September 1, 2002

On Robert Smithson, film, and finding the way

The Spiral Jetty is back. Although it was submerged when we checked in July, my college senior sister said it was visible from the hill above it when she took a first date out to see it a couple of weeks ago (talk about a litmus test; it's a 3+ hour drive one way, half on rutty dirt paths.) Sure enough, the SL Tribune has an article about it (Thanks, Artforum.) Read Smithson's own comments on making the Jetty here.

Underwater or not, Geocachers have logged Spiral Jetty; it's not surprising, given its off-the-mapquest.com obscurity, limited-but-not-prohibitive access, and non-mainstream nature. Geocaching would suit Smithson fine, I think:

After a point, measurable steps...descend from logic to the "surd state." The rationality of a grid on a map sinks into what it is supposed to define. Logical purity suddenly finds itself in a bog, and welcomes the unexpected event...The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments, but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper. Of course, it is also possible to translate the mental spiral into a three-dimensional succession of measured lengths that would involve areas, volumes, masses, moments, pressures, forces, stresses, and strains; but in the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality.

Geocaching examines the gap between the natural and the rational worlds, too, coming at if from the grid side. Spiral Jetty is locatable in grids, of course, including USGS satellite photos and via latitude/longitude coordinates, translated from GPS orbital data. But for geocachers, getting there is more than half the fun; the rush comes from "mapping" the "distance" between the two worlds.

Back in New York, Smithson sat down with friends to make his film about the Jetty.

Film strips hung from the cutter's rack, bits and pieces of Utah, outtakes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, the salt buried in lengths of footage... And the movie editor bending over such a chaos of "takes" resembles 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, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels...[Editor Bob] Fiore pulled lengths of film out of the movieola with the grace of a Neanderthal pulling intestines from a slaughtered mammoth. Outside his 13th Street loft window one expected to see Pleistocene faunas, glacial uplifts, living fossils, and other prehistoric wonders. Like two cavemen we plotted how to get to the Spiral Jetty from New York City.

Smithson uses the road, going forward and backward (in time as well as place) to tie his film together. "The disjunction operating between reality and film drives one into a sense of cosmic rupture. Nevertheless, all the improbabilities would accommodate themselves to my cinematic universe."

When I went to Spiral Jetty in 1994 (it's first reappearance in 24 years), I was overwhelmed by how different experiencing the work in person (glistening salt crystals, cotton candy pink water, and that drive...) was from seeing it in pictures (aerial B&W on the last page of the art history text). Now it seems that that was the point. Mapping the distance between two worlds is what filmmaking's all about.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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