Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a giant spiral made of basalt and sand, and set into the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake, figures out relations between circles, or spirals, and history. The film[1] that accompanies and documents the piece, puts layers of metaphoric resonances and metonymic continuities to work: pages disappearing from history books, mazes and labyrinths, salt-crystals attaching themselves to the stones of the sculpture and shaping themselves into spirals as they grow, and then, Smithson’s circling with the camera around a dinosaur mummy in a museum of natural history. The reels of film on which Smithson shoots the documentation of the monument are also spirals, and so are the sun’s nebulae, with which the film ends and begins; “like circles curling out of the sun”[2], they can cause sunstroke, dizziness, loss of memory.

There is a postscript to the work’s making and its documentation in the film, one that continues the work’s concern with questions of circularity and visibility: After Smithson’s death (three years after the Jetty was built) a debate began around the monument’s fluctuating appearance and disappearance in the waters of the lake (the lake’s water levels change dramatically between years of drought and years with heavy rainfall). Smithson’s widow, Nancy Holt, and others have claimed that, when the waters began to rise, Smithson wanted the Jetty to be raised by five meters, so as to always be visible.[3] Others have stressed Smithson’s interest in natural entropy, his art works’ dependence on and interaction with, to some degree, the elements surrounding it.[4] But in either case, the structure will only appear periodically exactly as originally intended and built: more or less flush with the water surface, raised just enough above the water that one can walk on it. If fortified and raised in the way proposed, it could tower at a monumental five meters above the ground when the waters recede. If not raised, it will continue to be submerged for long stretches of time, barely visible, but still, as one commentator said, known to be there: “It's kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.” Even when we can’t see it, we know it exists.[5]

[1] Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, Documentary, Short.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Art Fag City, “Spiral Jetty Update and Conversation Points,” Art F City, accessed February 15, 2014,; Melissa Sanford New York Times News Service, “Jetty Restoration under Consideration,”, January 18, 2004,

[4]  Melissa Sanford, “Jetty Restoration under Consideration.”

[5] Ibid.