Writing on the Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson

The Origin


Robert Smithson created a monumental earthwork of Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970. It is a coil made of black basalt rocks and dirt from the site, which is 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide. Starting from the shore, the spiral stretches out and coils counterclockwise into the lake. You have to go through long dirt roads with a detailed map in order to get to the chosen site.

As it is evident in its context, in the middle of “nowhere” as Smithson also suggests, the Spiral Jetty leaves its origin unanswered at many different levels. The film keeps questioning where and when his project starts, and the work itself takes us to different levels of our understandings of origin, bringing the whole notion of how the universe was born, the evolution of things along the passing of time. The idea of origin inevitably generates the idea of time: past, present, and the future. But where something begins and ends are never stable without a fixed point if its origin. The repetitive use of spirals throughout the film, as well as the fact that it is on film (spiral), emphasize the question of origin (question of “beginning” and therefore question of “end” simultaneously) in relation to the idea of evolution and progress. If anything is progressing, or what it means to progress, remains a perpetual question. The notion of entropy becomes a useful term in order to help us understand Smithson’s standpoint regarding to the center of his Spiral Jetty.


\En"tro*py\, n. [Gr. ? a turning in; ? in + ? a turn,
fr. ? to turn.] (Thermodynamics)
A certain property of a body, expressed as a measurable
quantity, such that when there is no communication of heat
the quantity remains constant, but when heat enters or leaves
the body the quantity increases or diminishes. If a small
amount, h, of heat enters the body when its temperature is t
in the thermodynamic scale the entropy of the body is
increased by h ? t. The entropy is regarded as measured from
some standard temperature and pressure. Sometimes called the
thermodynamic function.

(from Webster's 1913 Dictionary)

(“when there is no communication of heat the quantity remains constant, but when heat enters or leaves the body the quantity increases or diminishes.” You can see how this sentence applies to the idea of origin and the creation of the Spiral Jetty. Once some kind of power (energy exchange) gets put onto something, the energy will not be able to hold it self perpetually. The Big Bang theory says the whole universe started with tremendous amount of heat. Stars (like the sun) and planets (like the earth) form from gas and dust and disintegrate back to gas and dust. On the earth, creatures get born and age and diminish back to soil. All the creations seem to go back to where it was born, in a repetitive way along the time passing, like a spiral. Human creation appears to be such a small thing in this scale. But the Spiral Jetty, a human creation made by moving a tiny portion of earth gave a big enough of an impact on my mind to make me realize how small we are. I think that is conceptually immense. )

According to the Oxford English dictionary, entropy is “a measure of the disorder of a system. Systems tend to go from a state of order (low ¬¬entropy) to a state of maximum disorder (high entropy). Entropy becomes a handy word when talking about the Spiral Jetty film, because the disorder of a system means that there is nothing at the center that holds the system together, and the film constantly questions the center of the Jetty, and its origin. “Any order can be reordered” (Smithson Artforum p140).
Any scientific and mathematical way of understanding uses “measurable quantity,” which seems to make it easier for us to recognize/visualize the time progression that is invisible. But because it tries to visualize the invisible, it lets us make “edges” of things to differentiate form each other. This creates contradictories for us to understand how things are related. For example, in a scientific sense, how can we understand how an arrow can hit a target, while we cannot possibly end the decimals of 0.0000000………., which keeps going infinity in theory? The distance from the tip of the arrow and the surface of the target can never touch in this sense. That is where I see the limit of science. And the Spiral Jetty film challenges this systematic way of our thinking.
The whole composition of the film reflects this idea of entropy. As the first half of the film consists of repetitive patterns of sequences, but from the point where the jetty is built, it looses the repetitive pattern, the system.

The Spiral Jetty and the Origin
The film consists of the repetition of going and coming back. Starting from the switching frames of road going and leaving with scenes with the noise of clock ticking in between those opposite directions, switching frames of the dump cars going back and forth with scenes of the water of the Great Salt Lake in between, (The footage of creating the Jetty is not merely a documentation of its construction. The dump cars and the construction of the spiral path become metaphors for the question of Origin. In the process of creating the Jetty, the back of the dump cars repeatedly reappears and dumps the rocks into the water. It goes backwards, in order to generate its path, to make a “progress,” to a point of nowhere. The dump cars go backwards to the “end” of the trail, carrying the potential elements of progress (rocks and dirt, which are products of the past. And also the potential origin of the spiral), dumps the rocks into the water, and go forward driving on the path that they made so far to go back to the “starting point” in spiral.) Smithson runs on the Jetty towards the center of the Jetty and starts walking back the path, and a the end is a zooming in of the photograph of the Jetty (Going closer to what is already in the past, which gives the film a sense of present time. But the film is the past time itself at the same time, which makes the present present in a relational sense.). Not to mention, the film itself also plays forward and gets rewind. “The movie recapitulates the scale of the Spiral Jetty. Disparate elements assume a coherence” (Smithson Artforum p.151) .
For this essay, I would like to have my focus on the scenes after the Jetty is built that were shot from the helicopter in order to examine how the origin of the Jetty is treated within this section of the film in detail.
The framing within the film seems to reveal Smithson’s intentionality of questioning how we relate the ideas of the past, present, and future, that is the question of origin. You can see it from the beginning of the film by not clarifying which point of the road it is heading or if it is heading to somewhere or going back form somewhere.
(You can see Smithson’s intentionality in many other scenes within the film. Such as the when he explains the Jetty’s geographical context on by showing maps. On the atlas, the camera frame starts from wondering around Australia, slowly curving to Asia, then Europe, curve down to America, cuts into the map of Salt lake, but the camera keeps panning slowly curving right to left, counter-clockwise, keeps panning even after it shows where the Jetty is and it keeps curving and go over the name of the lake on the map, in the shape of a spiral, to nowhere on the map. )
After the construction of the Jetty is done, there are two shots of the spiral in the film. One of them only shows the Jetty with his voice over, and the second shot shows Smithson running on the Jetty. The first shot follows the spiral closely counterclockwise. Smithson’s voiceover comes in. Smithson repeats “mud, salt crystals, rocks, water” after a direction for twenty directions clockwise. It zooms out after it follows along the spiral to the center and keeps spinning around counter clockwise. It eventually shows the entire Jetty, then the straight part of the jetty starts to look like a hand of a clock spinning clockwise, which matches with the direction of the voice over. The center of the clock symbolically indicates the unstable condition of time. The voice over mentions “south”, and the spiral starts to spin backwards, also zooms back in to the center and out. Any direction you go is “mud, salt crystals, rocks, water” and they only repeat. While all directions are mentioned, the directions do not matter.

From the center of the Spiral Jetty
North – Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by East - Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northest by North - Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northest by East - Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water

This is another form of spiral created by the repetitions not with progression but with subtle changes for each cycle (different directions, same elements). The fact that he spends time to read those repetitive elements gives it another dimension to the cycle(circle), which makes it an audible and invisible spiral. Having this voice over white showing the spinning of the spiral implies that we cannot position ourselves; we are at nowhere, but at the same time we are everywhere at every possible directions that does not have to be relational to the center. (On the atlas, you can point to the “west” and keep going all the way and you will find your self on the east side of yourself. And the center point, you, cannot be pointed as a direction, although you function as the origin of the directions all around you. )
As the helicopter gets closer to the center of the Jetty, it cuts into still shots of the close up of the basalt that is the continuation of the center of the Jetty. It shows rocks, and even closer shots of salt formation of the rock, and the images of salt formation in a microscopic view, while he talks about salt formations on the rocks that grows both clockwise and counterclockwise. This leads us to think of where all the elements come from. Water has always been constantly circulating.
The scene cuts into the Jetty again, basically the same angle from the last shot of the Spiral Jetty. It also does not show his “starting point” of his running. He keeps running as if there is going to be something for him at the center of the spiral. But it also looks like he is running “away” from the helicopter while he is going “forward.” The whole spiral becomes a “timeline,” with speeded up clock ticking sound generated by the helicopter wings. The reflected sun on the surface of the water starts to appear to represent days passing. He is still running, with his clumsy posture, almost falling every now and then. The shadow of the helicopter comes in and out repeatedly. Nothing much changes but time keeps passing. How much more he can go remains a question, while building up a sense of tension. Falling or not falling. Going or not going. Clockwise or counterclockwise. We are making any progress? Or are we going backwards? But in relation to what, when there is not a fixed center?
The camera frame only shows one strip of dirt coming towards the camera and Smithson running, you cannot see his position in relation to the rest of the spiral. The viewers only know that he is going towards the center of the spiral. You cannot see his past, or the future, but only the present. The shot not only loses our sense of direction but also metaphorically suggests a kind of suspicion that things may only be repeating themselves without making significant changes, or what we call “prograss,” while time just keeps passing, making the present past. Since this is the first shot within the film that the main subject matter is a human being, it metaphorically suggests the position of human beings and their history in relation to the timeline of prehistorical period, the timeline of the earth, the time line of the universe.
During this shot, there are layers of spirals overlapping. The loud sound of a helicopter (a spiral) is so load that there is a strong sense of its presence, shaking our eardrums through the ears (a spiral). (The Jetty itself represents human body in a way also. The red of the lake is a symbolic of blood, which Smithson explains as “protoplasmic solutions,” which is made of “masses of cells consisting largely of water, proteins, lipoids, carbohydrate, and inorganic salts.”) The salt crystals are coiling both clockwise and counterclockwise on the Jetty. Smithson himself is a clock, as he runs on the spiral his shadow spins clockwises around him making him the center of a clock.
The position of Smithson is kept at the center within the frame while he is running counterclockwise and the spiral is moving clockwise. He reaches to the center, and he starts to walk back on the same path that he took to get there. The shot starts to spin backwards at the same time. He is not going anywhere, even “on the way” to the center of the spiral that really is nowhere. The scene is only generating a “spinning sensation without movement” (Smithson The Spiral Jetty p. 8).

The Jetty is consisted with filling and infilling, as the notion of entropy is in action within the film. While we recognize the Jetty as the spiral, which is made with rocks that is above the waterline, while the is no split in between the earth and the Jetty, the water that is filling the negative space of the spiral is also in the form of a spiral. This connection of the water of the lake and the spiral shaped by moving the earth really emphasize the question of the origin.
The spiral appears to be floating on the surface of what Smithson calls, “non-site.” The surface of the lake is functioning as a mirror, which is only a vacant reflection of the site. But at the same time, the water surface gains more solidity in its existence, functioning as a bright, glowing spiral, which makes the spiral made with rocks into a dark black silhouette, transforming it into another kind of “negative space,” the void. Where does the reality start? The spiral is reversed. Smithson’s site and nonsite collapses into each other. “My dialects of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other” (Smithson Spiral Jetty p.10) What defines the spiral, what surrounds it and what it surrounds, what it is made of, where it starts and ends are all stirred up. This challenges the science. It emphasizes the “never to be solved” question of the idea of entropy, where we do not know at which point of a process we reach the “maximum.” Our ideological sorting of the categories of a system (how we name each thing to distinguish one concept from another) becomes disordered, discentered, and everything is connected.
Smithson frames the Jetty so that the light of the sun reflects at he center of the Jetty. It immediately changes our perception of the context of the lake into a view of a galaxy, the solar system: the essential key for the origin of creatures on earth. But “the entropy of the universe tends towards a maximum” as Rudolf Clausius insisted (Tolman p. 262-265). The end of universe is prospected that it ends up in heat death. The sun is also the key to death, as well as the origin of living at the same time. The Jetty questions the in between: the beginning of galaxies and their end. You realize that there is actually not a “beginning” of things.

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film comments on the history of earth and evolution of life; the birth of universe and the question of life through the use of spirals visually and metaphorically. The Jetty questions, where the central point is and/or how we decide the notion of “center,” the idea of how anything stated to get formed, where is the “origin”? Does anything start from only a point? In his film, “Spiral Jetty,” Smithson uses layers of the ideas of “spiral,” that can also be understood as decentering, in order to emphasize this question of “origin.” However, to question the notion of “origin” may only be a linguistic paradox, in which without our use of language, there is neither the idea of a “center” nor “origin” to start with.
Within the context of art history, Smithson’s Jetty also questioned the center of conventional gallery/museum context of art, which also made a radiant influence to the art world today.


Smithson, Robert. “A Cinematic Atopia.” Artforum. Sep 1971

Smithson, Robert. “Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty.” University of California Press. 2005

Tolman, Richard C. “Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1935)

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