July 2, 2010

Picture of the Month: July 2010

In 1970 Robert Smithson, assisted by foreman Bob Phillips and other local construction workers, completed one of Utah's most unique artistic installations: the Spiral Jetty. It turns out that Mr. Phillips is Rob's uncle so during his first visit to me in Salt Lake back in 2008, I suggested that we make a pilgrimage out to the Jetty and see firsthand this odd assemblage of black basalt, white salt, and pink water.

The Great Salt Lake is divided north from south by a solid railroad causeway a little south of Promontory Point. South of the causeway the lake's salinity is most favorable to a blue-green tinted species of phytoplankton and to the north a purplish-red variety of bacteria. For this reason, Smithson chose to locate the Jetty in the striking pink waters of the north. It was easy to see the appeal of this palette as Rob and I walked over lines of dark basalt edged with salt encrusted rocks bathing in the pink shallows. I had never seen the north Salt Lake and had always assumed that photos of the pink water had been doctored for effect, but it is truly no illusion.

The Jetty takes a bit of work to get to. About 2 hours north of Salt Lake City is the Golden Spike National Historic Site where in 1869 the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines were joined with the fabled driving of a golden spike into the final tie that would complete the country's first transcontinental railroad. The rough uneven cattle road that leads to the Jetty lies just past the monument. Most websites insist this gravel road is well maintained and suitable for all vehicles, but if you're driving a little Toyota Yaris hatchback, as I was that day, be prepared for a slow and bumpy 9 miles.

As we neared Rozel point, the road conditions worsened and, not wanting to repeat an unfortunate incident where I punctured my previous vehicle's oil tank on just such a road (a story for another day), Rob and I decided to walk the rest of the way. The day was hot, but fortunately we'd come prepared with hats and water. We had no idea how far the Jetty was from where we'd stopped, but pressed forward anyway. Finally, we rounded the point and a familiar shape started to take shape in the distance...we'd made it!

I was surprised at the sculpture's size. At 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide, it is suitable for walking when the lake's water is low enough (in the photo below, you can just make out tiny people wandering out on the spiral). The Jetty has been submerged and unseeable off and on since its completion. It had disappeared for 3 decades before drought conditions briefly dropped lake levels in 2004, but was flooded once again in 2005 after a record snowfall. I guess we lucked out on this trip! The pinkish water was just high enough (an inch or two on the Jetty's outer edges) to gently lap against the sides of the stone pathway and provide an etherial and shimmering canvas for the dramatic spiral.

The Jetty's future is uncertain. Over time, a combination of human and environmental factors may erode it into oblivion and there are those who wish to buttress the spiral against such damage. Artist Smithson however tended to favor the idea of natural entropy: a system's deterioration, decline, or breaking down over time. The Jetty's gradual change and perhaps eventual demise could be considered part of his original artistic intention.

Experiencing the Jetty firsthand was well worth the effort and, while it is still visible and reachable, I highly recommend others who are able to make the journey.

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