In 1970 Robert Smithson created a land work, titled Spiral Jetty, in Utah's Great Salt Lake.
Through his career, Smithson, an American artist, worked with a variety of materials including sculpture, writing, drawing, and film, before delving into land art.
Smithson and other land artists working in the 70s, (like Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer) became, at a point, unsatisfied with working within the confines of the white walls of galleries and museums in major cities. Disgusted with the over-commodification of art, Smithson referred to museums as "mausoleums for art." He argued that such institutions rid art of it's spirit, and he wasn't alone in thinking so.
And so he and other artists worked to create sculptural works that integrated directly into various environments by positioning them within outdoor spaces and by working with unusual, naturally occurring materials that were specific to the site--rocks, dirt, sand--sourced from the various locales.
In doing so, the artists created a sort of conceptual and visual exchange with the places. They also made it so that visitors to their sites would, by default, have a more involved and heady experience than they would if they were to see a piece in a gallery or museum. To see Spiral Jetty, for example, viewers must travel to Utah and walk the site. The process of seeing such a work requires more conscientious effort and planning--which also, one could argue, makes for a more special experience.
Smithson said, of working in distant, stark, and remote environments, “I like landscapes that suggest prehistory,” and chose to work in The Great Salt Lake because of it's outlandish physical properties--the strange color of the water, the crystallizations of salt that formed, the water-levels fluctuation, and the black rocks.
In the 70s, space travel allowed for humanity to reevaluate its relationship with space and the cosmos. Smithson was inspired, in creating the piece, by outer space. It's thought that Spiral Jetty resembles a galaxy--and yet the spiral unfolds in a counterclockwise fashion, which is thought to, perhaps, allude to prehistoric times: "The idea of the spiral goes way back in human culture to the earliest rock inscriptions in the American south-west, for example. Smithson saw mentioned its occurrence in the disposition of galaxies and nebulae, in the fine structure of crystals, in the human ear and in Constantin Brancusi’s famous abstract portrait of James Joyce as a spiral adjoined by a vertical," Kenneth Baker wrote for the Tate.
Spiral Jetty is comprised of black basalt rocks and particles of earth from that derived from the Great Salt Lake, in a spiral-shaped coil, 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide, that begins on the shore and unfolds into the water.
Because of the nature of the Salt Lake's water levels, Spiral Jetty was submerged for nearly thirty years--it resurfaced in 2002. A Utah geologist said of the piece, "It has as much mystique underwater as it does when it is exposed...It's kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. We know it's there, even if we can't see it."
The piece now belongs to the Dia Foundation.