Friday, January 16, 2004
Jetty or Jetsam?
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot coiling jet of basalt jutting into the Great Salt Lake, is now fully exposed due to a drought begun in 1999, according to the NYT. What people are seeing is an earthwork that's long been exposed to the nation's saltiest body of water for over 30 years.

Smithson's piece in better times.

Smithson's piece—any earthwork or public outdoor sculpture or garden, really—causes an impasse for curators, as the article describes:
"The spiral is not as dramatic as when it was first built," said Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, which owns the work. "The `Jetty' is being submerged in a sea of salt."

To ensure that "Spiral Jetty" is accessible to future generations, Dia, which exhibits and preserves art made since the 1960's, has discussed raising it by adding more rocks. Dia is also studying whether nature will restore the contrast the "Jetty" originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt crystals when the lake's waters rise, or whether the foundation needs to do something more.

But the idea of doing anything to this artwork worries some people. And the intentions of the artist, who died in a plane crash at 35 in 1973, are not clear.

"When refurbishing earthworks, you don't want to create a Tussaud's wax sculpture," said Robert Storr, a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a professor at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. "Earthworks were not made to last forever. There is a danger when restoring them to make a more perfect thing than was originally done."
Preservation schools-of-thought and methodologies for these nontraditional media are more archaeological than art historical—erosion's what you get when you abandon the museum space, I guess. These days, out of foresight or self-aggrandizement, artists working unstable media or environments will usually note broad provisios for the upkeep of the work. In this case, I would say that the kind of work it would take to properly preserve the Spiral Jetty would be too intrusive and would alter the art—and if you're of that mind, too, archaeology will horrify you.

OK, that link probably won't horrify anyone. I was mildly shocked though.