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Komplaint Dept. - A Tour of the Monuments of Salt Lake City: Robert Smithson, the Melvins, and the Mormons

I went out to Salt Lake City to see Robert Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty,' give a talk at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and surprise my friends the Melvins at one of their shows.
October 11, 2012, 3:18pm

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970), Great Salt Lake, Utah, black rock, salt crystals, earth, 1,500 feet long, approx. 15 feet wide. All photos by Jason Metcalf unless otherwise noted.

On Monday, September 3, I took a cab out to JFK for a nonstop flight to Salt Lake City. In the lounge area, sleepily waiting to board, no one really looked like a Mormon. This wouldn't have actually occurred to me, but I had been warned. There would be young men coming back from their missions, wearing white shirts and ties, clean shaven, well scrubbed, and, as a rule, always traveling in pairs. This may have something to do, I was later told, with how they keep an eye on and watch out for one another, how they try to avoid being tempted or seduced, as they might be if they were out on their own. While this does make sense, it doesn't account for those non-believers who, shall we say, prefer a challenge, and are not actually averse to a three-way. I had bought a copy of the New York Times, and at the moment the prospects of the paper were slightly of greater interest. The cover stories were mainly election-related, such as: "Effects of Romney's Tax Plan? Key Variables Are Left Blank." One major point of contention raised in the story is Mitt Romney's claim that his policies won't raise the taxes of middle-class Americans, and yet you have to wonder how he expects to do this while covering about $1 trillion in tax breaks annually, and without increasing the federal deficit. Economists and tax experts—no matter what their political affiliations—don't see how he can pull it off without seriously hurting the middle-class, but boarding a plane and the economy have one thing in common: it's always business first.

Members of the Manson "family" congregate at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice on February 24, 1970, for the arraignment of Patricia Krenwinkel, a defendant in the Sharon Tate murder case. From left are Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Sandra Good, Mark Ross, Paul Watkins, and Catherine "Gypsy" Share holding Good's son Ivan. Photo Wally Fong, AP.

Flipping through the paper, a headline jumped out at me, waiting as I was for a flight out west: "Inspired by the Pull of the Desert." The photo below showed a bright-eyed attractive woman, probably mid-to-late 20s, identified as Claire Vaye Watkins, while further down the page was another photograph, obviously of a certain period, showing a hippie-ish group of young people, with brightly patterned, velvet, silk or crocheted shirts and blouses, long straggly hair, some of the men bearded, all of them smiling, laughing or looking slightly bemused or high. The only person who does not appear happy is a small baby in the arms of one of the women, perhaps overdue for a nap or just bored. According to the caption in the Times: "Claire Vaye Watkins's father, Paul, center, and other members of Charles Manson's family in 1970. Ms. Watkins was relieved to discover that her father was not found to be a killer." The piece on Ms. Watkins, who is a writer, is more interestingly an interview rather than a review of her first collection of short stories, Battleborn, which was published last month. From the start, the Times refers to the book as having a "notable provenance," the fact that her father was "Manson's chief procurer of young girls," though not one of his murderous henchmen, and how the opening story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," is "a mix of history, memoir, and fiction." We learn that she was only six years old when her father died, and was mostly raised by her mother in the isolation of the Mojave desert, near Death Valley, and later in Nevada, where all of her stories are set. In the interview she refers to these places as "pretty remote, geographically and culturally. They're places you go if you want to be left alone."

Robert Smithson on the Jetty, 1970, photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni.

I thought of this as the flight finally departed, and it was still very much on my mind five hours later as the plane made its descent over the Great Salt Lake, the sunlight bouncing off the water and also intermittently shadowed, as if a mirror of my own anticipation, and I couldn't help but wonder: if your writing is about your life, and it's somehow meant to be true, isn't it always a mix of history, memoir, and fiction? Why should it seem exceptional, or an exception to the rule? As I craned to see out the window, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the Spiral Jetty, the great earthwork of Robert Smithson, created in 1970, and my main reason for making this trip. After all, I had waited more than 25 years to see the Jetty. It is one of the landmarks of contemporary art, and a personal touchstone. At a time when art is routinely bought and sold, and for some it's just another form of currency and instant cultural cachet in an increasingly money-mad and superficial world, here is a work that represents, above all, the higher elevations, art's relationship to nature, to time, to a mystic idea of a journey and endless turning. And yet it also reminds us of the limits of life, particularly where humans are concerned. The Spiral Jetty, as it appears and disappears with the rise and fall of the lake, and in terms of its setting within the landscape, is one of the only monuments of any consequence in this country. Even when it's submerged it's there, a question mark coiled around itself, its uncertainty at the center of the artist's fascination with how space and time reverberate, as traced in the form of the spiral. The fact that Smithson died young, and not long after completing the Jetty, gives the work and the place a haunted quality, though in an otherworldly rather than morbid sense.


I had also come to Salt Lake City to give a talk at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as to see one of my favorite bands, the Melvins. They are, both bravely and preposterously, attempting to play all 50 states and the District of Columbia in 51 consecutive days, and are driving to all the shows except for those in Anchorage and Honolulu. Their goal: to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. My aim, minuscule in contrast, was simply to arrange a friendly ambush and surprise them at one of the stops on their tour of tours, and the more unexpected the location the better: destination, Salt Lake City. Over the course of three days, the triangulation of the Mormons, the Melvins, and Robert Smithson was too good to pass by. Time better spent, I thought, chasing some ghosts and cowboys of my own, un-spiraling myself from the irreality of New York in order to get a closer look at the West, a very red state, and the Temple to which Mitt Romney owes his spiritual if not his political allegiance—though all places of worship, as Smithson would have it, are ultimately non-sites. But no matter. If you worship God, power, and the almighty dollar, a place will always be made for you in this mean old world.

I was picked up at the airport by Aaron, a recent transplant from Berlin, who had invited me to Salt Lake City. Once in town, we stopped for a coffee and ran into the filmmaker Trent Harris, best known for The Beaver Trilogy, one of the most bizarrely moving and unforgettable semi-documentaries of all time, starring an incredible Crispin Glover and also Sean Penn, for whom it is probably no longer listed on his resume. From there a quick stop at Ken Sanders Rare Books, where you can easily and very pleasurably lose a few hours. (Friends who knew I was making a trip to the land of the Mormons had suggested Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, but it seemed too heavy, and anyway I preferred to see what the city itself would yield.) At Sanders I found copies of Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, for only $6, a mere pittance, and J.G. Ballard's 1996 collection of essays and reviews, A User's Guide To the Millennium. I had interviewed Ballard just after the book was published, and remember well how he mused on our temporal dislocation:


"Does the future still have a future? That's what I want to know. Is it what it used to be? No, I think the future is about to die on us, actually. I think it may have died a few years ago. I think we are living in the present. We theme-parked the future just as we theme-park everything. We theme-parked the past. We theme-parked the future, and visit it only when we feel we want some sort of glittery gimmick.1

Smithson had memorably referenced Ballard in an important essay in 1966, "Quasi Infinities and the Waning of Space," in which he quoted from the author's story, "The Overloaded Man"—"Without a time sense, consciousness is difficult to visualize." I kept this all in mind as I settled into a comfortable room at the historic Peery Hotel, built in 1910, a few blocks from the city's original arrival points, the Rio Grande Depot and the Union Pacific Depot, magnificent relics of the great fortunes made here a very long time ago, twin portals which symbolized the importance of Salt Lake as the crossroads of the West, as it was once proudly acknowledged. Just 90 minutes away, near the location of the Spiral Jetty, is the marker for the Golden Spike, where the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined the country, East and West, in 1869. Abandoned by Amtrak in the late 1990s, the depots today are used for restaurants, shops, concerts, and the offices of the Historical Society. Where travelers once boarded and disembarked the California Zephyr as they made their way purposefully across country, you now find the mindless idling of impassive tourists, weary office workers, and indifferent teenagers with skateboards tucked under their well-inked arms, all appearing leisurely bored. If only the bland airport terminals of our theme-parked present will one day be resigned to a similar fate, then the Ballardian/Smithsonian future will have truly arrived.

Melvins Lite, photo: the Salt Lake Triubune.

The Melvins


On our first night in town, we venture over to the west side, near the former train stations, to a club called In the Venue, where the Melvins, in their current incarnation as a trio, with Trevor Dunn on stand-up bass, will be playing. They call themselves Melvins Lite, but there is nothing remotely "lite" about the music, which is still heavy and sludgy and even more darkly atmospheric when Dunn begins to slide and scrape a bow across the strings, opening up all sorts of creepy space in older but in no way ossified slabs of Melvins menace like "Eye Flys," with which they opened their set, slaying the crowd within the first eight or so minutes of the show. The glacial pace that the Spiral Jetty would overlay on our sense of time just two days later, was here given an equally beguiling sonic form, a reminder that this is a band for whom spatial dislocation is more than a shift of time signatures, but a matter of rearranging the molecules of expectations and dynamics at will—of rearranging matter.

On the way to the club, we passed a woman in a wheelchair, slowly making her way across the intersection. She appeared older than she probably was, something that life on the streets impacts, a compression that speeds up the metabolism of the soul, so that life isn't measured in years but in hours, minutes, feet, and inches. She moved at a crawl and held a tattered cardboard sign in her lap that pled: PLEASE. CAN YOU GIVE SOMETHING. ANYTHING WOULD HELP. My first thought was, This person is probably not a fundraiser for Mitt Romney. And then it seemed like the perfect caption for a photo. But even if you offer money to take a picture, haven't you also taken advantage of her, used her and thrown her away? For all its squeaky clean image in and around Temple Square, my companions, both locals, said that this was a common sight in Salt Lake City. And then the light changed, and the illusion snapped back into place.


A Tour of the Monuments

On my second day, walking around town, I was struck by a number of particularly Smithsonian images which reminded me of the artist's famous essay, "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey." The piece was based on a September 30, 1967 visit that he made to the city where he had been born almost 30 years before, but his tour is much more than a nostalgic exercise, as he embarks on a journey beyond the looking glass, encounters "the limits of eternity," and ends up asking himself if Passaic has "replaced Rome as the Eternal City?" It is in this essay that he vividly introduces his notion of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is understood as a measure of the capacity of a system to undergo spontaneous change. In other words, physical dissolution is an inevitability. It is inescapable. It is irreversible. Cowboys and the old West— entropic. Hippies, a romanticization of the mythos of the cowboy— entropic. Manson— catastrophically entropic. Smithson himself, gone six years later, at the age of 35— tragically so. Making his way along the Passaic River that fall afternoon, he documents, with his pocket Instamatic camera, and designates as monuments various industrial and vernacular structures. A number of waste water pipes, for example, are referred to as The Fountain Monument, while his tour invokes a form of time travel, with bulldozers described as "mechanical dinosaurs." Near the day's end he comes upon a desolate sand box in a forlorn park, and notes:


"The last monument was a sand box or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans—no longer were there green forests and high mountains—all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust. Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equalled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity. This sand box somehow doubled as an open grave—a grave that children cheerfully play in."2

Smithson, in a sense, was already out on the Great Salt Lake tracing his way, like a serpent following its own tail, along the Spiral Jetty, encrusted with salt crystals, a monument to the notion of entropy, and ultimately to the legacy of its creator. He concludes the essay with a perfect, irrefutable demonstration meant to prove entropy and "the irreversibility of eternity."

"Picture in your mind's eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.


"Of course if we filmed such an experiment we could prove the reversibility of eternity by showing the film backwards, but then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility."3

What elusive truths, I was determined to find out, would Salt Lake City reveal to me? My own tour would encompass all of my third and final day, as I was driven around by Jason, an artist who would serve as a guide not only to the various sites, but to Mormon history, and who photographed our path almost every step of the way.

The Sand Box Monument

Almost immediately we encounter a "mechanical dinosaur" at a construction site not far from City Creek Center, the new shopping mall that was built by the Mormon church for about $1.5 billion. Here, next to an open pit flanked by multi-story parking bunkers, and mirrored by the blue rippling reflection of a sleek glass office tower, is a small brick building, a lone remnant from 1880. While many historic buildings have been razed in recent years, this one still stands, and today it presides over the city's new giant sand box. Locals told me that just the night before, the crew digging here had unearthed buried tunnels that most likely led directly back to Temple Square, a few blocks away. These pathways to shadowy Mormon times were said to be quickly covered up, history re-interred.

A Sphinx at the Masonic Temple.

The Masonic Temple


We move on to the Masonic Temple, an Egyptian Revival structure built by the Freemason's between 1925 and 1927. On either side of the main entrance stairs are two Sphinx figures, each holding a sphere, one terrestrial, one celestial, Heaven and Earth. Among the building's many decorative elements are the wings of Horus, the Egyptian falcon god; Ankhs, the handled cross which represents the key of life; asps, a marker of divine royalty; and a scarab above a funerary ramp on the side of the building, an Egyptian symbol of resurrection and a Masonic reference to the soul's immortality. One reason for incorporating all of this Egyptian symbolism was to conceal the Masonic emblems and references. But why? Because all of it would be deciphered, and their power stolen? Secret societies need their secrets whether or not anyone else really cares. As with most of our tour, we are never able or willing to venture into most of the buildings or beyond the periphery of a site. Our caution, respect, or simple gutless fear prevents anyone from interrupting our nosing around and taking photographs over the course of the day.

The Heavy Metal Shop

Still standing proudly on Exchange Place, a side street near Washington Square, and the majestic City & County Building with its imposing clocktower, is the Heavy Metal Shop, a Salt Lake City institution whose motto is: "Peddlin' Evil Since 1987." The facade is covered with an incredible mural by Kier Defstar, whose screaming metallic silver figure, with its bloody protruding brain, is straight out of the movie Alien. In a town where some of the rows of flowers appear micro-manicured to within an inch of their stamens, the HMS fully restores your faith in the apocalypse.

The Empty Pool and Temple Ruins at The Bay

The Bay is a dance club that used to be called the Vortex (and by some disgruntled patrons, the Whore-tex), and before that it may have been Club Bliss. Off to the side is an empty pool with a dirty black puddle of water, and topped by an astounding structure, a faux stone ledge that would have perversely delighted Smithson. It has four Doric columns framing a massive rock throne, while off to the side a mini Greek temple shelters a Red Bull dispenser. The addictive, sugar-laden "energy drink" is a favorite of Mormons, who, in addition to alcohol and tobacco, are forbidden by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) from consuming hot drinks, which usually refers to coffee and tea. Lucky for them, Red Bull is a beverage preferably served cold.

The poster on the Patriot's Monument.

The Patriot's Monument


A metal box at the corner of West Temple and 600 S., housing equipment for traffic signals, carries a poster which declares, "Bear Arms or Wear Chains," with the image of a rifle and an American flag behind barbed wire. We designate this The Patriot's Monument.

The Malachi sculpture at Gilgal Garden.

Gilgal Garden

Gilgal means "a circle of sacred stones," and here you will discover, in a sculpture garden created between 1945 and 1963 by the Mormon visionary and LDS Bishop, Thomas Child, a dozen monuments and more than 70 stones engraved with scripture. There is Captain of the Lord's Host, with his mighty sword, and of course there's a Sphinx. Nearby, from the roof of a small cavern, two hands bizarrely emerge from the craggy rock, reaching out to white and red stone hearts. It makes me think that every time I encounter the LDS acronym I can't help but see LSD, and it may be a sign of a bad trip. Just then, behind the cavern, a decapitated head and an enormous grasshopper are visible at the base of a boulder topped by writhing serpents and engraved with the Bible passage: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return to God who gave it." An entropic moment casts us out from the garden. Rushing back to the car, we cross a stone set in the ground with the simple declaration: "See what God hath wrought." Jason mentions that high ranking members of the church considered having Gilgal razed after Child's death, perhaps embarrassed by its general lunacy, but in the end it was preserved. I came to think of Salt Lake as a city intent on and conflicted by a preserving and erasing of its past, and in this respect it's not so different from the selective amnesia that one encounters in cities all over the country.

The Summum Pyramid.



More Egyptology and even wackier weirdness awaited us at Summum, which is dominated by a giant copper pyramid. With a sort of door but no discernible handle, it appears to be an alien craft that landed in a residential neighborhood in the shadow of the freeway, either that or a bomb shelter. A welcome sign on the main building proclaims: "The Grand Principle of Creation—NOTHING AND POSSIBILITY come in and out of bond infinite times in a finite moment." There's a small tap and a sign on the locked gate offering "Sacramental Water 9:00 AM To 5:00 PM." I check my watch. Although it's about 1:30 in the afternoon, there are no signs of life. I turn the faucet and some water suddenly spurts out onto the sidewalk. I nervously look around to see if anyone has witnessed my wastefulness of the sacrament.

Danger signs at Summum.

Moving out of view, we come upon a forbidding shed behind a chain link fence, and a pair of less inviting signs, each marked with a skull and crossbones. TOXIC GAS. INHALATION HAZARD. And others. DANGER ARGON. PELIGRO NO TRESPASAR. Jason and I get back in the car and head for the highway that goes out to the Skull Valley Indian Reservation, making our way beyond the city to the edge of the Great Salt Lake and Saltair.

Kennecott Smokestack

Rising like an enormous weapon of mass destruction—and an omen of things to come—this smokestack, circa 1974, is claimed to be the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi. At 120 feet in diameter at its base, and 1215 feet high, it's just 35 feet shy of the Empire State Building, but the massive mountains directly behind dwarf its stature, and most New Yorkers don't believe it's as big as that. But it is. In its heyday, and before stricter environmental rules were enacted, almost 50,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released by the hour, so it was a WMD of its own lethal kind. Today, only a few pounds per hour are released into the atmosphere (thank you, Monsanto), and its grandeur is undeniable.


The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the supremely bland blockhouse that's immediately across the highway. This is Saltair III, a large event space that has hosted concerts by alternative luminaries such as Sigur Ros and Marilyn Manson. Although Megadeth will be there on December 1, and even the Melvins played Saltair back in '95 when they opened for White Zombie, as Smithson noted more than 40 years ago, even today "the superstars" are fading. No one can charge Saltair with having been theme-parked. Although it resembles a Costco with peeled onion domes, and was constructed in Frankenstinian fashion from parts of an abandoned Air Force hangar, Saltair is descended from two magical Moorish confections. The first resort appeared in 1893, and the second in 1925, each built over the Great Salt Lake at the end of a long pier. Financed by Mormons and the railroad companies that ferried people out from the city, both pavilions were destroyed by fire.

Saltair pavilion circa 1900, dry plate glass negative by William Henry Jackson.

Period photos show bathers in the lake, standing and floating rather than swimming, since its salinity, at about 30 percent, is even higher than that of the Dead Sea. But this is a sight that would be almost unthinkable today. Muddy, infused with the gnarly odor of brine shrimp, with cutting salt-encrusted rock and water that would sting if it was splashed in your eyes, most people don't willingly go for a dip. Those who have refer to their experience as primordial, an observation Smithson would have thoroughly enjoyed.


Bleeding the Beast

On the drive back to town, Jason tells me about a hairy encounter that he and a friend had up in the mountains with what they at first thought was a polygamist group's compound. They came upon a row of nearly identical houses. It was eerily quiet and there was no one in sight, when suddenly a woman armed with a shotgun emerged from out of nowhere, pointed the gun and said, "Leave. I won't tell you twice. Just turn and go." Which they did. Later, relating the incident and their suspicions, they were informed that it wasn't a polygamist sect at all, but a meth lab. As we drive on, the story leads to a discussion of how polygamists in fundamentalist groups that split from the LDS are organized in their efforts to "bleed the beast," taking government money and assistance, and evading personal and property taxes to the tune of tens of millions of dollars yearly. Families with multiple wives and many children, some of whom are disabled because of possible inbreeding, and most who are on welfare, are, according to the documentary Banking On Heaven, "living off taxpayer money." The film's producer, Laurie Allen, claims that “in the state of Arizona alone, they’re getting between 20 and 30 million dollars a year."4

Out on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney can say what he wants and insult hard-working, tax-paying Americans who will likely vote for Obama, but he can't avoid the inconvenient truth that breakaway members of the Mormon church, in his own state of Utah and around the Southwest, not only avoid paying their fair share, but may pay nothing at all, robbing blind a government they despise, and stealing from the rest of us. They are the ones who are "bleeding the beast," and admit to it proudly. But then Mitt Romney is apparently not his brother's keeper.


One of the oddest things in Salt Lake City is that there aren't any signs or bumper stickers that say, "Mitt Romney For President." It's as if he wasn't running at all. It makes you consider the possibility that someone doesn't want this sort of signage or public endorsement, not in the Mormon "company town." His religion was a big issue when he was possibly going to be named the Republican nominee, but it's wholeheartedly avoided or forgotten now that he's the man, and the election looms on the horizon. Wherever you go, you ask yourself, "Where's Mitt?" In Salt Lake City, where some think of him not merely as a favorite son, but as the chosen one, as a savior, he's all but a phantom.

Ashtray at the McCune mansion, spiral pattern in the black sand.

The McCune Mansion and the LDS Conference Center

Back in town just before heading out to the Spiral Jetty, a quick trip to the imposing McCune Mansion yields a premonition of sorts. Jason notices that the black sand in a large ashtray on the front porch is subtly raked in the form of a spiral.

Convention Center roofline with Hanging Gardens of Babylon effect.

From the house, which sits high atop the hill, we have a view of the massive LDS Conference Center, so big that it could serve, Jason remarks, as a hangar for a 747—or maybe a couple planes, along with Air Force One?—giving it the feel of a secret military installation. (A day earlier, when I scouted around, it felt as if I was being followed by a man in a golf cart, but maybe it was all in my mind.) The length and back of the building, which clings to the slope of the hill, is planted with many bushes and trees, as if it were some sort of Hanging Garden of Babylon. The plantings provide lush camouflage and reinforce a slightly sinister feeling. From one site to the next, we keep asking ourself, "Do they have something to hide?"

The pipe organ at the Mormon Tabernacle.

The Mormon Tabernacle


Temptation gets the best of us, and although we're running late we detour for the magnificent pipe organ in the Mormon Tabernacle. The day before, I had stopped for a few minutes, and the man playing the organ had really taken us for a wild ride. He produced enormous slabs of heaviness, sound so rumbling and deep that the floor shook beneath our feet. In an instant, the Melvins and heavy metals from the depths of the Earth, every touch of evil and the flames that licked ferociously at Saltair, the secrets and curses of Egyptian tombs, the hints of menace and destruction, filled the cavernously domed room. It was, in a word, sublime. It took your breath away, as if all the air being sucked through the massive tubes had evacuated the room and your lungs. Then you gasped, shaken by the monumentality of it all. Looking towards the stage, the mild-mannered man at the keyboard peered over his shoulder, silently pleased with what he had wrought. On our repeat visit, we were hoping to shoot some video, but he doodled tepidly at the keys and we left unmoved.

Missile at ATK Aerospace.

The Spiral Jetty

We meet up with Aaron at the museum and switch to his car for the ride out to the Jetty. After driving for just over an hour we're stopped for a vehicle that commands most of the road—a 24-wheel flatbed truck loaded with a missile larger than we could ever have imagined. We're passing the entrance to the ATK Aerospace test facility, and the missile before us is probably on its way to nearby Hill Air Force base. It's hard not to be awed by such a powerful object of destruction, and while some guilt is felt in the moment, its awesomeness cannot be denied. A joke is blurted out—"Our tax dollars at work"—quickly followed by a silence as immense as the dread that endlessly reverberated throughout the Tabernacle.


We drive a few more minutes and there it is, the Spiral Jetty. There are no other people around, and no buildings loom in the distance. This is the West, expanding in all directions, dominated by the luminosity of the sun and its apparitions, and the lake spreads out as far as the eye can see. The landscape may well appear much as it had when Smithson was here in 1970, surveying the site and then what he'd done. We wonder to what extent a place can be inhabited by the past? And an artwork by its maker? Although I've been waiting half my life to see the Jetty, I'm not emotional or awestruck. It's there and I'm there, and the rest of the world, especially its noise and its limits, has disappeared. And then we all start walking out. Even if I'm with Aaron and Jason, I somehow feel that I'm on my own. It's just me, the Jetty and the lake, the shimmering light of the sun and its warmth, and the hazy horizon. We haven't brought rubber boots like we were planning to, so we only go out along the straightway. There are places where the rocks are missing, and foamy water laps at the edge of the Jetty. It has the feel of a bumpy rural road dotted with potholes, appearing as small pools filled by a recent downpour. I would later be told that people sometimes take away rocks as souvenirs, eroding the structure in tandem with the elements. Smithson himself might have remarked: Isn't that what tourists do at the Pyramids of Giza and at the Acropolis?

The DIA Art Foundation, which owns the Jetty, has for years debated whether or not there should be restoration. Before I went out to Salt Lake City, I was sure of where I stood in the debate, and firm in my belief. My feeling was that it flew in the face of Smithson and his notions of entropy, that of all the things that should never be "restored," the Spiral Jetty was at the top of the list. But when I stood on the Jetty itself everything shifted, my mindset, my sense of being too much of a purist, too hardcore. Why, I thought, shouldn't this be here forever? Isn't this an experience that should be available to others, not just those of us lucky enough to have been there? Otherwise, wouldn't we be engaging in the same selfishness that turns experience into private property? Shouldn't the Jetty be here for all time, or at least until its end? Of course the idea that it should be done and how it should be done are entirely distinct from one another. There are any number of ways for the how to go wrong, and no one, no matter what side of the debate they're on, would want to see it theme-parked. Time, you could say, is one of the materials with which this artwork was made, and for now, time goes on. When I walked along the Jetty, time felt as if it had slowed to such an imperceptibly glacial pace that it had begun to evaporate. Even though I was there for about an hour, it felt like mere minutes, and all you could hear was the wind. In Smithson's essay, "The Spiral Jetty," he refers to "Brancusi's sketch of James Joyce as a 'spiral ear' because it suggests both a visual and an aural scale, in other words it indicates a sense of scale that resonates in the eye and ear at the same time. … One seizes the spiral, and the spiral becomes a seizure."5

On the Spiral Jetty, September 12, 2012—"mind meld."

When you're on the Jetty, it exists as a location of dislocation, and you don't really see how it occupies and is enhanced by space. Coming back to our senses, and wanting to get the view from above, I head slowly up the hill with Aaron and Jason. From the overlook, I'm immediately reminded of a painting by Mark Tansey, titled Purity Test. In the picture, perched on this same spot, there are five Indians on horseback who are looking out over the lake, and as it stretches off from the shoreline they can see the Spiral Jetty. At first, you might imagine that this painted image is meant to represent the past, suggesting that the Jetty has always been here, that Robert Smithson, visionary that he was, saw what had disappeared from view and brought it back. Maybe it had been under water. Maybe it was only visible to native Americans who had embarked on a vision quest—a psychoactive journey that has been replaced today by the mundane mysteries of the LDS. Or maybe it's something else. Maybe what Mark Tansey tapped into with his painting was not an image from the past at all, but one from the future, and those Indians on horseback, gazing out over the lake and the Jetty, just as we were, what if they have yet to arrive?

Mark Tansey, Purity Test (1982)


1.  "Survival Guide: J.G. Ballard," Index, November 1996, p. 46.

2.  Robert Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," Artforum, December 1967, reprinted in The Writings of Robert Smithson, p. 56.

3.  Ibid, pp. 56-57.

4.  See "Bleeding the Beast: Polygamist sect accused of abusing welfare," by Keith Lovely Jr., CNN Justice, posted August 3, 2011

5.  Robert Smithson, The Spiral Jetty," Arts of the Environment, 1972, reprinted in The Writings of Robert Smithson, Edited by Nancy Holt, New York University Press, 1979, p. 112.