what was lost being found. It gives shape to the joy or happiness of a recovery—of lost origins, an abandoned home, a dear old friend, and so on. For life that takes shape as a circle, time is not lost, nor is anything lost in time. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the novelist Milan Kundera associates circular movement with life in paradise and those whose beliefs and rituals assure them of it: where the circle’s monotony breeds happiness, Kundera claims, one dwells in paradise, but when traditional belief in paradise wanes or believers grow disillusioned, the circle’s monotony breeds boredom.

The line, on the other hand, tells of a life that moves toward some end. It gives shape to a happiness that lies not in the joy of recovery but in the pleasure of success, of goals achieved, tasks completed, progress made. On the line, there is no turning aside from the straight path of the good life, and diversions are just that, turns away from happiness. If the circle is the shape commonly associated with time and happiness in ancient or traditional societies, the line is the shape they take in modern societies committed to progress, though it likely has roots in religions of the promise and kingdom.

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On the road to Spiral Jetty, the line is celebrated at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the monument stands at the location where crews laying line east met crews laying line west. The accomplishment was impressive, the progress it allowed tremendous—certainly worthy of celebration. Human industry had completed a track that overcame the vast distances of the North American continent and allowed rapid and uninterrupted movement of people and goods from one end to the other. The line takes form everywhere at the site: in the electric lines overhead that power untold advances, in the fence lines that measure out space, and of course in the line of track suggesting the better and brighter future for those committed to industrious movement straight ahead.

Speed was obviously crucial to the achievement, as the smooth and straight line would assure that here and there, east and west, were brought together in no time at all. With distance and time conquered by speed, the present seems always shiny and ever new.

Smithson passed through the Golden Spike monument during the trip on which he discovered the site for the jetty. He must have known that most visitors would too. This invites us, even forces us, to contemplate the jetty’s relationship to the happiness of the straight life.

It’s a bit dizzying, to walk the Spiral Jetty, and not exactly satisfying. As I walk, I follow a line whose movement is constant yet seemingly without progress. It might lead me deeper—the shape of drilling down—or higher—the shape of Dante’s path up the mountain of Purgatory—but these advances do not go straight ahead. This line I am learning to follow is the spiral: it turns like a circle yet never recovers itself. Spiral Jetty is a figure of constancy—but of constant turns. Neither line nor circle, it suggests another shape the happiness of a lifetime might take. It sets me on a path that turns ever and again, without ever reaching any decisive, once-and-for-all moment that turns it around or sets it straight.

Immersed in walking the jetty, I cannot see the end, only as far as what the river guides who paddled me down the twisting Colorado told me they call the next “far-see”: the next bend in the river behind which we see nothing.

I know there will be an end, the river will empty into the sea, the Spiral Jetty will wind down—I am certain of all that. But I never know if this far-see will be the last, this turn of the spiral the final one, the end of the jetty a launch or just a fizzling out. Made entirely of turns and the indefinite certainty of an end, the Spiral Jetty demands I resolutely run ahead. But running is difficult if not impossible on the rough, uneven surface of broken ground and overturned boulders.

Movement is slow and erratic. The importance such errant motion has to being there was noted by Smithson: “I would have myself filmed from a helicopter… in order to get the scale in erratic steps…. Scale determines art. The flowing mass of rocks and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments, [but the segments] would exist only in the mind or on paper.” Erratic steps get the thing, measured steps get the abstraction. I could try to measure the jetty by walking it with an even pace, counting my steps and clocking the time it takes to get from one end to the other—but a number of measured steps gets only segments, and the Spiral Jetty is not a segment. The resoluteness it summons is not the same as measuring out sections of a smooth surface at a steady pace. Spiral Jetty asks me, instead, to be bold and maintain the constancy of moving erratically—my pace dictated by the turns and the boulders that resist efforts to maintain momentum and trajectory. As Smithson said, “I took my chances on a perilous path along which my steps zigzagged, like a spiral lightning bolt.”

Getting things straight does not get Spiral Jetty. Nor does going fast. It’s quite simple: you cannot run quickly along a path of boulders. The Spiral Jetty slows you down. My first time through, I did not let this effect come over me. I was tied to the clock and its measure of my life. Anxious not to be late home, worried about driving in the dark and missing the road, I hurried. When I entered the jetty a second time later that afternoon, however, I was overcome and let it unwind me in its own slow, counter-clockwise turning. I saw how much there is to see even on a narrow path that comes to an abrupt end not long after beginning: hollows in the rock call for inspection, crystal forms ask me to bend and see the long history of their formation, boulders demand I pause.

We all might walk the same path to the same end, but there is a lot of difference to see.

After passing the Golden Spike monument, the road becomes gravel. It runs maybe fifteen more miles. Along the way the only landmarks are cattle guards and abandoned corrals. It is a journey into a progressively emptier desert where space grows vast and the things to see shrink and become few. There are only one or two forks in the road, and the way is clearly marked at each, so the likelihood of making a wrong choice and getting lost is slim. Dia also provides downloadable directions. It is not hard to find your way, but that clarity does not abolish the distance.

Traveling the road is about perseverance and patient resoluteness: it goes straight there, even if it twists and is uncomfortable. It is a matter neither of choosing correctly nor of making your own way. I would guess that most people who think they know a better path and are determined to stick to it no matter what the world throws at them will remain in the desolation.

In the “uncanny immensity” that Smithson noted, distances become more difficult to measure and forms harder to discern. It is as if the road follows the de-creation of the world or the running-down of history as all seems to return to the homogeneity of the primal soup or the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis, take your pick. Eventually it comes to the edge of the lake where what remains of an abandoned industrial site still sits: a pier, a line of pilings, maybe even a platform. There are a series of seeps here where profiteers hoped to extract oil. Defeated, these projects are now abandoned, left mired in the mud, moldering or gathering rust in the salt flats beside the lake.

The contrast with the Golden Spike monument is evident. The celebration of the line and the bright, shiny time of progress has given way to dereliction—a berm collapsing on itself, posts gone crooked in a pose of ruination, a jetty fizzling out in the sand.

This site is the ruin of the dream of the line, not that it denies that the line makes progress—but it tells us that the future toward which progress progresses holds the bygone past and leaves traces of its passing in the form of wreckage remaining in the present. The line makes progress, but toward what will have been. It makes what Smithson calls “ruins in reverse” as each of its creations “rise into ruin.” Look at the picture: is that the past or our future?

At the oil jetty, the line comes to ruin, and what could come after the end of the line? Though the road takes me to this derelict site, “mired in abandoned hopes,” I go on, hopelessly, around a bend, yet another turn into another farseeing distance, and almost all at once, suddenly, it is upon me—overwhelmingly so.

It is there looking as if it has always been there, ever since forever. “It looks so ancient in your photographs,” a friend tells me. He is a professional photographer, so I agree and take it as a compliment, for it is precisely the aura of time immemorial that is felt along the road into this desert of de-creation and destitution.

Though the aura of the ancient saturates this place, Spiral Jetty is not a wreck. It is weirdly beautiful, strangely moving, and rejuvenating. “Beauty so ancient and so new,” Saint Augustine once confessed. The words hold truth here: in the discovery of the ancient hides the possibility of the new; coming back to what has always been there opens the way ahead, to unanticipated birth and new life; the ancient you are always after projects the future you are always after, with patient resoluteness. Another spiraling motion where going back throws you forward.

§

Just why the spiral should be a shape pregnant, amid the barrenness, with promise of life is suggested by the French polymath Michel Serres’s provocative reading of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Serres tells us that for Lucretius the pre-original universe consists of atoms falling in straight lines through a void, a torrent in which the flow is laminar, parallel and therefore smooth. This flow does not constitute a world or the things that might make up a world; there is nothing, only isolated atoms moving in straight, parallel lines according to their weight and the law of inertia: no meaningful interaction, no world. For there to be world and things, the law of weight must be broken, the atoms must deviate from the plumb line of their straight fall so that they can gather and interact with one another, making a world.

A disturbance is thus needed for the transition from the orderly nothing of smooth flow to the disorderly something and world. But there can be no explanation for this disturbance from within the laminar flow since motion in it is governed by inertia. The world and things are born, therefore, from an inexplicable deviation or turn that Lucretius’s translators call “the swerve.” The swerve is not an effect produced by some cause other than the atom; it names an event we cannot explain but must suppose to happen in atoms themselves in order to account for the world we experience. In other words, the basic constituents of the universe are deviants; that there is world supposes a basic deviancy.

Lucretius describes the swerve as a deviation that is “as slight as possible” resulting in a “modification of motion that is as small as one could say,” an almost immeasurable bend or inclination. Those inclined to continue motion with such a bend will make a spiral: a measurable deviation constantly applied would make for a line that returns to its starting point, a circle; no deviation ever applied would maintain a straight line. If, however, the constantly applied deviation is the smallest possible so as to make an immeasurable difference, it produces a line that is forever bending yet never enough to rejoin itself—a spiral. That there is something rather than nothing testifies to the spiral’s triumph.

The spiral’s triumph is also witnessed by the world’s distinctive, finite temporality. Circle and line are, from its perspective, interchangeable: both figure unending time, eternal progress or eternal return, in which the world that has been is maintained unendingly. But this is not the time of our worlds: our worlds are passing away, their times will run out—this pastness is what the future holds. Epicurus gives shape to this marriage between life that has a future and collapse. That shape is the spiral, the shape of time that has a future yet is running out as it runs ahead.

In the world and time made by the spiral, Serres concludes, “there are only vortices or whirlwinds [tourbillons].” If a disturbing swerve gives shape to our world and its distinctive time, then life in such a world continues only turbulently. So long as we have time, we have the spiral’s turbulence, and we all want to have more time, especially those most heavily pressed by the demands of daily life. Are we willing to want the turbulence, too? Though we want our lives to follow the straight line of progress from success to success, though we dream of circular movements of recovery, the spiral and its turbulence are life-giving. Life-affirming beliefs and rituals must not avoid the turbulence of the life affirmed.

§

After it all falls into ruin, through the mire of abandoned hopes, surrounded by destitution, I find a sign affirming life—the bent line and broken circle of life spiraling toward its end, but still spiraling. The road winds up here, winding down in a trail that spirals toward collapse. This is really the end.

Nothing more. It feels as if the road has ended too soon, before it is over. Why here? Why now? Isn’t there something more to be done or someplace else to go?

The worry of these questions pressed on me, and for a while I struggled with them, but, in the end, at the end, there was nothing left to do and I sat down. I had walked this spiral much as medieval men walked a labyrinth. The labyrinth is a pattern on the floor or ground of certain churches or other sacred sites. Unlike a maze, it contains no branches, crossroads, or other critical moments calling for a decision. Its intention is to quiet or empty the mind, to bring about a stillness. The twists and turns of a labyrinth do this by making one disoriented and confused; one loses the sense of where one is, where one is going, and what time it might be as the familiar world slips away. Disorientation brings one closer to the divine life.

A calm serenity overtook me in my lostness as I sat and focused on the nothing more before me, letting my mind wander over the empty desert with little to hold my attention.

But nobody stays in the ritual state forever, however desirable its sacred ecstasy, happy escape, or blissful perfection. As a scholar of religion I know that the return is as important as the trip. The hardest part of my return was the moment of deciding to. Even now, I am not confident I got it right, haunted as I am by the sense of having missed something. Too many empty words and dull photos haunt these pages. Because there is no tour guide, user’s manual, or assessment rubric with step-by-step instructions, I do not know if I did all I was supposed to do, saw all I was supposed to see at Spiral Jetty.

Still, there comes a time when you have to leave. You have to stand up and forego quiet contemplation, renounce sitting serenely at the end, and get back on the road. You have seen what you will see here in this blissful place, and while there might be more to see, your time is done, over.

I cannot say exactly when that moment came over me. There likely was not one exact instant anyway. I know that it grew in me more than it came from me, that I just felt it was time to go. “Just felt it”—not the sort of thing people say when they offer an account of themselves, nor the sort of explanation historians or critics accept as an account of art works, lacking in objectivity and evidence as it is. But I did just feel it and after some delay did just find myself on the road again, without a deliberated choice.

Like most of us, I was slow to respond to the feeling that the moment had come to say goodbye. I was not all ready, prompt and eager to heed its call like a perfect footman. I was torn, divided between staying or going, and so I delayed, dragged my feet as I turned back—and stumbled over the uneven surface of a path I had already walked.

§

And I might never have made it back. It is a joy to return home, to come back to my family, my place, and my work, but I do not feel completely settled in or down. It is as if returning did not bring me back to where I left. Like a spiral, I returned slightly off center, displaced in the very place where I feel the joy of being at home. Educated by the strangeness of Spiral Jetty, I arrived at the unfamiliarity of being at home—a strange joy but a joy, unsettling progress but progress. The Spiral Jetty is always there, in the desert, and so long as I live in remembrance of this desert fact, I remain unsure if I am home when I am at home and if I am a stranger when in a strange land.


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