How Utah’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ Is Drawing Attention to the Climate Crisis

Smithson Spiral Jetty 8.jpg
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water. 1,500 ft. (457.2 m) long and 15 ft. (4.6 m) wide. Collection Dia Art Foundation. Photograph: William T. Carson, 2020 © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York

This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News.

In 1972, just two years after it was completed, “Spiral Jetty” all but disappeared from view. Robert Smithson’s seminal earthwork was created at a time when the water levels of Utah’s Great Salt Lake were unusually low, making it easy to discern the sculpture’s vortex-like coil of black basalt rocks. But when heavy rain battered the area, the lake swelled and engulfed the spiral. It was the start of a three-decade-long period during which “Spiral Jetty” was largely submerged, save for a few brief reappearances; the waters at one point covered the rocks by 16 feet.

Smithson knew the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding desert was a precarious, if not altogether hostile, environment for his ambitious art project. Located on the lake’s northeastern shore, “Spiral Jetty” is set amid a barren landscape bifurcated by railway tracks and littered with abandoned oil rigs.

But what Smithson, who died in 1973, could not have anticipated was that the Great Salt Lake, amid record drought, would shrink by two-thirds. Since 2002, the spiral has been bone-dry, its 6,650-ton mass of rock situated atop cracked, sun-scorched earth.

“This is an earthwork that changes as the world around it changes,” said Lisa Le Feuvre, the executive director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, which is named for Smithson and his wife, the artist Nancy Holt. “It has consistently and persistently inspired artists of other generations.”

Now, arts organizations around the world are leveraging the “Spiral Jetty” and other landmarks to help people connect climate change to places they hold dear. The World Weather Network, an alliance between the Holt/Smithson Foundation and 27 other institutions, has set up “weather stations”—artworks, landmarks, regions or actual weather stations—to serve as jumping-off points for exploring changing weather patterns.

In Greece, composer Stavros Gasparatos offered a symphonic interpretation of meteorological data; photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto filmed a live broadcast of a sunrise over Enoura Observatory, in Odawara, Japan; and Turkish writer Izzy Finkel penned a personal essay about tornadoes and other extreme weather in Istanbul.

For Le Feuvre and her team, the World Weather Network project is an opportunity to share unseen footage and rare photos of “Spiral Jetty” taken over the last half-century. Her organization has also called on the poet Layli Long Soldier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, to create an original work inspired by the interplay between “Spiral Jetty” and the changing weather; it will be published in early 2023.

How Utah's 'Spiral Jetty' Is Drawing Attention to the Climate Crisis
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970). Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water. 1,500 ft. (457.2 m) long and 15 ft. (4.6 m) wide. Collection Dia Art Foundation. Photograph: Matthew Coolidge, 2002 © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York.

The network grew out of conversations between organizations like the Holt/Smithson Foundation and the London-based nonprofit Artangel, which is known for producing site-specific installations and exhibitions in unconventional arts venues. (“We tend not to make work for theaters and concert halls,” said Michael Morris, Artangel’s co-director, “but work that lives in the real world.”) Artists and writers were having a difficult time “finding a metaphor or symbols” for climate change, he said.

While artists have long turned to the weather for inspiration—just think of the stormy skies and cotton-like clouds in the canvases of Romantic masters like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, or Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print of white-cap waves rising above Mt. Fuji—Morris believes many contemporary artists are struggling to orient themselves in the face of an environmental crisis. “Those great landscape painters were fascinated by what the weather did for them, how it made them feel,” he says. “Now, we’re more concerned by what we’re doing to the weather.”

By narrowing in on the weather—as opposed to tackling the unwieldy and gargantuan subject of climate change—the network’s organizers hope to provide a more accessible entry point for talking about the climate emergency. They’re also counting on art’s ability to reach broader audiences and elicit deeper, more visceral emotional responses. Where climate science can be intimidating or mired in politics, art invites people into the climate change conversation and “feels more human,” said Miranda Massie, the founder of the New York’s Climate Museum. “The arts aren’t perceived as being political,” she said, “so they provide a softer pathway into civic engagement.”

In 2015, when the Climate Museum opened, “there was a stultifying climate silence” in the art world, Massie said. Now, she’s noticed a surge in initiatives like the World Weather Network that are reckoning with the subject. And the art is evolving, she said: “There was a first-generation quality to some earlier climate projects. We now see aesthetically stupendous work being done in a wide range of mediums, across the creative disciplines.”

Because the arts are inherently social, they can help alleviate feelings of isolation and climate anxiety—which, as Massie points out, is the only way not to feel “completely out-scaled” by this global disaster.

Just weeks after Le Feuvre’s organization started sharing historical photos of “Spiral Jetty,” people began sending in photos of the earthwork from their personal vacation albums. Photos included images of the sculpture covered in snow and of first-time visitors getting lost on their way to the site.

For Le Feuvre and other organizers behind the World Weather Network, this type of engagement counts as a meaningful metric of success. “I always say that art can’t change the world,” said Le Feuvre, “but it can change perception”—in this case, the perception being that climate change is something distant and abstract. “If you can change perceptions, you can change the world.”

Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.