Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty persists as an earthwork almost 4 decades after it was created, sculpted from the earth, jutting out into the Great Salt Lake. It has fluctuated with the changing water level – it was submerged for more than 20 years – and the accretion of salt deposits. For those who’ve never heard of earthworks, this was an unconventional artistic medium popular in the 1960s, one that defied the norms of the commercial art world that regarded art as a commodity.
Spiral Jetty is also a movie, a documentary film that is more than documentary, it is a work of art in its own right. In 1970, Smithson and his wife Nancy Holt, with some friends and supporters, created this fascinating 35-minute film that adds new dimensions to the earthwork and reveals some of the artist’s more esoteric points of reference. The film informs the earthwork to such an extent that the earthwork seems incomplete without it.
The earthwork spirals out into the lake, suggesting movement; the film, on the other hand, simulates that movement in a dizzying, almost nauseating centrifugal journey, tracing that earth-spiral from the air, by helicopter, while Smithson repeats his mantra “mud, salt crystals, rocks, water” for each of the jetty’s directional coordinates. The camera, from the helicopter, also follows Smithson as he runs along the jetty, showing us the artist’s seeming intention that the work is to be experienced physically, in three, even four dimensions, not simply to be looked at in photographs (which is how 99 percent of viewers have experienced it).
Another fascinating aspect of the film was its extended, slow tracking shots through a paleontological museum, with dinosaur bones and reconstructions of dinosaurs and pictures of dinosaurs, all filtered red as if the past could be viewed better through some kind of an infrared eye. The soundtrack for the paleontology segment was a muffled drone, like something heard under water.
The editing work contributes both to the visual pleasure of the film and the conceptual links that Smithson makes between machines and dinosaurs. Scenes of the dusty road, shot from the moving vehicle, are intercut with those slow tracking shots in the museum with its bones in glass cases, as well as the large earth-moving machines as they put the boulders and other sediment into place on the jetty.
In his own statements about the film, Smithson explained some of these connections between his work on the Spiral Jetty and his interest in paleontology:
“Back in New York, the urban desert, I contacted Bob Fiore and Barbara Jarvis and asked them to help me put my movie together. The movie began as a set of disconnections, a bramble of stabilized fragments taken from things obscure and fluid, ingredients trapped in a succession of frames, a stream of viscosities both still and moving. And the movie editor, bending over such a chaos of ‘takes’ resembles a paleontologist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels. Film strips hung from the cutter’s rack, bits and pieces of Utah, out-takes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, the salt buried in lengths of footage. Everything about movies and moviemaking is archaic and crude. One is transported by this Archeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras. The movieola becomes a ‘time machine’ that transforms trucks into dinosaurs.” (My thanks to John Klein for bringing this statement to my attention.)
I love this statement, especially the end; it’s very Flintstones, isn’t it? Seriously, Smithson’s statement shows great insight into the filmmaking process, and his reference to the “spiral reels” of the filmstrip underscores even more the Spiral Jetty’s (i.e., the earthwork’s) being best understood as a dynamic gesture through the dimension of time, just like film itself.
The film was non-narrative in its exposition. Contrast that with the 2003 documentary about artist Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, which was beautiful yet very conventional and straightforward in its emphasis on episodic narration. Both of these artists enjoy watching the transitory effects which nature exerts on their creations. In that respect Goldsworthy’s art appears similar to Smithson’s, but in fact I think it’s much more romantic in its love of nature. Smithson, on the other hand, loved machines as much as he loved nature.
I enjoyed this film so much that I've decided to use it in my Art History / Film Studies class this fall, "Artists Lives on Film." The last time I taught the course I used only biopics, but this time I plan to show a few documentaries and a few films made by artists as well.
For more information on Smithson, who died in 1973, visit his website.
(Viewed at a screening of the film in the Art History department on April 8; the department helped purchase a copy of this film for MU on DVD, which is available through Academic Support.)