Uncoiling into the Sea: The Spiral Jetty


This week, like every single post before it, I am going to write about a large, awe-inspiring piece of art, built in a remote location. Yet, the piece in question is not considered an “art environment”, instead it is a significant example of an art movement associated with the beret wearing city mouse cousin of the poor neglected folk art environment – Land Art. This week I am going to talk about Utah’s Spiral Jetty, created by Robert Smithson (1938 –  1973).

Sometimes known as land art, earthworks, or environmental art, this is art built in nature with the artist using a backhoe instead of a paintbrush. Although they share certain characteristics with my true love, folk art environments, these are a different beast altogether. This is another reason I dislike the generic term “art environment“, for the type of place I generally deal with. They sound indistinguishable yet, they have a very different feel to them (think porn vs. erotica). Land art receives far more appreciation in the art world and gets a lot more commendations in books and movies. And just because land art is more refined and self-consciously artsy, does not mean it is not also pretty great.

Anyways, the land art movement started in the late 1960s by artists trying to escape the confines of the museum. They were going to build in nature, using nature. And they were willing to let the environment,  temperature and the passage of time play its part, to change the art as time goes by.


One of the most distinguished pieces of land art is the Spiral Jetty, located a few hours from Salt Lake City. It is a spiral of rocks that shoots out into the Great Salt Lake. Smithson created the Jetty in 1970 with the help of a construction crew. When it was originally built the Salt Lake was at a lower than usual water level. Two years later the Lake filled in and Spiral Jetty was completely underwater for three decades until 2002.


Unlike a folk art environment, which is typically built by one or two people, often in their own back yards over many years, if not decades, Spiral Jetty was put in place by hired hands in less than a week. It is minimal in design and it really is pretty spectacular. Smithson built it with nature in mind, meaning he realized that it probably won’t last forever, it is not hermetically sealed behind glass in a museum where light, temperature and vandals can be controlled. I have seen dozens of photos of the place from over the years, and it always looks different, the color and depth of the lake the amount of salt buildup. While the Dia Foundation owns it, they have gladly left  it to rot in a corrosive body of water. Although, not as offbeat and idiosyncratic as my beloved art environments, it is a lot more self aware, it is beautiful and a lot of fun to visit.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

It is not hard to find websites, documentaries, museum exhibits and books that deal with place based art. Here are a few sources I really enjoyed that dealt exclusively with land art.

Erin Hogan wrote a travelogue of her experience  leaving the hustle of Chicago to drive her Volkswagen Jetta across America’s West looking for some (and not always finding) the more famous land art pieces , including the Sun Tunnels, the Lightning Field, Double Negative and Spiral Jetty. The book, Spiral Jetta, details her travels. I can’t remember whether or not she bought a Jetta just so she would have a catchy book title or not. That is a $15K commitment to a pun – commendable, I guess. Either way, this is a really quick and fun read and it is a good way to learn about several sites. She writes really nice descriptions, and unlike me she has a decent handle with adjectives and does not simply call everything “awesome.”

There are some good documentaries that are easy to find on Netflix, Amazon, etc. The first, The Gates, details all the hoops that the artists Christos and Jeanne-Claude had to jump through to create a temporary art piece covering New York’s Central Park.

Another great documentary is Levitated Mass, which showcases the artist Michael Heizer, a notorious hard-ass curmudgeon who for decades has been building a giant art piece in the middle of the Nevada desert, simply called City. No one has really seen it yet and it is supposed to be massive. However, the film, Levitated Mass, is about Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Heizer transporting a giant boulder over several days to create the exhibit at the museum.

If you are interested in Utah’s weird geological terrain, the book Basin and Range, by beloved journalist/ essayist John McPhee, details the geology of the area. McPhee has taken a super boring topic and made it interesting.

How to Visit:

A pair of aliens on the road to the Jetty

The Spiral Jetty is located on the north/ east side of the Great Salt Lake, about 100 miles north of Salt Lake City. The drive takes around 2.5 hours. First, you drive to the Golden Spike National Historic Site. You really should take a pit stop here as this is your last chance to use the bathroom (besides a lake), get cell reception, or to buy bottled water, a snack, or a book about trains. From the Golden Spike you drive around nine miles over unpaved ranch roads. The DIA Art Foundation, who own/ maintain the Spiral Jetty have the best directions on their site here. The directions on the site seem pretty complicated (it has you counting the cattle guard fences) when in reality it is pretty easy to navigate and the signage is fine. Back in the day, part of the charm was not only was the Spiral Jetty remote, it was a pain in the ass to get to.

I had originally heard that the road leading to the Jetty was rough, so when I went I paid the extra expense to rent a 4 wheel drive Jeep. Well that was unnecessary, as the roads were fine for any old car. With that being said, rumor has it that the road can still be trouble just after a snowstorm or a big rainfall.

The Jetty is only as visible as the water level is high, as the site was covered over for about 30 years. When I visited in April 2013, it was, as seen in the above photos, mostly above water.  You can check water levels here, for best results to see the Jetty you want the water levels to be around 4195, probably a little lower if you want to walk all over it. Hooray for drought!

In the Area:

golden spike
The Golden Spike has been replaced by a less dramatic yellow piece of wood

Since you have to pass it anyways, unless you come to the Jetty by canoe, you should stop and see the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This is a very important place in the history of America. This is where the Central Pacific Railroad coming from the west met up with the Union Pacific Railroad coming from the east, making a lot of ruthless assholes millionaires and connecting the country in the process. Well you can see the spot where a golden railroad spike was ceremoniously hammered in to connect the two railroads in 1869, a staggering achievement for the era. The trains no longer go through here as they changed up the route. At the site, there is a nice museum, with a short film, bathrooms and a gift shop.

“Creative Common Sun Tunnel” by Calvin Chu is licensed under CC by 2.0

About 120 miles west, located in a barren part of Utah’s remote landscape, is another major land art piece, the Sun Tunnels, created by Robert Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt. The Sun Tunnels are comprised of 4 concrete tubes with holes strategically bored into the sides. They look very industrial to me, almost like something you would find in an industrial junkyard. However, they are reportedly very beautiful, the way light hits them and filters through the holes, mixed in with the isolated nature of their location are supposed to make for quite a remarkable experience. I never made it to the Sun Tunnels, but they are on my to see list. As remote as Spiral Jetty is, the Sun Tunnels are even more way out of the way, regardless of where you are headed you will never be near the Sun Tunnels. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts has some nice tips for visiting the Sun Tunnels here.

This photo was taken in April, when the Salt Flats are still just a murky salt swamp

Like Spiral Jetty the Tunnels are located several miles away from any official roads. The estimate I can gather they are around four hours from SLC and about 1.5- 2 hour drive from Wendover, UT, home of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Salt Flats are where annually in the tail end of summer,  car enthusiasts and speed nerds gather to watch experimental cars race against the clock trying to set land speed records. This is supposed to be a ton of fun and a very cool experience (not including the fact that you spend the whole day totally exposed on a blindingly white salt desert during the height of the summer). There is a great Anthony Hopkins movie about the Bonneville time trials, called The World’s Fastest Indian.

Time to start your downward spiral into madness, or Utah.