Robert Smithson Sends Audience Spiraling Out of Control

Georgia Horn, Arts Editor

Think Utah circa 1970. Specifically, think the Great Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in the Western hemisphere, spanning approximately 10 acres. Now add the backdrop of minimalism, the expanding field of sculpture, the death of Greenbergian formalism and Robert Smithson’s monotone voice, and you’ve got “Spiral Jetty,” a film on the making of Smithson’s earth-work installation of the same name.

Robert Smithson once said, “art should reflect entropy,” and his monumental “Spiral Jetty” of 1970 achieves just that. So too does his film on the making-of process, disorienting, disrupting and disquieting its viewers. Composed of mud, salt crystals, rocks and water — as Smithson chants repetitively at one point in the film — the Jetty spans 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide. Apropos Smithson’s call for entropy, the Jetty is submerged and re-emerges at the mercy of the lake’s water level, a kind of naturally ensured ephemerality. After disappearing for approximately 30 years, the aged and weathered jetty re-emerged in June of 2011, making the screening at the AJLC this Tuesday seem particularly pertinent.

“The film,” explained AMAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Denise Birkhofer during her introduction, “functions as an independent artwork in itself,” and, she continued, almost as a preservative, “a document of the ephemeral installation.” In fact, the film serves as one of the only documents of the Jetty as it was originally conceived. Today, although it has re-emerged, the Jetty has taken on a white sheen, as the white salt crystals growing on the surface of the rocks change its appearance constantly.

The film opens with a pulsating view of the sun’s molten surface, and the noise of something like a breathing machine is audible. Cue Smithson, who begins talking about the sun as the camera cuts to a dusty road, filmed from the perspective of the driver. The cinematography is shaky and uneven, and we are made to feel as though we are driving down this remote, unpaved path ourselves. From here, we hear a clock ticking and watch what we eventually come to identify as fragments of a map blowing in the wind, while Smithson waxes poetic about U.S. history and the passage of time.

The film continues in this manner for the subsequent 30 or so minutes, a veritable string of non sequiturs punctuated by Smithson’s philosophical, topographical, factual and nostalgic observations. Slowly, cycling between the map of the lake and the dusty road, Smithson transitions into a red room filled with skeletal models of dinosaurs, where his primitive nostalgia becomes literal, and finally, we return to Utah, where the process of constructing the Jetty is documented in extraordinarily close detail.

From the rocks out of which the Jetty is built, to the construction vehicles with which the materials were transported, to the depth, physical qualities and movement of the water in which it sits, Smithson frames a narrative about the making of the Jetty that although specific, destabilizes and disorients, confronting the space of the viewer such that it itself becomes a minimalist object.

“A vast spiral nebula of innumerable suns,” Smithson comments toward the end, as the shot on-screen shows the sun gleaming off the water and obscuring the Jetty, which is now shown from a very high vantage point. The disorientation he effects brings on something similar to the sunstroke symptoms he lists off monotonically, and the prismatic effects of the light further confounds our vision.

The film concludes with an abrupt cut to a photo of the Jetty framed by film reels and fades to black.

The run-time of the film, an edition of which part of the Allen Museum’s collection, is only 32 minutes, but the droll, repetitive and choppy nature of the work at once seems to remove the viewer from any awareness of time, and simultaneously acutely raises our awareness of it.

Walking out of Hallock Auditorium into the fading Ohio light, it was hard not to feel, even if just for a moment, that we had just come back from somewhere very distant and very exhausting, to feel the relief of returning to stable, familiar ground. Entropy is grace.