For those who have been following the news of proposed oil development plans in Utah that may effect Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty, tells us the state governor’s office has extended their comment period to February 13. Information on the project and how to comment can be found here and here.
In the meantime, an interesting series of comments on my initial post bring into question whether Smithson would have wished his work preserved at all. Mr. Bitterman probably best sums up these concerns in the reposted comment below;
Smithson was not an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, nor did he believe there was any such thing as “Nature” – as something separate and distinct from human endeavor…Ironically, 50 years ago, Smithson was not only inspired but strengthened in his resolve by the wreckage and debris that once greeted the visitor to the site of Spiral Jetty, the wreckage and debris of a failed oil drilling operation of the mid-20th century. In his eyes, these things, this industrial junk (now removed – sanitized in the last few years by the DIA Fdn in the interest of stopping time for profit) was of the highest aesthetic value, a motivating factor in his placement of the work.
The cult of preciousness, the very thing Smithson held in contempt throughout his career, has finally caught up with him; the meaning of the work has finally been separated from the work itself; entropy has finally been defeated.
Nancy Holt is wrong. And if Robert Smithson himself were to rise from the dead and rail against the oil industry I would call him a liar and a fake.
I have been to Spiral Jetty, and as excellent as that experience was, it wasn't the jetty that set me free, it was the intention, faint but still sensible, like the sound of the sea in a shell.
Mr. Bitterman makes some good points regarding Smithson’s contempt for preciousness, though it should be noted that no evidence is provided to support the claim that the DIA Foundation has sanitized Spiral Jetty solely for profit, since the conservation of historically important landmarks often has more purpose than any economic payoff that might occur. As for whether Smithson would have liked oil drilling developments destroying his work, it would seem there is some evidence to support that notion. However, the very essay I’ve linked to also points out that in 1981 Robert Hobbs observed Smithson was in fact, unwilling to let weathering and the rising waters take over, and had intended to raise the earthwork by 15 feet. Writer Angelika Pagel additionally identifies the irony in a work of impermanence now forever archived in photography, film and print, though this latter point may not be particularly important in regards to the considering the conservation of the work.
Personally, I’d prefer to allow Smithson at least some artistic ego in his grave. After all, the humanizing forces of pride ensure an artist never becomes a slave their own ideology.
Smithson's entropy theory has become a favorite argument among nature haters and greedy prophets of The Latter Days. His desperate irony should not be considered as a license to destroy. Smithson actually wanted his work to exist physically as long as possible:
“There's a word called entropy. . . . It's like the Spiral Jetty is physical enough to be able to withstand all these climate changes, yet it's intimately involed with those climate changes and natural disturbances. That's why I'm not really interested in conceptual art because that seems to avoid physical mass. You're left mainly with an idea. Somehow to have something physical that generates ideas is more interesting to me than just an idea that might generate something physical.”
R. Smithson, Salt Lake City, 1972
Interview with Gianni Pettena
Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Jack Flam, ed. (U. of California Press, 1996), 298-99
UPDATE: Mr. Bitterman responds in the comments below
Allow me to clarify regarding the DIA Fdn.
What once began as an agency of change, a foundation dedicated to artists engaged in projects and strategies that defied commodity status or simply fell outside the boundaries of prevailing market structures, has now achieved its own antithesis as a commodities broker specializing in the reconstitution, reclassification and preservation of trans-historical artifacts.
DIA's reversal of mission was concomitant with its reversal of fortune in the mid-90's when the foundation was commandeered by entrepreneur Lenny Riggio. One need only visit DIA Beacon, a veritable Disneyland of 60's and 70's art, much of it recreated and frozen in time, to appreciate the fact that the market never sleeps, and the dreamer only dreams.
While Spiral Jetty will never post returns to anyone's bottom line, its careful administration (preservation) affords DIA something better than money – profile. (A similar situation exists in the current plans to restore Michael Heizer's Double Negative and regulate visitation.) And profile, in Lenny's world anyway, is the best and cheapest kind of advertising. And if that means stopping time, and subverting provenance, then so be it. It's worth it, as long as it's worth it.