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Modern and contemporary art

Video transcript

in 1970 Robert Smithson hired several people to help him create Spiral Jetty we're standing right in the middle at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah but we're not seeing this the way that it existed when Smithson first created it where it was an intersection between the land and the very odd water of the Great Salt Lake this is a terminal basin a huge lake that had been largely freshwater but there is no outlet so the water once it flows here from rivers and streams collect and then simply evaporates which means that the water is dense with minerals and especially with salt very much like the Dead Sea in the Middle East and this is one of a handful of these terminal basins that exists in the world almost nothing can live here there are a few fish that live at the outlet of some of the freshwater rivers and in our brine shrimp and algae in fact there's a particular kind of algae that makes the water turn pinkish red and that was true when Smithson created Spiral Jetty but today as we look out at the lake it's blue with help from the dawn gallery which represented him Smithson was able to bring a front loader and dump trucks a tractor to help move these basalt stones and sand and some soil into place by creating a spiral Smithson created lots of opportunities where the land and the water could meet one another but right now because the American West is in the midst of a drought the water has receded and is at a great distance from this earth work so instead of the water filling the spaces in between the spiral we have sand so this was very much meant to be a work of art that changed based on natural principles Smithson was interested in the idea of entropy the idea of the way things break down and his intervention in this natural landscape it's an expression of the way in which artists thought about the landscape for many years we could go back to artists like Caspar David Friedrich who thought about the overwhelming size and power of nature and the smallness of man and that's certainly one of the themes here for me as we stand here but we could also think about the importance of the vastness of the American landscape in nineteenth-century American painting or even its importance to the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s we can go even further back and look at the artwork of indigenous peoples in the Americas long before the Europeans arrived the geoglyphs better known as the Nazca lines in Peru in South America or through earthworks that come out of the fort ancient culture in North America and in fact this very shape of Spiral Jetty is a form that has shown up in petroglyphs throughout the American West and it's a form that appears in nature quite frequently one of the anecdotes that Smithson apparently was aware of was the centuries-old idea that the Great Salt Lake contained a whirlpool that somehow connected it to the Pacific Ocean so the idea of a spiral or whirlpool is active even in these stories that predate Smithson but this is also a sculpture that is rooted in the 20th century in an industrial cultured 1970 was the year of the first Earth Day and that signaled an important early moment in the environmental movement the idea of the ruination that man was visiting on nature is clearly informing work like this an Earth Day being this time when we reflect on environmental issues but the relationship between the growing industrial nature of the United States and the amazingly beautiful vast virgin landscape that was here when Europeans arrived is a theme throughout 19th century American painting and as we stand here we see mountains we see this basalt that's formed from a volcano so we have a very powerful sense of the passage of time that I think was very interesting to Smithson by putting art outside in the world it becomes part of the process of nature it can't be conserved in 1970 this was still a radical idea the idea of taking art off the wall bringing it outside outside of the confines of a home or a museum and thereby outside of the commercial of a work that could be bought and sold Smithson was interested in creating a porous relationship between that more controlled gallery experience and the experience of art in the world so kinda work like this also exists in Manhattan can it also exist in a gallery well we did drive two hours from Salt Lake City so one does have to make an intentional pilgrimage to see this we're really in the middle of vast empty space in the American West and yet this artwork was not conceived of as existing only here there's a video there were aerial photographs and so like many works for it in the 1960s and 70s that were ephemeral they exist through their documentation although this still exists here also and I have to say I wouldn't feel as if I hadn't experienced this work of art fully had I not come out here standing here looking at Spiral Jetty and being really aware of how different it is then when Smithson created it in 1970 really makes me think about museums as places where we entrust works of art we walk them away from time we conserve them and create special conditions to stop time from hurting them but here Smithson created something that time is supposed to change museums in a sense try to do the impossible which raises a really an interesting question what do we do with the significant work of art that was intended to change over time this work of art in the land that it sits on came under the control of the DIA Art Foundation what is an institution like dia do with something like this does it try to protect it does it allow natural and industrial forces to play with the landscape around it and so what dia did is in concert with the Getty conservation Institute is to make the decision to regularly document this object you mentioned this idea of entropy which was so important to Smithson this idea that the tendency of all things according to the laws of physics is to move from order to disorder to chaos and I think we have that sense of things coming apart here so Smithson is imposing a geometric order into this natural landscape into this vast space that is in the process over millions of years of disassembling but here more specifically we can see the way his intervention is slowly coming apart and I think that sense that over millions of years this will come apart makes us aware of the brevet of our own lifespans in the grandeur of time
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