Spiral Jetta: a road trip through the land art of the American West
by Erin Hogan
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London
reviewed by Geoff Wichert
In the 1960s and 70s, artists were drawn to slogans. “Art is dead” was followed by “Museums are where art goes to die.” The rise of Theory meant no longer worrying if a work was good or bad. You could buy a rubber stamp that said “This is not art” and let it speak for you. In large part, this was the belated impact of Marcel Duchamp, who started out as an Impressionist but was still breaking new ground when he died in 1968. He argued that the lifespan of a work of art is no more than about 50 years, after which the work no longer enjoys the privileged relationship to the present that made it seem like it belonged in the future. Among Duchamp’s ‘children’ were alternates to painting and sculpture like Assemblage, Installation, Performance, and Earth Art.
One of the qualities of the last is that most Earth, or Land Art as some called it, was made in the vast empty spaces of the West, far away from the art centers of New York and Chicago. As a result, most of its audience has only known it through photographs. “Spiral Jetta,” a short, entertaining memoir (180 pages, including a four-page bibliography) is the story of Erin Hogan’s road trip to see some of this ‘monumental’ art for herself. It’s an engaging idea, but the reality is something of a bait-and-switch: there isn’t much of a personal encounter with the works she promises to visit, but by the time readers realize this, their hearts are likely to have been captured by her adventure in self-discovery and exploration.
Perhaps the first clue to this transfer of subject is the way Hogan, the Director of Public Affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, avoids giving any indication of exactly when it was she made this trip. When she says that the Spiral Jetty now lies high and dry, half a mile of dry, salty lake bed from the hem of the Great Salt Lake, it seems careless of a sometime art historian that she doesn’t say if this is due to the time of year or something more permanent. (The lake is lowest in winter, but fills again in spring.) She quotes the major critical and theoretical essays that make the Jetty’s claim to significance, writing “No trip to Spiral Jetty should be attempted without poring over Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty, edited by Lynne Cook and Karen Kelly,” then when on site compares the jetty she finds with the one in those books. But in the end her Jetty is little more than a mirror of that mental ideal, while she spends more time describing her reaction to solitude (it makes her feel lonely) than her response to the art.
What clearly charmed the academic publishers of her book and the big city papers that reviewed it enthusiastically is how entertainingly she exhibits a Woody Allen-like urban chauvinism that responds to and mirrors the cowboy elitism of Western mythology. Of the half-dozen works she sets out to visit, she fails to even locate two: Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (a problem 15 Bytes’ Hikmet Sidney Loe doesn’t share — see this month’s edition) and James Turrell’s Rodin Crater. But her efforts to find them lead to some fine comedic writing at the expense of the desert denizens she meets along the way. We learn about the perils of seeking a motel on State Street in downtown Salt Lake, which comes off here as hardly less risky than Southside Chicago. Clearly, while you can take the girl out of the big city, it takes more than a couple of days to take the big city out of the girl.
Readers will have to decide a couple of things for themselves. Hogan’s first-person account of her journey may, in the end, be more interesting than the destination she started with. A more important question for our time, though, rises when she shows so little ability to see any of the works she visits through her own eyes. At each stop on her hajira she pulls out the art history and theory books, the better to see how well the actual trucked-and-dynamited rock lives up to the ink-and-paper version that was the only one available where she comes from. Hogan walked across the Spiral Jetty, seeing salty rocks on salty soil, and apparently didn’t see the way the horizon circles you as you walk it the way one does when, as Smithson intended when he built it in a lake, one stays on the path. So it may not be surprising that the only satisfying works for her are the ones made of aluminum or steel. It may be that what she implies is right: that art (some art?) should be viewed as a Neoplatonic exercise that primarily demonstrates a theory. If so, her larger implication that art as a stimulus to which there is only one proper response, dictated by some expert, may also be true.
But while the second half of the twentieth century saw a lot of that in the arts, there was a contrasting perspective lying low, awaiting a better day. Fortified by the idea that reality is what is still there after you stop believing in it, there were those who consider art to be less the record of someone else’s experience and more the occasion for one of your own. Paradoxically, that is the critical impulse that ignores Erin Hogan’s assertions that an artist can dictate exactly how his work is perceived in favor of her description of the cowboy bar in Montello or Hole in the Rock. Smithson and the current owners of the Spiral Jetty urge visitors to ignore the much larger mining jetty that lies nearby, but they can no more make you do it than Rembrandt could make you not think of your Dutch uncle when you look at his self-portrait. Art is just bigger than that.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.