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PRINT September 2002

NON-SITE UNSEEN: HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

“There’s nothing to see. But if you want to head out there, more power to you,” said Nickie Smith, an employee of the Golden Spike National Historic Site visitor center, as she handed over a poorly photocopied map, her sidelong glance issuing a perceptible warning. This was an inauspicious way to begin the final leg of a ten-day journey.

Late last summer my friend Andrew Leitch and I drove from New York to Promontory Summit, Utah, in search of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970. I still can’t say exactly why. Maybe it was the way Smithson pronounced “water,” northern New Jersey style, as he incanted his truth-to-materials recipe—“mud, salt crystals, rocks, water”—in the drony, stoned-sounding voice-over to the film he made of the then new jetty in the murkily reddish northern part of the Great Salt Lake. Or maybe it was simply the draw of the surrounding landscape, “the desiccated, lunar-like, middle-of-nowhere West in its ‘uncanny immensity’ ” (Smithson again, this time in his hazy 1972 essay on Spiral Jetty), an absolute antidote to New York, which is, as John Ashbery reminds us, a “logarithm of other cities.”

After all, we had heard often enough in New York that Spiral Jetty was underwater and that the site was remote and inaccessible, and we were well aware that the point of Smithson’s project had been the “event” of its being recorded on film and of its being written up into the quasi-documentary essay—in any case, decidedly not its status as art object, much less as pilgrimage (non-)site. Yet we sensed that there might be some purposiveness, if not exactly purpose, to the journey—that despite the fact that there was “nothing to see,” something might happen.

Before we left, an editor at Artforum faxed me a copy of an article written in 1970 by then editor Philip Leider. Titled, almost embarrassingly, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation; or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah (Read about it in Artforum!)” and peppered with pull quotes from Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, Charles Manson, and Smithson (“I’m interested in the politics of the Triassic period”), it recounted a journey that Leider and John Coplans took with Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt, out to the Spiral Jetty site. “Smithson kept being amazed at all the changes the piece had gone through since he’d last seen it,” Leider wrote. “Thick deposits of salt had outlined the piece in white. A completely unexpected yellow mineral had appeared, mixing with the rosy water and the white salt crystals along many edges of the piece. Best of all, an electric storm was coming up across the lake, lightning and all. The piece”—why did he keep calling it a “piece”?—“was a fantasy.” Our journey was framed by fantasy.

Yet pre– (and post–) 9/11, the summer of ’01 was no summer of ’70, and I can’t bring myself to pull-quote “Oops! . . . I Did It Again,” the Britney Spears song the radio was playing as we crossed the Mississippi in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or to recount our discussions of the politics of the Internet—Andrew had recently been laid off from his dot-com firm—as we drove through the Badlands of South Dakota. We approached Utah from Wyoming, where we had witnessed, from the windows of my small, decade-old Japanese car (stuffed full of baggage and occupied by my rust-colored vizsla, Millie), Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. As if it had all been prearranged, moose, buffalo, eagles, and a grizzly patiently posed for photographs against stunning backdrops of snowcapped mountains, tall pine trees, and bright blue skies. It was picturesque, in an early-nineteenth-century-Romanticism-meets-mid-twentieth-century-amenities sort of way—in precisely the sort of way Smithson would have detested.

We dipped down US 89, passing through a little pocket of Idaho, and laid out in front of us was an altogether more Smithsonian landscape and feeling about nature—or rather, about the relationship between “nature” and “man.” The occasional “future home of” housing development sat baking in the summer sun, awaiting Utahans priced out of the Salt Lake region and drawn to these “slurbs.” We passed several KFC–Taco Bell complexes along the highway, as we had throughout our journey; local color, we had long since discovered, was restricted to scenery, not cuisine or culture. The path was entropic, in Smithson’s unrigorous but persistent use of the word, associated with the second law of thermodynamics: “Energy,” he wrote in “Entropy and the New Monuments” (1966), describing the work of Judd, Morris, LeWitt, and Flavin, “is more easily lost than obtained, and . . . in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness.”

Before we left, Matt Coolidge, of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, an artist/critical collective in Los Angeles, had e-mailed me shorthand directions, and by the time we got to Utah, the printout was a crumpled mess. Following the directions, we exited the highway near Brigham City, about sixty miles north of Salt Lake City, and headed west, toward the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. We passed the Thiokol Propulsion plant (formerly Morton Thiokol), where in the ’60s and ’70s they built Minuteman and Peacekeeper missiles and where the defective but delightfully named O-rings for the Space Shuttle Challenger were made. Andrew and I talked about the end of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, with its exploding rockets and logic of entropy, and wondered whether Smithson had ever read Pynchon. On the other side of the lake was the Tooele army depot, purportedly housing the United States’s largest stockpile of biochemical weapons, supposedly the country’s second-most likely site to be attacked during a war, after the Pentagon. But in summer ’01, biological warfare seemed like a mere abstraction—as abstract and far-fetched as an assault on the Pentagon.

The Golden Spike National Historic Site in Brigham City, Utah, commemorates the spot where, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met, forming the world’s first transcontinental railroad. (Smithson was undoubtedly aware of this; a big centennial celebration was held during the time he was negotiating his shore lease on the land.) Almost every American born between 1900 and 1950, including Smithson, had read about it in high school history books; this explained the small, mostly geriatric crowd gathered around the nineteenth-century locomotive, which, twice a day, reenacted its maiden journey, accompanied by a whistle and a puff of steam. The staff at the visitor center seemed disappointed by our lack of interest in the Spike and mystified by our fascination with the remote and invisible Spiral Jetty, reachable only by a progressively bad dirt road. When I asked Rick Wilson, the park’s ranger, how many people visited Spiral Jetty, he told me that five to six cars a week came during summer and two to four a month during the rest of the year. He mentioned that “a few Europeans have come in asking whether they can rent a helicopter.” (They can’t.) He said “an art group from New York” (the Dia Center for the Arts) is supposed to be restoring the site but that he hadn’t “seen anybody out there.” This was already the second time someone at Golden Spike had used the expression out there: I was reminded of the quack alienist in Heart of Darkness’s sepulchral city, who measures Marlow’s head with calipers before he heads “out there” to the Congo and to Kurtz.

Tumbleweeds drifted lazily by as we found the beginning of the dirt road leading out to Rozel Point, where Smithson, in search of a red body of water like the one he had read existed in Bolivia, had built Spiral Jetty, with the help of bemused and dismissive (but well paid) contractors from the surrounding area. Matt Coolidge’s directions were precise—“after 0.7 miles, turn right (just before corral); after three miles you enter onto Promontory Ranch (no turns possible); after 2.5 miles, enter Rafter S Ranch”—but the condition of the road forced us to go slowly, and suddenly tenths of miles seemed like miles. I became disoriented and a little panicked. No one had told me that the area was so completely secluded—there was no one in sight for miles—and I envisioned getting a flat or bursting an oil pan and being stranded out there in the doldrums, beyond cell-phone range. The rubrics—golden spike, ranch, corral—were Western, but the feeling was otherworldly, lifeless, “museal” in the sense Adorno gives the term. For the first and only time ever, I wished for an SUV or a pickup with monster wheels.

We slowly glided past a junked trailer, the first sign of “life” in a half hour, and then a giant amphibious vehicle, rusting out in the elements. Smithson wrote that “the site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems, mired in abandoned hopes.” Here was archaeological corroboration. Turning a corner we could see the lake; against the cloudy sky, it looked more maroon than red, and the horizon looked like a Turner painting. Downslope we saw the abandoned oil tanks that, according to our e-mail printout, meant we were only four-tenths of a mile from the jetty site. The car hit a big rock, and we stopped and got out.

In the previous hour the temperature had dropped about fifteen degrees, and it began to drizzle. We walked along the shore and were surrounded by what looked like the detritus from an angry volcano: There were thousands of dark basketball-size rocks climbing abandoned-looking hills; this was the raw material of Spiral Jetty. Giant red ants paced frantically around our feet. We were looking for three large, piled boulders marking the spot where the jetty begins. We could see no such boulders, so we kept walking.

Millie, who, in her initial joy at being released from the car had, despite my admonitions, managed to drink some of the salt water, was retching noisily. She looked miserable. We had by now walked at least a half mile and had passed a few groups of what we thought might be boulders. Standing on a little plateau, looking back at the area we had just traversed, we imagined we saw Spiral Jetty’s vague contour, beginning its jutting out into the lake, and we took some photos and shot some video of that shape.

We had arrived, we knew, if not at the jetty, at least at the site, and there was some consolation in that realization. But was this all there was? It felt a bit like waiting for Old Faithful to erupt at Yellowstone, which we had done the day before; only here there were no people, no puff of steam—not even a little spurt. In the absence of the appearance of the actual Earthwork, Andrew and I talked about our various theories of the shape of Spiral Jetty: Andrew compared it to the staircase and Kim Novak’s hairdo in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and I talked about Chris Marker’s La Jetée and the theme of natural-history museums that pervades Smithson’s writing. (The artist’s grandfather had actually helped fabricate some of the diorama exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History, in New York.)

After about a half hour of hunting (for Spiral Jetty) and shooting (video), we began to walk back to the car. It was now raining heavily and beginning to hail. As we were walking, we saw a green plastic tent in the shape of an arrow, which seemed to point at something out toward the lake. Following its deictic angle, we saw more oil drums and other refuse out by the water’s edge and then, suddenly, noticed a shape we hadn’t seen before. Was it a mirage? A road seemed to pop out over the surface of the water. It was a jetty all right—and it jutted out a long way, maybe five hundred yards, which was, we knew, the length of Spiral Jetty. But it looked ramshackle. There were large wooden posts around its edges that seemed to prop it up. Was this Spiral Jetty? We agreed it must be and began to laugh in triumph mixed with self-directed mockery. How could we not have noticed the green arrow? (There were no signs anywhere acknowledging Spiral Jetty; maybe this was a European art aficionado’s homemade semaphore?) This was the road we had seen in Smithson’s film. The posts, we figured, must be the beginning of Dia’s rehabilitation of the piece.

Still, it wasn’t a pretty jetty, emerging as it did out of a scrotum of oil tanks. That didn’t look like the spiral’s graceful curve, and, besides, hadn’t everyone told us the piece was underwater? But we convinced ourselves that this was entropy in action. We shot more video. Millie pranced about and sniffed around an oil barrel. We were now freezing and soaked to the skin, but the jetty had appeared, against all odds, and we felt vindicated.

Hail notwithstanding, the ride back seemed much quicker and smoother than the ride out. We passed the gate to Promontory Ranch, and snowballing tumbleweed zoomed over the road. We pulled into the Golden Spike visitor center and asked again for Rick Wilson. We wanted to know that what we had been looking at was what we had come to see, or witness.

“That’s the oil jetty,” Wilson said, without hesitation. “Spiral Jetty’s about a quarter mile away from that spot.” What oil jetty? (Neither Golden Spike’s own hand-drawn map nor Coolidge’s e-mailed directions mentioned it.) Wilson said this jetty was built to facilitate oil exploration, which had been going on since the days of the pioneers: Petroleum still came up in seeps on Rozel Point. But he couldn’t say how long the jetty had been there or whether it was present in 1969, which seemed unlikely—Smithson’s film showed no trace of it. “All I know is, it’s been here as long as I have,” some twenty years. Wilson also related other curious facts about the Rozel Point area; it was as though he could only divulge the information after we had gone “out there.” It seems that it wasn’t long after 1869 that the two railroad companies discovered that Promontory Summit was not the most efficient transcontinental train route, and at the beginning of the last century they decided to move the train line farther south, near the Nevada border, where the terrain was flatter. But the huge wooden trestle they had built over Salt Lake changed the lake’s ecosystem, dramatically increasing the salt content in the north part of the lake, the brine shrimp population that could survive in it, and the red algae bacteria that fed on the brine shrimp. This, and not some prehistoric geological event, gave the north part of the lake its distinctive red color. In 1959, the federal government completed a giant rock-filled causeway, which effectively dammed the lake and lowered water levels in the north arm. This was why the level (4,195 feet above sea level in 1969) was so low when Spiral Jetty was built.

In the ’70s, Wilson said, the federal government made two huge openings in the earth-filled dyke that supported the causeway, to try to rebalance the salt content. This raised the water level in Rozel Point some fifteen to twenty feet, basically drowning Spiral Jetty. So all the “back to nature” rhetoric—including a 1993 New York Times Magazine article with a photo spread of the recently reemerged Jetty crusted white with salt, in which the implication was that “nature” had reclaimed the art—was a kind of Smithsonian joke. In fact, it was big man-made projects, and specifically the ambitions of an entropic capitalism, that both made the Jetty possible and sealed its fate (at least its current fate). This was, then, anything but a case of “spiritual snobbery,” as Smithson called art that embraced a prettified “nature”; it was, rather, an “ecology of the real.”

After an abortive attempt to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Overton, Nevada—my car couldn’t make it over the last sand dune, a mere three miles from the site—Andrew and I drove on to LA. Once there, I became obsessed with the question of the “oil jetty.” I had by then heard that Tacita Dean had made an installation called Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty, for which she had recorded a sound track of a journey that sounded eerily similar to ours, down to her not knowing whether she had actually seen Smithson’s “piece.” I called her New York gallery to obtain a copy. In the sound track she never mentions the oil jetty, but the directions the gallery included (from the Utah Arts Council) claimed that upon approaching the east side of Rozel Point, “you will see the Lake and a jetty (not the Spiral Jetty) left by oil drilling exploration in the 1950s.” I admired the Magrittean touch, but this date seemed odd: Why would Smithson have placed his jetty so close to the “not–Spiral Jetty,” and how could the helicopter overview have managed to crop the shot?

Playing detective, I contacted Dia; they knew nothing about the oil jetty. I had a long correspondence with various Utah government officials, one of whom sent me studies of oil exploration in the area, but the oil jetty was not mentioned. I tried to reach the former park ranger, who was now stationed in Zion National Park, Arizona: no luck. I spoke to Ted Tuttle, of the Utah division of parks and recreation, whom Smithson mentioned in his essay on Spiral Jetty. “For heaven’s sake!” he said. “I haven’t thought about that for twenty years.” (He politely described Smithson as “something of a character” and admitted that the idea of the work he was constructing was “hard for me to comprehend.”) But he could offer no insights on the simulacral jetty. I exchanged e-mails with Hikmet Loe, a former New Yorker who now works as a librarian in Salt Lake City and is something of a local expert on the work, but she couldn’t say when the oil jetty was built.

Finally, just as I was set to give up, I got an e-mail from one of the Utah government workers: He gave me contact information for a Kenneth Pixley, who had long been involved in oil exploration at Rozel Point. I dialed the phone number. Unfortunately, Pixley had died earlier in the year, but his former secretary gave me the number of Kenneth Pixley Jr., of Altus, Oklahoma. His wife answered the phone. An infant was crying in the background. She said, “Ken is working on the car in the garage” with their son, Garret. He continued to do so as we spoke; I could hear the clanking of wrenches against car parts. When I asked about Spiral Jetty, he said, “I have no idea what that is.” But when I mentioned the oil jetty at Rozel Point, he said, “Sure, I know about that. I ought to. I built it.” Pixley explained that his father had been working “out there” in the ’70s, during the energy crisis, when the rising price of oil made domestic exploration potentially profitable. Ken Jr. was in college and occasionally helped out. Over the course of the decade, he said, the water level rose and what had been accessible by foot was now navigable only by boat. First they ran a pipeline; when that became submerged, they decided to build a kind of road—the 1,500-foot-long oil jetty—out to the seeps. “That would have been late 1980,” he said.

I explained to Pixley that less than a half mile away was one of the most important artworks of the latter half of the twentieth century and that his oil jetty, of approximately the same length, was now the only thing visible at the site. “I really don’t know anything about that,” he said, chuckling rather uneasily. Pixley went on to tell me that “we pulled our big operations out of there by 1985”—it turned out that the land produced only very thick oil with a high sulfur content—and they left behind the trailer, oil tanks, and generator pumps. As for the amphibious vehicle, he said, “that wasn’t ours.”

As I hung up the phone I felt like a deadeye dick at the end of a film noir: The story had turned out to be more complicated, more involved—like a spiral—than I had thought, and I was both exhilarated at the knowledge I had gained and a little disgusted by what it indicated about my assumptions concerning art, landscape, commerce, and social class. As it happened, maybe Nickie Smith’s advice was correct: There was, strictly speaking, “nothing to see.” But when I think of Spiral Jetty now, I remember the slurbs, Thiokol, Tooele, and Golden Spike, the trailer and amphibious vehicle, the tumbleweed, the rocks, the hailstorm, the ants, and my dog retching; and I can picture the not–Spiral Jetty that quietly mocks its invisible neighbor. I think, following Wallace Stevens, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.