Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

All week on MAN: The future of Spiral Jetty

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MAN’s series on preserving Spiral Jetty
Part One: The future of Spiral Jetty.
Part Two: What’s happening to the Great Salt Lake?
Part Three: Spiral Jetty, the Great Salt Lake and Dia
Part Four:
Dia’s ‘buffer’ approach to preserving Spiral Jetty
Part Five: The next step at GSL: Coalition-building, funding
Postscript: Spiral Jetty: Is federal protection a useful option?

SpiralJettyWeek1.jpgOn January 29, 2008 artist Nancy Holt emailed friends about a threat to her late husband Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty: Pearl Montana, a Canadian oil-and-gas company, had asked the state of Utah for permission to engage in energy exploration and extraction near the Jetty. The greatest and most important earthwork in the world was potentially threatened by a corporation that wanted to make a buck regardless of the possible cost to the health of an ecosystem or to a seminal artwork. Holt urged people to contact the state of Utah as soon as possible, to explain to state officials the cultural import of the Jetty and to urge the state to deny Pearl Montana’s application. Holt asked them to act quickly: The end of the public comment period was 36 hours away, on Jan. 31. [Photo]

Holt’s email was first published on Jan. 30, here on MAN. By the end of the day, scores of blogs picked up on Holt’s plea. (Most of the traditional media didn’t pick up the story for a week. The New York Times, for example, didn’t publish anything until Feb. 6.) On that afternoon after Holt’s email went up on MAN, so many blog readers from around the world flooded the state of Utah with emails and phone calls that the state extended the public comment period on Pearl Montana’s application. Mostly as a result of a blogs-driven, international ‘Save the Jetty!’ outcry that resulted in Utah officials receiving over 3,000 emails, Pearl Montana’s application was delayed. On August 7 state officials rejected it. Thanks substantially to blog readers, art won.

GSLRedRozelPoint.jpgFor now. Eight months later it’s clear that Pearl Montana’s initial application to explore and drill for oil just west of Spiral Jetty won’t be industry’s last attempt to treat the Jetty’s neighborhood as a commercial resource. It’s also clear that drilling is just one of many threats to the Great Salt Lake and to the Jetty. Conservationists are confident that Pearl Montana will be back with a revised application soon, that the company is waiting for the initial ‘save the Jetty’ fervor to die down. [The map at right is an old Google Satellite image of the Great Salt Lake. The Jetty is marked with a red dot.]

The question is: Is Spiral Jetty threatened by future commercial development? And are arts organizations, most of which have little or no experience in dealing with the confluence of interests and entities involved in preserving an artwork in the landscape, using all available and appropriate measures to save the Jetty?

In a way, Smithson himself expected the Jetty and other earthworks to serve as a catalyst for this kind of engagement between industry, government and environmentalists. Smithson wrote this in 1972, as part of a proposal to a mining company for a project in Ohio:

Our new ecological awareness indicates that industrial production can no longer remain blind to the visual landscape. Earth art could become a visual resource that mediates between ecology and industry…. I am developing an art consciousness for today free from nostalgia and rooted in the process of actual production and reclamation… A dialogue between earth art and mining operations could lead to a whole new consciousness.

Smithson was prescient. That “consciousness” is the debate which began when Pearl Montana filed its first application and when the art world responded.

This week on MAN I’ll detail the latest threats to the Jetty and its view-shed, as well as threats to the Great Salt Lake that could have — or are already having — a substantial impact on the Jetty. Here’s the lineup:

  • Tomorrow I’ll discuss the health of the lake and industry’s latest attempts to claim more of it;
  • On Wednesday I’ll write about Utah’s first, tentative steps to decide what kind of resource the Great Salt Lake should be, and what the stakeholders are doing about the GSL and the Jetty;
  • On Thursday I’ll discuss whether the Jetty should be protected by the state or the federal government; and
  • On Friday I’ll analyze at whether existing organizations with stewardship of the Jetty and an interest in the lake are doing enough.
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