Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Dying Masterpiece


That's me, there, standing on the basalt blocks of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a few months ago. Really. Here's a piece I wrote, the other day, about fulfilling my lifelong ambition to check out this weird "Land Art" masterpiece.
Incidentally, I'm thinking of putting this photo forward for best ever photo ever put on a blog, ever.


Death of An Art Work


It's a poignant moment. I'm standing on the edge of a lake, staring at a whorl of giant basalt blocks, curving out into the limpid water. This is Spiral Jetty, a masterpiece of Land Art stuck in a desolate corner of north-east Utah. It's an artwork I've long yearned to see; yet I may be one of the last people to do so.

Spiral Jetty was built by American artist Robert Smithson in 1970. As soon as it was completed, it became famous: devotees made the trek to Great Salt Lake to view the work, others were inspired to build their own US land art masterpieces (like Walter de Maria's Lightning Field).

Then the art-theorists got to work. What did Jetty mean? Why did Smithson choose this weird location? They got no answers, partly because Smithson died in 1973.

The artist's unavailability is particularly noticeable right now, as many people would like to ask him what to do with his greatest artwork. Because Spiral Jetty is disappearing under the rising lakewater.

This immersion has happened before - the Jetty was slowly submerged in the 1980s, only to reappear in 1999. The difference this time is that the disappearance is speedier: therefore it is feared the artwork may now vanish for centuries, or forever.

This leaves the Jetty's curators with a sharp dilemma. Is the changing water table just part of a natural cycle? Or is it caused by ireversible human damage to the environment? Either way, should someone rescue the piece but change it in the process? Maybe they should let it self-destruct?

My guess is that Smithson, for one, would have enjoyed the mere fact that Spiral Jetty is provoking such debate - and providing such an apt metaphor for our guilty relationship with mother nature. After all, seen from some angles, his masterpiece looks like a giant question mark, stark and black against the drowning waters.

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