Spiral Jetty, created by the artist Robert Smithson, is an unusual work of art constructed from the earth, far from the confines of a museum or gallery, In 1970, Smithson traveled to the Great Salt Lake, where he hired contractor Bob Phillips and his earthmoving equipment. In little more than a week, they constructed an enormous stone earthwork that curled like a fiddlehead fern out from the shoreline, framed by waters dyed wine red by millions of tiny brine shrimp. Fifteen hundred feet long, 15 feet wide, and constructed from 6,650 tons of black basalt rock and earth, Spiral Jetty is said to be one of the few works of art visible from space—when it’s visible at all.
And therein lies the problem—or the mystique. When Smithson constructed this earthwork, the waters of the lake were unusually low because of a protracted dry spell. A year later they began to rise, and submerged the work for most of the next 30 years. In 2002, following three years of drought, the jetty reemerged completely transformed, its black rocks encased in gleaming white, ice-like salt crystals. Debate persists on whether Smithson (who died in a plane crash in 1973) would have celebrated or mourned his work’s transformation. On the one hand, his writings show how central decay and change were to his artistic vision. On the other, the Dia Art Foundation maintains that Smithson also contemplated adding to the work so it would always be visible—a move the foundation is also considering. For now, there are no firm plans, nor any indication of how long the work will remain above water. Check its status before making your pilgrimage. Walk the jetty’s curving path to its center, seeing it the way it was meant to be seen, its size and bulk reduced to a fragile tendril in the water, dwarfed by the desert landscape and the waters all around.