Book Reviews | Visual Arts

Encycloing the Jetty: Hikmet Sidney Loe Meanders Through Robert Smithson’s Earthwork

Though people travel from around the globe to visit Robert Smithson’s monumental Spiral Jetty, located on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake, to this day some Utahns have no idea that one of the 20th century’s most iconic artworks exists in their own backyard. One who does is Utah art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe, who has crafted a stunning contribution to the already extensive literature on this iconic Earthwork. As its title would suggest, The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork through Time and Place is an exhaustively researched encyclopedia of all things Jetty, serving as an instantly irreplaceable source of knowledge of the subject.

As the architect behind the Jetty, Robert Smithson is lauded as the pioneer of the Land Art movement, an indelible contribution to the American post-war artistic trajectory. Alongside performance art, Land Art is among the 20th century’s most radical reactions against the traditional artistic paradigm. Led by Smithson’s innovative writings, his cohorts followed him in rejecting what Smithson called the “cultural confinement” of museums and galleries and into the expansive, unyielding and romantic American landscape. As opposed to the grandiose American landscape painters of late 19th-century lore, Land Art relished in unrefined, abandoned and unusual environments. Propelled by his fascination of abandoned industrial sites and unconventional natural phenomena, Smithson’s artistic process led to the creation of Earthworks in Europe and across the American continent. The unique properties of Utah’s barren desert and abnormally salty lakebed, laden with curious microorganisms, were impossible for Smithson to resist. In 1970, he took his first trip to Utah and selected Rozel Point, located at the intersection of ancient Lake Bonneville and near the iconic site of the unified Union and Trans-Continental railroad at Promontory Point. Fascinated both by this history and by the lineage of the region’s Native American inhabitants and Caucasian westward explorers, Loe’s research is rooted in the conceptual significance of both “time” and “place.”

Smithson retained a fervent attraction to a number of ideas and imbedded them in his iconic Earthwork so that they could live on for an indefinite amount of time. His tragic death in 1973 prematurely ended his work’s infinite possibilities, leaving historians and art lovers to pick up the many threads of inspiration he left behind. Loe has been researching Smithson and the Jetty for over two decades, cementing her reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent Smithson scholars. Before becoming an “encyclo,” her book was organized in chronological chapters. It was after one of the book’s anonymous academic reviewers suggested that the book’s format was better suited to an encyclopedic structure that Loe realized the parallel between her enterprise and the Jetty itself. Much like Smithson’s spiraling thought process, compiled from a mixture of sources including microbiology, history, culture, and geology, Loe’s process was difficult to contain in a linear chronology. In subjects ranging from “Metronome,” to “Trans-Continental Railroad,” in a sense, the academic intensity of Loe’s process exceeds Smithson’s.

In Part I of the book, Loe draws from Smithson’s own words by including his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” and an annotation of Smithson’s film by the same name, and finally Loe’s own annotation of Smithson’s collaborative film with wife Nancy Holt and fellow artist Michael Heizer, entitled “Mono Lake.” Any critical scholarship on Smithson would be significantly lacking without including Smithson’s own words to describe his artistic process, as he was just as visionary a writer and thinker as he was an artist.

Part II of the book is reserved for the ambitious encyclopedia, replete with stunning images of the Jetty, other works by Smithson, and images attesting to Loe’s remarkable academic and laborious journey to capture the discursive strands of this most expansive artwork. We learn about the “Meandering Zone,”  For example, Smithson was drawn to Great Salt Lake in part because of its coloring. In the entry on “Brine,” which provides a home to the lake’s pink algae, we learn that the lake’s unique ecosystem is supported by the almost 5 billion tons of salt, left over from the days of Lake Bonneville. While in an entry on G.K. Chesterton, we learn that Smithson quoted from the English poet in his essay on the Jetty: “Red is the most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe.”

While the size of the book may render it impractical to carry in one’s fanny pack on the way to the Jetty, its life is far from destined to remain on a coffee table. Instead, this book is adaptable to the individual utilizing its vast resources. It belongs at once in the backseat of a durable vehicle, ready to be pried open at a moment’s whim when exploring the rich landscapes it spends its words carefully describing. Additionally, it is an indelible resource for the Smithson and Land Art scholar or student wishing to gain a critical art historical structure.

The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork through Time and Place
Hikmet Sidney Loe
University of Utah Press
384 pp.

Categories: Book Reviews | Visual Arts

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