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It might be gone, but the monolith highlighted Utah’s role as a world-class venue for land art

Top row (Tribune file photos) The Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels and Tree of Life are famous pieces of land art in Utah. Bottom: (Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A view of the obelisk from the slot canyon above on Nov. 25, 2020.

A half century ago, sculptor Robert Smithson talked Utah land managers into leasing him a 10-acre piece of the Great Salt Lake bed to arrange hundreds of basaltic boulders into a 1,500-foot coil. The resulting Spiral Jetty was soon considered a sculptural masterpiece and helped launch a new national appreciation of the natural environment.

Leave it to the internet and a three-sided metal box to steal Smithson’s thunder.

In its few days in the public’s consciousness, the so-called Utah monolith, which mysteriously appeared then vanished from a remote San Juan County canyon last week, has become, at least briefly, more well-known than either Spiral Jetty or Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, another exemplar of land art in Box Elder County.

The steel pillar captured the imaginations of millions around the world before it was toppled late Friday, apparently by a group of vigilante litter enforcers, reducing it to bent metal panels and carting them off, presumably to be recycled. The object is sure to live on in the spirited public conversation it sparked about whether art belongs in nature. At the very least, it helped illuminate an abiding interest in objects of creative expression installed on open land, according to Whitney Tassie, a curator with the Utah Museum of Fine Art.

“It’s really kind of awesome how the appearance and the disappearance of the monolith has inspired all this talk about … how art continues to capture our attention and inspire our imaginations. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty did that in their own time,” said Tassie. “Something that these pieces share is that they highlight or draw attention to our relationship with the landscape. It’s been really interesting to see how the conversations around the monolith have been at once artistic, but also about land use and land management, which in Utah is a really important issue.”

She added that artists should not illegally install their works in wilderness.

“These sorts of projects and their impacts must be very carefully considered,” Tassie said. Indeed. Many viewed the monolith as metallic junk that had no place in a natural setting, especially one that had been part of Bears Ears National Monument, while it inspired others to drive for hours to experience it.

Because of the monolith’s ability to induce wonder, its careful construction and deliberate placement, historian Patricia Limerick saw it a possible if not rogue example of land art, a school of contemporary art where the Earth itself becomes a platform for artistic expression.

But the placement of the structure, discovered Nov. 18 by a helicopter crew counting bighorn sheep by air, had never been approved by the Bureau of Land Management, which considered it an illegal installation. While the agency continues to investigate its installation, it is not investigating its removal, which violated no federal statutes, according to BLM spokeswoman Kim Finch.

Federal land abounds in Utah, yet the BLM has not authorized any art installation in the state. Getting permission to install a piece of art on public land would require an agreement similar with what Smithson arranged with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, but it would also require an environmental analysis and would have to comply with land use plans, Finch said.

The monolith might be gone but you can still venture into Utah’s desert to experience art, just make sure you have lots of time and water if you make the trip.

Spiral Jetty is on the Great Salt Lake’s north arm on Rozel Point and Sun Tunnels is a three-hour drive northwest of Salt Lake City in the Great Basin Desert. On the way to Sun Tunnels you’ll drive past Karl Momen’s 87-foot-tall Tree of Life just off the freeway on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Centuries before Smithson created Spiral Jetty, Native Americans arranged basaltic rocks into curving lines snaking across the desert floor of San Rafael Swell. Still visible today, these so-called geoglyphs are probably Utah’s earliest examples of what is now called land art, along with the countless pictographs and petroglyphs left by the state’s ancient inhabitants.

Contrast

Like the doomed monolith, Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty were designed with an eye toward geometrical precision, but the parallels pretty much end there. With its shiny metal construction and clear edges, the monolith stood in sharp contrast with the hidden redrock sanctum its creators installed it in, while the works by Smithson and Holt are almost part of the land.

These installations not only reflect the landscapes they are embedded in, but also the viewer’s experience within those landscapes, according to Kelly Kivland, a curator with the Dia Art Foundation.

“These artists aim to position the visitor within this greater environment through the attention of their own artwork,” Kivland said. “But it was always in situ, always within. It was always to create the situation in which the visitor can take in the greater environment.”

The foundation owns Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels and cares for them in partnership with other organizations, such as the Utah Museum of Fine Art, Great Salt Lake Institute and the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

Other than a plaque installed in 2014 near Spiral Jetty as an Eagle Scout project, there are no interpretive signs, restrooms or facilities of any kind at either remote site.

Artist’s intent

“The experience of journeying to these sites and being within nature was to be unmediated,” Kivland said. “Any sort of structure, brick and mortar, such as a bathroom or a visitor center or even a plaque or anything that would designate or give information about the site was not part of the artist’s intention.”

Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973 while scouting locations for another installation in Texas. After her husband’s death, Holt commenced Sun Tunnels and, in 1976, installed the piece, featuring four concrete tubes, on 40 acres she bought near the ghost town of Lucin.

She arranged the 18-foot-long tunnels in a cross so that they align with the setting and rising sun on the winter and summer solstices.

“When you’re out in a place like ‘Sun Tunnels,’ the desert is so vast, so overwhelming,” Holt said in a 2012 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, two years before her death. “The tunnels orient you out in space and frame the view. It brings the landscape back to human scale.”

With their art, Smithson and Holt, who married in 1963, helped inspire the birth of the environmental movement. But by installing these pieces, they manipulated and altered the environment, as did John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum when he blasted and carved the faces of four U.S. presidents into South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore in the 1920s.

Going to Sun Tunnels or Spiral Jetty is the opposite of visiting a museum or a national park. No rules are posted at these sites and visitors are allowed to explore them as they please.

“It was very much to be unmediated and unregulated. We don’t monitor these sites,” Kivland said. “We view visitors to these sites as being more or less the primary caretakers. They’re the ones journeying there. I am sure that our visitors carry that respect and responsibility with them because we don’t have those issues.”

There have been no episodes of vandalism at either site, although the Sun Tunnels interior walls show streaks left by bullets fired inside the tubes.

Holt “was aware of it and it was something we could not have removed from the tunnel,” Kivland said. “She very much felt it was a part of people’s own interaction with the artwork.”

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