Utah’s Spiral Jetty: Vanishing and Reappearing

Submitted by Deborah Cramer

Utah's Spiral Jetty: Vanishing and Reappearing
Spiral Jetty, April 1970
Great Salt Lake, Utah
Black rock, salt crystals, earth, red water (algae)
3 ½ X 15 X 1500 feet
© Estate of Robert Smithson / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York
Collection: DIA Center for the Arts, New York
Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni

In 1970, artist Robert Smithson built an enormous spiral jetty at Rozel Point on Gunnison Bay in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Some 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide, it disappeared when lake waters rose, remaining submerged for 20 years. When it reappeared, its black boulders were encrusted with salt.

About Spiral Jetty, Smithson wrote that he felt like a “paleontologist, sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished…”

Millions of years ago, a shallow ocean repeatedly covered what is now Utah. Its waters are gone, but some salt remained locked in rocks deposited from those ancient times. Rivers began dissolving the salt, carrying it into Lake Bonneville, a once enormous lake which, when it shrank, left behind Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Today, some of its salt has crystallized on the boulders of Spiral Jetty.

The boulders themselves – 6650 tons of black, volcanic basalt – mark a different chapter in Utah’s geologic history. Earth’s continents are moving. North America slowly drifts west, colliding with the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The San Andreas Fault tears rock from California and pushes it north, sending Los Angeles toward San Francisco. Utah is being stretched. Dr. William Hammond from the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology reports that the distance between Salt Lake City and Reno, Nevada is increasing by about ¼ of an inch a year. As earth’s outer layer is stretched and thinned, molten rock from deep within the mantle erupts on the surface. From those volcanoes came the rock that Smithson used to build Spiral Jetty.

The artist died in 1973, but his sculpture is still there, recording the mutability of Utah’s landscape.

References and more information

Spiral Jetty
http://www.robertsmithson.com/films/txt/spiral.html http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/geosights/spiraljetty.htm

Geology of Utah

Hammond, W. C., and W. Thatcher. 2004. Contemporary tectonic deformation of the Basin and Range province, western United States: 10 years of observation with the Global Positioning System. Journal of Geophysical Research 109:B08403.

Hintze, L. F. and B. J. Kowallis. 2009. Geologic History of Utah. Brigham Young University Geology Studies Special Publication 9, 225 pp.

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