Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Greetings from a Pilgrimage

Spiral Jetty © Chris Engman

 It is not quite as hard to find as I thought it would be, but other than that, Robert Smithson's seminal 1970 artwork, Spiral Jetty, more or less conformed to my expectations. Which is to say that it did not disappoint.

The direct route from Los Angeles to Rozel Point, the site of the Jetty, is a 13-hour drive.  But I almost never take the direct route, and this trip is no exception.  My first stop is Vegas where I am distracted by a billboard outside a casino that reads: "Breakfast, $3.99!"  After parking, paying for parking, enduring the 110 degree parking garage long enough to find the elevator, and sitting down at a booth, I am informed that, "Sorry, the special is only for the hours between midnight and 3 AM."  Fifteen dollars, one pretty bad breakfast, and two hours later I am back on the road, heading north.
Driving through Nevada is close to a singular experience, with so little to focus on or to punctuate the time.  One can drive for hours and hours and see maybe one, maybe two cars.  And the towns, the ones that are inhabited, are so few and far between, and fly past the landscape so quickly that one might wonder, "Did that really happen?"  A day is compressed into a singular, powerful impression: a vast place, a small self.  Three days later, following visits to the Center for Land Use Interpretation and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, I finally arrive at the dirt road that turns off toward Spiral Jetty.
The road opens into a valley that, as Smithson recalls, "spread into an uncanny immensity… hills took on the appearance of melting solids, and glowed under amber light… the lake resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stony matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light."  Possibly because I am familiar with this passage the place seems exactly so, and I know I am headed in the right direction.  Pulling up to the hill that overlooks the Jetty, I am somewhat surprised to see that I am not alone.  Two families are already there; each with coolers and chairs set out and kids in swimming suits.  They do not appear to be tourists, like myself, but locals at their regular swimming spot on a sunny evening.

The Jetty itself is mostly submerged, but its shape is more or less discernable by two trails of exposed rocks that comprise it's edges.  I am lucky to see anything at all.  The Jetty has been only intermittently visible for the last ten years, and was entirely submerged for the three decades following its initial construction.  It is like witnessing a comet that appears once or twice in a lifetime.  When the present drought has passed, the Jetty will almost certainly be covered in water again, perhaps for a very long time.

Spiral Jetty © Chris Engman

 I take off my shoes and make my way with difficulty over the sharp rocks, wading in some places to up past my knees.  A helicopter appears and cements the impression that I am following a script.  Belatedly I realize that I have been hearing the steady drone of the helicopter for some time and as it becomes louder, the auditory sensation combines with the rest of my senses to reenact, in real time and space, the film that has until now stood in for any real experience of the site.  In this reenactment I am playing the role of Robert Smithson himself, a lone figure on the Jetty, being observed by a Nancy Holt from the vantage point of a helicopter.  Is this a hired helicopter, here expressly to view the Jetty?  If so then this is a script that must be enacted often, whenever the Jetty is visible, with different participants in the roles of Smithson and Holt.  I like this idea.  It is this sense of the reenactment of a script that seems to breath life into this old pile of earth and rocks.  It ties the place to the text, and the film, and to my experience of the piece prior to my experience of the place.
And yet, because I am not Smithson, it is a privilege I can claim to rewrite the script.  He came to this site from the East, in a plane, to make an artwork; I came from the West, in a truck, to make a pilgrimage.  What was a script I had only seen as film and read as text has become, for me, a memory of an experience and a lived event.  It was well worth the trip.

Chris Engman (Foam Magazine #24/Talent)

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