In 1970, Robert Smithson constructed his landart piece titled, Spiral Jetty, at Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson is known as an artist who sought to challenge the role that art played in the world and the ways in which society defined it and being at the forefront of new developments in landart and earthworks. Fascinated by high salt content the reddish tone of the Great Salt Lake, Smithson ventured to its shores and was enthralled by the awe inspiring effect of the desolate and raw landscape surrounding Rozel Point and the ways in which the world seemed to spiral around the lake’s surface in an all encompassing manner. Smithson sought to build his jetty out of the same earth to mimic the powerful effect of the land. Smithson hired contractor Bob Phillips to use his construction equipment to move 6,650 tons of basalt and earth into a spiral that extended into the lake’s salty, pink waters. Smithson took photographs of his Spiral Jetty, created a thirty-two-minute film of its creation, and wrote an essay in 1972 about the earthwork’s conception and formation. In 1971, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty became submerged in the salty water of the Great Salt Lake and did not emerge again until 2002. Because Smithson employed the use of photography, film, and writing to capture the essence of the Spiral Jetty, the earthwork’s image and reputation did not drown with the sculpture itself.
Additionally, Smithson acknowledge the effects that time and the environment would have upon his Spiral Jetty and incorporated the transformative powers of the Great Salt Lake as a key element of his composition and entropic message. As the Spiral Jetty is continually worn away through time and the salty water, the spiral’s meaning, the world’s understanding of it, and its seemingly endless conceptual depth continues to develop and expand beyond the physical structure and embody the thought provoking intentions of Smithson’s creation. Emphasizing the earth’s connection to all life, Smithson presented his piece, in part, as an allegory for humanity’s relationship to the world, nature, and time.
Though his earthwork is unique in its composition, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is reminiscent of previous usages and developments of the Utah’s land. Smithson’s interest in societal isolation and environmental separatism reflects the early pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their desire to leave the world they considered to be sinful. As these pioneers relied on the guiding influence of God in their journey, Smithson relied on the transformative effects of nature that enabled the jetty’s evolution through time. The Spiral Jetty is also connected to Utah’s rich history of mining. Smithson was fascinated by the earth’s geology and incorporated such interests in his Spiral Jetty. Utah’s mineral rich earth provides the perfect landscape for mining and smelting and, as a result, the state’s landscape is littered with mines that extract its resources. The Spiral Jetty resembles a similar physical connection to the earth as is seen in these mines. The Spiral Jetty, therefore, evokes a connection in its similarities and differences with previous uses and developments of the land and represents the way that Utah, and the American West, is ever changing.