Texas Tea Threatens Earthwork


I was stunned to learn that Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which has sustained Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty since it was built in 1970, was being surveyed for oil drilling. The artist’s widow (Smithson died in a plane crash a few years after the project was completed) sent up a flare about this encroachment about a week ago.

For the Spiral Jetty to disintegrate on its own would be one thing. After all, it has already changed drastically since it was first constructed because of exposure to the elements. The rocks have changed color and shifted over time. Even seeing it has always been subject to how high the water levels of the lake rise. For most of the past thirty years it has been submerged—Smithson built the sculpture during a severe drought, but when the water levels rose to their normal levels, the artwork was hidden under the surface of the lake. This kind of organic decay is not only in keeping with the artist’s original intentions for the work, but is a crucial characteristic of an earthwork. Its fragility makes it vulnerable to mutation, but considering the nature of evolution, it is exactly this ability to change that keeps the work alive.

But it would be something altogether different—make that sinister and unacceptable—if the Spiral Jetty were destroyed because the natural environment of the lake was mucked up with deep drilling.

The hue and cry has had some effect. The Utah Public Lands Office has received hundreds of letters and emails protesting the drilling.

Photo credit: Spiral Jetty from Rozel Point (Wikipedia)

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.