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Geophenomena

A Geophenomena special exhibit

Back again by climatic demand is artist Robert Smithson’s 1970 construction Spiral Jetty. Performing only under drought conditions in the Great Salt Lake of Utah, the Jetty recently reappeared after years of submergence. It features 3 million-year-old olivine basalt from the adjacent shoreline of Rozel Point. The black rock, accented with white salt crystals, is bathed in red water unique to the Great Salt Lake’s northern region, where red algae, brine shrimp and bacteria thrive in the salt-saturated environment.

Showing itself for the first time in years, the Spiral Jetty, uncoils into the Great Salt Lake, displaying the creation Robert Smithson built in 1970. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth, The Salt Lake Tribune.

The late Smithson (1938-1973) created the Spiral Jetty when the lake level was at 4,195 feet above sea level. The Great Salt Lake lost another foot of depth in 1970, but began to rise in 1971 and has never been as low since. With the rise in lake level, the Jetty’s debut performance came to a close after only a few years. Then the water depth dropped briefly in the winter of 1978 to 1979 and again in 1979, allowing for a view of the spiral sculptured jetty that lasted until the summer of 1980. After 1982, however, Utah endured heavy flooding that sank the performance of the Spiral Jetty for more than a decade as the lake level jumped 16 feet. The Spiral Jetty returned during the dry winters between 1992 and 1997, only to disappear again until last August. In the last few months the level has dropped to around 4,197 feet, allowing audience members, willing to wet their feet in art, to walk across the exhibit.

While the sculpture was designed to disappear and reappear with rise and fall of the lake level, this intermittent quality of the show is under negotiation. The Dia Center for the Arts in New York City recently received rights to the artwork from the Smithson estate, and is contemplating building up the Spiral Jetty to extend its performance time. In the last 10,000 years, sedimentary records indicate the lake elevation has fluctuated about 40 feet, says geologist Bill Case of the Utah Geological Survey. But it only takes a few feet to submerge the Jetty beyond visibility.

Photo courtesy of Bill Case.

Whether or not the Spiral Jetty becomes a more permanent display remains in the hands of its owner, the Dia Center for the Arts. But for now, “part of the fun, mystery and intent of the art work is that sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t,” says Hikmet Loe of the Salt Lake City Public Library and author of “Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty” in Great Salt Lake: An Overview of Change. After studying the history of the Spiral Jetty during its offstage interval, Loe found the encore performance this fall particularly stunning. “It is molting season for the brine shrimp and the water is a beautiful red, pink and purple. The rocks sticking out and around the shore with their encrustation of salt look like puffs of snow. It’s amazing.”

The overall effect of the spiraling shape amid the mix of colors is almost hypnotic. “I liked it,” Case says. “It is fascinating to be out there and amazing to see that form in that environment, particularly when nobody else is around and it’s just you, the pink water, black basalt and birds.”

Christina Reed

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