Ground Control

Sean J Patrick Carney on Land art and American entropy

View of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, Great Basin Desert, Utah. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Sean J Patrick Carney.

I’M SITTING AT THE BOTTOM of a dry, deteriorating swimming pool in the Great Salt Lake Desert. Here, across northwestern Utah’s remote Tooele County, the bone-white, salt-crusted terrain appears endless. It’s so vast you can see the curvature of the Earth.

The Donner-Reed Party trudged this eighty-mile waterless drive in 1846, following the spurious California Trail shortcut recommended by adventurer and future Confederate major Lansford Hastings. Their hubris and resultant cannibalism epitomize Manifest Destiny’s ravenous pathology. American audacity, not ingenuity, colonized the continent.

During World War II, this pool provided recreation to twenty thousand Wendover Air Force Base personnel and their families. Famously, Lieutenant Colonel Tibbets trained the 509th Composite Group at Wendover. In August 1945, their Enola Gay and Bockscar B-29 bombers crossed the nuclear Rubicon, massacring tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.

They called the precise moment the atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki time zero. As in 3, 2, 1 . . .

Just north of me is Interstate 80, where commuters, long-haul truckers, and road-trippers barrel at profane velocities across the Utah-Nevada border. Present-day Wendover is technically two cities, West Wendover being part of Nevada. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is east of the Shell station, the casinos and recreational marijuana shop are west. The nearest brothels are sixty miles away in Wells. Directly east of Wendover are the Bonneville Salt Flats, where, since 1912, land-speed junkies have hurled their screaming machines across the Earth, hoping to bend space-time.

Before Brigham Young or the transcontinental railroad, this immensity was Goshute territory. The present-day Confederated Tribes of the Goshute have a 176-square-mile reservation at the base of the Deer Creek Mountains. The Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians has just twenty-eight square miles southwest of Salt Lake City, where their neighbors include hazardous-waste dumps and incinerators, a coal-fired power plant, and the shadowy Dugway Proving Ground, nicknamed “Area 52,” where the US military has tested chemical and biological weapons including napalm, anthrax, Botulinum toxin, and bubonic plague. In 1968, open-air VX nerve-agent testing killed thousands of sheep on the reservation in a single day. The ongoing health, economic, and environmental impact that these activities—plus wind-borne nuclear fallout from the Nevada Test Site just a few hundred miles southwest—have had upon locals has never been concretely measured.

Between thirty thousand and thirteen thousand years ago, this desert was at the bottom of Lake Bonneville, a pluvial freshwater drink the size of Lake Michigan, of which the Great Salt Lake is a highly saline remnant. Today, this is our national dumping ground.

The former swimming pool at the Wendover Air Force Base in Utah. Photo: Sean J Patrick Carney.

At the bottom of the pool, my perceptions muddy. I believe I’m experiencing what the ever-patient filmmaker Kelly Reichardt calls elaborated time—tension builds from the undulating, monotonous rhythm of this basin’s magnitude. That same magnitude caches environmental crimes and permits machines to reach terrifying speeds. Time gets weird here. Geologic, cultural, industrial, and climatic time vibrate concurrently, innumerable epochs, events, and actors assembling in the present. Mountains and mining pits, heavy-bombing ranges and reservations, ghost towns and garish casinos, crippling drought and private landscaping. What was still is, and what will be has already been. Bring on the Tralfamadorians.

Concerningly, the future feels truncated, like we’re approaching zero.

HALF A CENTURY AGO, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, enamored of this desert’s incongruities, installed Spiral Jetty, 1970, and Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, their respective genre-defining Earthworks, in adjacent Box Elder County. I visited both in May, the day before wandering Wendover Airfield. Smithson’s muscular, elegant, involute dump of dirt and rock extends 1,500 feet from Rozel Point into a now-dry portion of northeastern Great Salt Lake. The red algae that seduced the artist are gone, eradicated by drought. That hasn’t turned off visitors though. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands have flocked to Smithson’s outdoor, cost-free, Instagrammable magnum opus. An underground sensor counted seven hundred vehicles on March 22 of last year, less than two weeks into the first American lockdowns. Predictably, expanded attendance has yielded ghastly slapstick: off-leash dogs mired in drought-induced tar seeps; off-road drivers sinking vehicles into the dry lakebed; New Age salt-crystal thievery. State land officials recently confronted a cartoonish couple who drove their Jeep onto Smithson’s piece for a photo op.

This basin is a chaotic, irresistible magnet, fusing the astonishing, daunting beauty of the West with America’s most malevolent pathologies.

I’d been warned about stir-crazy Land art crowds, so I checked out of the Brigham City Holiday Inn Express pre-sunrise and arrived at Rozel Point before 7:30 a.m. For two full hours, I was completely alone with Spiral Jetty—save for a large snake appropriately coiled beneath a black basalt rock and squadrons of American white pelicans bisecting the cobalt overhead. I had seen images of the jetty thousands of times, but finally walking its jagged contours in person proved startlingly affecting. Environmentally and culturally, it is a truly metronomic object.

View of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Sean J Patrick Carney.

Three summers after the Summer of Love, and just months after Spiral Jetty’s completion, Artforum’s editor in chief Philip Leider visited the site with Smithson, Holt, and John Coplans. In an entertainingly dated, gonzo-titled essay—which quotes both Abbie Hoffman and Charles Manson—Leider details its “completely unexpected yellow mineral . . . mixing with the rosy water and the white salt crystals.” Leider quit the magazine the next year; half a century on, the lake has dried out, and the boomers have sold out.

In 2002, when Nico Israel chronicled his post-9/11 excursion to the work for Artforum, he couldn’t locate it. Tacita Dean’s sound piece Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty, 1998, documents a similarly unsuccessful attempt. In both cases, the landmass was submerged. During Spiral Jetty’s first thirty years, the Great Salt Lake’s water level alternately swelled, evaporated, or was intentionally reduced through mechanical pumping.

At the center of the dehydrated, counterclockwise curl, I was grateful for the social distancing provided by miles of serpentine dirt roads and my own neurotic planning. I squinted at the lake’s hazy edge, far west across the packed earth. My mind returned to looping timelines. Three definitive cultural moments. Three subsequent Artforum essays seeking significance in this desert. Maybe time is a flat circle after all.

Before I could get too Nietzschean, an SUV ambled down the gravel access road. I scrambled up the embankment to my car, then drove the three hours to Holt’s four enormous concrete tubes in the remote desert off Highway 30. Arriving around noon, my luck continued; aside from during a brief visit by two others, I was alone for hours.

Oriented to the solstices and perforated with holes mapping the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn, Holt’s culverts seem enigmatic, at once prehistoric and futuristic. Where Smithson’s piece amplifies beats of climatic and geologic time, Sun Tunnels appears to click along with more anthropometric cycles: days and seasons. In a 1977 Artforum essay, Holt wrote of her outdoor installations, “The work becomes a human focal point, and in that respect it brings the vast landscape back to human proportion and makes the viewer the center of things.” This contrast of conceptual scale is consistent between Holt’s and Smithson’s accompanying documentary films. Smithson ricochets dramatically among dinosaur skeletons, mildly pretentious narration, and an implied solar apocalypse. Holt silently, soberly highlights the regional laborers with whom she collaborated.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1978, color, sound, 16 mm film on HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes 31 seconds. © Holt/Smithson Foundation.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, while route-scouting for I-80 in the salt flats just south of the future site of Sun Tunnels, Utah state transportation employee and devout Mormon Roy D. Tea stumbled across preserved Donner-Reed wagon-wheel impressions. Tea obsessively mapped, photographed, and catalogued these haunting traces for decades, contributing significantly to the historical record. He produced an early online photography exhibition, organized chronogeographically by the Donner-Reed tracks and featuring expansive, narrative-driven annotations and detailed maps.

During a 1969 Cornell symposium in which Smithson participated, an audience member asked the panel what influence “weather or soil or dog tracks” had on creating outdoor artworks. Smithson jumped in: “Actually if you think about tracks of any kind, you’ll discover that you could use tracks as a medium.”

The hobbyist, Web 1.0 aesthetics of Tea’s virtual exhibition belie a denser narrative: Led by Brigham Young through Hastings Cutoff, Tea’s industrious ancestors colonized the Wasatch Front less than one year after the Donner-Reeds had clawed over those mountains into the salt flats. Tea’s photographs simultaneously camouflage and conjure stratified histories of overland emigration, Indigenous genocide, toxic industrialism, and the postwar infrastructure expansion that apotheosized the automobile and excluded nonwhite urban populations—histories still spiraling today.

“The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum,” Smithson wrote in 1968. “Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistoric material that is entombed in the Earth’s crust.”

Spliced copiously into Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film are clips from the Museum of Natural History’s paleontology exhibits—an explicit nod to the “museum filled with ageless animals” in Chris Marker’s postapocalyptic, time-traveling “photo-novel” La Jetée (1962). The temporal paradox—a causal loop—at the center of La Jetée terrorizes the rational order by which Westerners understand time, and its use of narration over exclusively still imagery upended the formal structures of cinema. Clicking through Tea’s stratiform, text-driven portfolio feels an awful lot like watching Marker’s classic.

Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 28 minutes. The Woman (Hélène Chatelain).

As the afternoon sun baked me in the shadeless pool, I meditated on Smithson’s spiral and Holt’s portals. Playful, curious monuments to dilated time, they both remind me of zeroes. This is clearest in Holt’s works, where circular negatives of various scale may be read as stargates, mirrorless telescopes, or cryptic voids. Smithson was obsessed with entropy, the notion that isolated systems devolve over time until reaching equilibrium. He became a card-carrying advocate for disorder, decay, and rubble. The Spiral Jetty film culminates in helicopter views of Smithson whimsically jogging widdershins from the lakeshore to the jetty’s center point, whereafter the sun, in clips reminiscent of Nevada Test Site atomic-bomb footage, essentially explodes. It borders on a mordant, near-celebratory countdown to oblivion. Hardly a tree hugger, Smithson was fascinated by industrial extraction and waste. As the environmental movement gained traction, Smithson balked, saying ecology represented a “moral confusion” and “deep distrust of science.” In a 1970 interview, he mused that “it might be quite natural that Lake Erie is filling up with green slime. It might just be another stage. There is no going back to Paradise or nineteenth-century landscape, which is basically what the conservationist attitude is.”

Spiral Jetty’s entropy is steroidal; dropping an artwork into a lake is the Land art equivalent of blood doping. Natural bodies of water—especially ones in the middle of deserts—are volatile. The dramatic changes Smithson’s work has undergone contribute to its spectacular position in the cultural imaginary. It all seems, I keep thinking, like a bit of a parlor trick. Holt’s Sun Tunnels measure time as I, a human, experience it. And yet, functionally, they engage entropy on an elongated, geological trajectory that requires no sleight of hand. Writing in these pages in 1977, Holt remarked of the desert, “Out there a ‘lifetime’ seems very minute.” Smithson built a monumental sandcastle. Holt built one in stone.

View of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, Great Basin Desert, Utah. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Sean J Patrick Carney.

As I paced in loops around the deep end, my mind drifted to other constructed monuments of the American West whose sanitized jingoism flattens history’s reverberations into quantifiable thens. Northern Utah boasts conspicuous statues, plaques, and museums honoring railroads, Spanish colonizers, the Pony Express, Mormon conquest, and even the Donner-Reed Party. Yet few sites acknowledge the survivance of Goshute, Shoshone-Bannock, Ute, or other Indigenous peoples.

BACK HOME IN CALIFORNIA, I spoke by phone with Hikmet Sidney Loe, a Land art scholar fluent in Utah’s surreal geological, industrial, and cultural landscapes. Drawing on her deep knowledge of Smithson and Holt, Loe outlined her framework for considering nonlinear chronologies in the Great Salt Lake Desert: vertical scanning. Standard landscape viewing, or horizontal scanning, Loe explained, is certainly useful. Imagine the casual but intrigued visitor to White Sands National Park outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, or Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona. Horizontal scanning provokes genuine curiosity about a region’s visible, geologic histories. But vertical scanning is slower, more critical, unearthing thorny, buried timelines.

“These invisible, vertical scans unfold histories that we may not feel comfortable discovering,” Loe said. “The colonization of the land, the eradication of Indigenous populations, the extraction processes that—although long abandoned—can’t be undone.”

Smithson built a monumental sandcastle. Holt built one in stone.

Loe posits that Holt and Smithson’s works facilitate the vertical scanning of landscapes. Contemporary artists including Renée Green, Trevor Paglen, Camille Norment, and A. K. Burns give this theory weight; each has lectured, iterated upon, or otherwise critically engaged with Earthworks by Holt and Smithson. Still, fifty years later, it’s not surprising that chewy tensions have arisen between considered, socially attuned vertical scanning and the intuitive “low-level scanning” Smithson apparently employed when selecting sites—which he not so coincidentally called “zeroing in.” From a 1969 interview: “There’s no criteria; just how the material hits my psyche when I’m scanning it.” He likened an artist’s thought process to “a dog scanning over a site,” something visceral and categorically horizontal.

Writing about her slice of the Great Basin, Holt exhibited a more vertical, cultural curiosity: “After camping alone in the desert awhile, I had a strong sense that I was linked through thousands of years of human time with the people who had lived in the caves around there for so long . . . From the site, they would have seen the sun rising and setting over the same mountains and ridges.”

While Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty are about their respective environments, neither constitutes a work of environmentalist art. The heavy industrial processes Smithson and Holt required and poeticized have done irrevocable ecological damage. In 1970, a few months before the first Earth Day, local conservationists quashed Smithson’s Glass Island project in Stuart Channel off Vancouver Island, an experience that likely colored the artist’s cynicism about the rapidly growing environmental movement. (Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973 while scouting a project site in Texas, so he never witnessed the alarming realities of climate change.) Thousands of vehicles now visit Utah’s Earthworks annually in pursuit of the negative sublimities of the twenty-first century American landscape—the merchandized awe and horrible banality of a conquered West. As others have pointed out, the land occupied by these seminal works of American Land art is always stolen.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, 16-mm film on video, color, sound, 35 minutes. © Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Recognizing such frictions, the Holt/Smithson Foundation recently inaugurated open-call research fellowships centering local and Indigenous narratives, among other things, relevant to Holt and Smithson sites. And for its first commission, titled “The Island Project: Point of Departure,” the foundation has invited Tacita Dean, Renée Green, Sky Hopinka, Joan Jonas, and Oscar Santillán to respond to a small coastal island off Maine that Holt and Smithson purchased in 1971.

Oddly, I had climbed into the pool because of Dean. Eleven years ago, she published a eulogy for J. G. Ballard that describes the mutual admiration between Smithson and the writer. Dean referenced “The Voices of Time” (1960), a Ballard short story heavy on entropy and twisting time that influenced Spiral Jetty. Intrigued, I read Ballard’s dystopian tale about Powers, a doomed neurosurgeon “approaching zero,” at which point he, like the perma-dormant patients housed at his clinic, will sleep forever. Notably, characters Kaldren and Coma live in a house resembling a “spiralling concrete ribbon that wound around itself like an insane serpent” on the north shore of a large salt lake; Powers lives near an “abandoned Air Force weapons range on one of the remoter salt lakes.” In his final days, Powers constructs a massive mandala in the white desert, modeled after an ideogram that Whitby, a colleague who died by suicide, had carved into an empty, dilapidated swimming pool at their clinic.

THE POOL I’M IN APPEARS in Con Air (1997), the site of a disconcerting sing-along between Steve Buscemi’s serial killer Garland Greene and a young girl. Con Air’s titular plane is parked outside the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum, located inside the restored servicemen’s club. These Wendover highlights, as well as dozens of others including the base’s old morgue, barracks, and power plant, are neatly catalogued online by the Los Angeles–based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). Founded in 1994, CLUI documents and explicates humankind’s impact on the landscape.

Since 1996, CLUI has rented buildings at Wendover Airfield, where it operates a Great Salt Lake Desert outpost hosting exhibitions, events, and artist residencies. At Wendover’s partially collapsed armaments building, CLUI presented New York–based artist William Lamson’s installation Mineralogy, 2017–20. Nodding to Smithsonian entropy, Lamson repeatedly filled various vessels with surplus saltwater sourced from nearby mineral-extraction sites; the water evaporated, creating unpredictable crystal columns and drips. Unfortunately, I just missed Mineralogy: A developer purchased the armaments building in December, so Lamson’s unprofitable work had to go. Even in the back of beyond, real estate accelerates the entropy of precarious fringe cultures.

William Lamson, Mineralogy (detail), 2017–2020, mixed. media, dimensions variable. Site-specific installation at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Wendover, Utah.

CLUI’s ongoing practice involves collating, mapping, and translating data that the pollution and extraction industries, the US military, and their government toadies obfuscate. In contrast to the mammoth poetry of Earthworks by Smithson and Holt, CLUI’s informational aesthetics are acute, analytical, and digitally accessible. Peruse their Great Salt Lake Desert Region “points of interest” map and learn about the West Desert Hazardous Industries District, the Utah Test and Training Range, and other alarming projects hidden from Interstate 80. As humankind dictates climate and edits ecologies in real time, we require archives that challenge obsolete, romantic dualities between ourselves and nature. Exposing the horrific half of the technological sublime is necessary if we want to slow our species’s approach to zero.

AFTER EXITING THE POOL, my final Wendover stop was the Enola Gay hangar. Through barbed perimeter fencing, I scanned the hulking facility. I thought about the Manhattan Project physicists, engineers, and mathematicians, whose ingenuity nuked Japan, and those at the Atomic Energy Commission who later helped permanently poison the Intermountain West. Recently restored, the Enola Gay hangar slaps a shimmering coat of patriotic paint over the barbarism of atomic warfare. The arrow of American progress, it insists, points forever forward. But from the right angle, the hangar is a simmering, brooding wormhole.

Wendover Airfield’s Enola Gay hangar, which housed the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Photo: Kelly Michals.

For decades, Indigenous communities, nuclear “downwinders,” environmental geographers, artists, journalists, and activists have been ringing alarm bells about our national dumping ground. People in power have essentially disregarded them. It’s the middle of nowhere, after all, and sparsely populated. American empire chose the Great Salt Lake Desert as a proving ground for its most violent tactics precisely because of how invisible it is. Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty can provide critical entry points for broader populations; they’re spectacular enough to draw attention to themselves, but thankfully too weird, too entropic, to be monuments in the American sense. CLUI, Loe, the Holt/Smithson Foundation, and scores of contemporary artists understand this potential and in their own ways activate art to reorient us away from zero. Yet any notion that it’s art’s responsibility to do this—and not that of the political and economic power brokers who could correct course literally tomorrow—is delusional.

I’m left asking why, amid an unprecedented pandemic and economic crises, thousands have made the trek to Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty. It can’t just be for Instagram. Why did I suddenly need to go?

I think it’s the same drive Philip Leider felt in the throes of the Vietnam War, that Nico Israel felt in the wake of 9/11. Such destabilizing cultural episodes, much like Covid-19, puncture the mythos of seamless American empire, making unignorable this nation’s hysterical, entropic march to zero. The Great Salt Lake Desert sits dead center in the deep gravitational warp of the United States’ avaricious black hole. This basin is a chaotic, irresistible magnet, fusing the astonishing, daunting beauty of the West with America’s most malevolent pathologies. We love an eye-popping disaster flick, don’t we? Plenty have been filmed here.

The cosmic joke is that the entropy of empire, at least at human scale, is disappointingly slow. We’ll get no grand, sun-exploding crescendo, just relentless, barely perceptible erosion. Elaborated time zero. As in 3, 2, 1, 0.5, 0.25, 0.125, 0.0625 . . .

And ten years from now, someone will write this essay again.

Sean J Patrick Carney is a writer in Berkeley, California.