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Legion. An amalgamated journal.

As the World Melts

Back in my green youth of a-month-or-so ago, I considered writing a thesis on the decline of artistic-political symbiosis in the White House post-Kennedy. Then, I thought the death of federal government’s support for American cultural innovation was mostly a sin of omission: Republicans couldn’t be bothered, didn’t “get” modern art, were always looking for budgets to cut; the Clintons figured they were covering their bases with the sax-playing shtick, occasionally inviting Maya Angelou over, etc.

Now, though, it seems to me that government is determined not merely to kill art by circumstantial starvation, but actually to hack it into little bits in the dogged pursuit of (You guessed it!) King Oil. To be fair, we are only talking Utah state politics in this situation, and a decision on the matter is still a few weeks away, but it is entirely possible that Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty will be ruined by a Canadian firm lusting after an oil source beneath the Great Salt Lake.

Being a poor (read: cheap) college student, I don’t pay to subscribe to The American Prospect, so I hope I am not about to make a slew of observations already more elegantly registered by Kriston Capps. Running that risk, I must say that it strikes me as hauntingly ironic that Spiral Jetty faces extinction at the hands of humans apparently hell-bent on sucking the marrow out of nature until the miasmic regurgitation of said marrow brings about a man-made End of Days.

Hauntingly, because Smithson meticulously choreographed the jetty to reflect natural progression. From the gradual accumulation of salt crystals on the stones in the jetty to the swirling, blood-red water eventually pooling within the spiral, Smithson was in tune with the lovely havoc Earth would wreak on his earth work. The natural denaturation of the structure was, in large part, his point.

Most of us are only familiar with the work through the extensive visual documentation of its production that Smithson carefully preserved. He knew it would end up, as it is now, mostly obscured by rising lake waters. Could he also have known that it would eventually fall prey to the most destructive of all natural elements: humanity seeking to feed its precarious modern reality? I wouldn’t put it past Smithson to have considered, or even assumed, such a fate for the jetty, which is why I await Utah’s decision in cold terror that Smithson’s spiral metaphor could soon apply all too neatly to the environment as a whole.

UPDATE: Having now read more about the issue, it is clear to me that the jetty faces no immediate threat of extinction, unless something were to go tragically, tragically wrong with the drilling (and even in that case, it’s still at a distance from the structure, and we would have greater worries). The issue at stake is more that viewers’ ability to experience the jetty will be severely compromised by drilling operations. That Smithson’s earth work, with its emphasis on natural progression, should be embroiled in this essentially oil vs. environment/oil vs. art debate, though, is nonetheless highly resonant with me.

Maryellen McGowan

March 31st, 2008 at 7:07 pm

But perhaps you disagree

No responses so far

The room is, as yet, filled with smoke and apprehension.