Utah’s hinterlands provide a stark backdrop for environmental artists’ enduring, earth-based installations
This article was originally published in the Salt Lake City Weekly on June 15, 2006.
In 1999, my friend Elaine Parks and I were grad students in art at California State University, Los Angeles. The ceramics club, of which Elaine was president, devoted most of its energy to camping trips, sometimes justified by artistic intent, for example pit-firing clay bowls in the Mojave Desert, sometimes justified by the simple desire to go play around in the landscape.
Though most of us were content to make manageably sized pieces of art that could fit in a gallery, we were inspired by artists who could think big enough to use the land as their canvas and produce monumental works. We were especially impressed by the British artist Richard Long, who, starting in the 1960s, eschewed gallery walls and “drew” lines through the deserts of Argentina, the Himalayas and just about everywhere else on the planet, either by arranging rocks or sticks, or simply by walking in a straight line, sometimes for days.
Long’s ephemeral artworks were intellectually stimulating to art students considering whether to join or oppose the gallery system, but mostly we were inspired by the fact that he got to go hiking for the sake of art.
Elaine and I both pursued standard art-career tracks. She teaches ceramics and art history at a community college in Elko, Nev. I own a fledgling photography gallery in Reno and write feature stories about Nevada arts and culture (yes, there is such a thing) for magazines and newspapers.
But our fascination for the generation of artists who’d moved mountains (some of them literally) to make monumental sculpture-in other words, our deep longing to go camping for the sake of art-never died.
Last month, it actually happened. We loaded a friends’ parents Suburban to capacity with tents and art history books and headed to Utah. We enlisted a team of research assistants: Casey Clark, 26, a potter and art student from Reno, Christina Hansford, 21, a jeweler and education major from Reno, my son, Nico, 2, and Elaine’s daughter, Aurora, 6.
The budget for gas and camp site fees was compliments of the good-humored Nevada Arts Council, who agreed that our mission sounded like “Professional Development,” based on the fact that we’d committed to returning with enough first-hand knowledge of Utah land art to develop a series of college art classes.
Beyond that, our mission was open-ended. We left prepared for surprise.
Follow the sun
The Sun Tunnels are four industrial concrete pipes, each about 18 feet long, arranged in an “X” configuration on a dry, windy plain in western Utah, where mountains are just blips on the horizon and only the heartiest of life forms—small spiders and low, scruffy succulents—exist.
The permanent land-art installation, by artist Nancy Holt, “picks up where Stonehenge left off,” according to one art critic. The pipes frame the sunrise on the summer and winter solstices, and each tunnel has a constellation-shaped group of neatly cored holes.
Nico and Aurora took no time to realize the tunnels were cool, dark refuges from a hot, treeless afternoon. Undaunted by whatever art-historical or theoretical weight the sculpture may represent, the kids ran through the tunnels for hours, stuffed teddy bears through the constellation holes to send them sliding down the pipes’ convex interiors, and tested the delightful sonic possibilities of sneakers stomping a concrete tube. Casey climbed to the top of the tunnels and scaled the interiors using the holes as handholds. I got my kicks by using the edges of the pipes as graphic elements in my camera’s viewfinder: perfect circles imposed on desert landscape photos.
A few shotgun shells and broken beer bottles weren’t the only evidence that others before us had also used the site as playground. All four tunnels are marked inside with diagonal, black arches overhead that look like impossible tire tracks.
Sarah Sweetwater, a sculptor and art professor from Elko, reports that they are, in fact, tire marks. The summer solstice tends to attract crowds, and on one occasion, a few years ago, she saw spirits rise high enough among a group of RVers that defying gravity with tiny motorbikes struck a few folks as a good idea.
Sweetwater, who’s taken groups of students to the Sun Tunnels and to other celestial view-holes all over the Earth, says “[The artist] wanted to align it with the earth’s movement.”
She finds the millennia-old idea of monumental sculptures marking time more powerful than the what she calls the “here-for-today, gone-for-tomorrow” nature of much contemporary artwork.
“Here we are on this earth; we’re such a speck of humanity. We’re just like a speck of dust,” she says.
A big piece of art in the scale-distorting Great Salt Lake Desert is an accurate reminder of that kind of relativity. When you’re approaching the Sun Tunnels over land, they first appear, from several miles away, as tiny black dots. From inside one, they seem large. Thinking of them as sculpture and considering the logistics of installing them in this location, they seem gargantuan.
The Sun Tunnels boldly occupy two ends of the “public art” spectrum: even though they’re hard to access in the geographical sense, they’re easily accessible as a piece of artwork once you’re out in the desert climbing on them. The tunnels measure time and scale by focusing our attention on the celestial. They remind us what something that size looks like in relation to ourselves, the Earth, and the art world as we know it.
If you go: On Bureau of Land Management land, where the Sun Tunnels are located, camping is permissible, but it’s not for the feint of heart. There are no facilities. Bring extra water, and be prepared to pack out waste. Weather conditions can be extreme. Dust storms are likely. Bring Visine. Directions: (Bring a compass.) From state route 30, follow signs to Lucin (population: 0). Go right at the fork, cross the railroad tracks, go east on the road that runs parallel to the tracks for a few hundred feet, then follow the same road as it veers south. Proceed 1.8 miles. Turn left on the first road after you cross under the power lines. (An empty wooden post on the right is the only other landmark.) Proceed almost three miles. The Sun Tunnels will be visible on the right.
The Spiral Jetty is just what it sounds like: a 1500-foot-long swirl of manmade land that juts into the Great Salt Lake, for the sake of art rather than industry. It was created in 1970 by Robert Smithson, a seminal figure of the same mid-20th-century conceptual art scene as Nancy Holt. (The two were married.)
The piece is by far the most recognizable symbol of the land-art movement of that time period, and the volume of scholarship on it is as vast as the shallow body of water that surrounds it.
Some of the scholarship presents different interpretations of what appears to be, at first, a version of the classically ill-fated “man vs. nature” contest. (Though most accounts don’t declare a clear winner.)
Upon seeing the Spiral Jetty in person, the first contest that comes to mind is the “representation vs. actual experience” one. In photographs, the tons of jagged, porous basalt that make up the jetty are translated into a familiar, graphically pleasing symbol. In a short film Smithson made, also called Spiral Jetty, the spiral fills the frame as the artist circles above it in a helicopter. In the film, where the salt-crusted rocks are abstracted into a spiraled line “drawn” by the hand of an artist, the jetty looks poetic. It looks like art.
In person, the Spiral Jetty is in competition with its natural surroundings. There is no tower from which to gain the iconic bird’s-eye view that the piece is so well known by. There is no frame to edit out the rough, crumbly rocks, the relentless sun, or the murky, deep-pink water, which is colored by tiny brine shrimp and emanates a distinct whiff of death.
Nico and Aurora, who rarely decline a chance to splash or climb, deemed this remote rock pile too sharp, too wet and too stinky. They spent most of their time eating sandwiches under a shade structure we’d pitched.
To be fair, the experience of getting a proper eyeful of the jetty is hindered by a couple feet of water. Elaine walked the entire length of the spiral, starting out in ankle-high water and ending up in thigh-high water. In 1970, when the jetty was built, the ever-fluctuating water level was at an all-time low. Since then, the piece has spent much of its lifespan submerged. At present, the tips of the larger basalt chunks stick out above the water, tracing the spiral’s edge.
There’s been a long-standing argument over whether the Spiral Jetty should be “preserved” by raising its surface above the water line, or whether the artist’s intention would be better served by letting the forces of nature prevail.
“There’s no real plan to tamper with the work,” says Irene Kopitov, public affairs associate for the DIA Center for the Arts in New York, an organization that aims to preserve site-specific 20th century artworks. (The DIA actually owns the Spiral Jetty.)
Like the Sun Tunnels, the Spiral Jetty brings relativity to mind, only here it feels more personal than celestial. It’s like a perpetual game of rock, paper, scissors, with the players changed to artist, earth and entropy. One may gain advantage over the other with each contest; eventually, it all averages out to a draw.
If you go: Various accounts describe the Spiral Jetty as “easy to get to.” There are signs pointing to the Jetty all the way from the Golden Spike National Monument’s visitor’s center, so staying on course through the rolling ranch land is no problem, but in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, the cruising speed on the last few miles of the rutted dirt road is about 3 m.p.h. Bring waterproof, rock-proof shoes if you care to explore the jetty close-up. Bring your own shade.
Give me a CLUI
The Center for Land Use Interpretation calls itself a “research organization involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues.” (Locally, for example: salt extraction, hazardous waste incineration and rocket construction.)
We were enticed to visit by the fact that the center has an artist-in-residence program, which sponsors the type of projects you’d expect from a research organization: essays and documentary photography, for example. Visiting artist have also produced blogs, experimental architecture, a “Railbike” for exploring abandoned train tracks, and the resin-and-sand tiles that hang in an austere grid on the exhibition hall’s gallery walls. (The CLUI is seriously keeping up with the Joneses. These are exactly the type of undertakings one might expect from an organization whose Culver City, Calif., headquarters is right next door to the confounding Museum of Jurassic Technology, where fake natural history dioramas are indistinguishable from “real” ones.)
These pristine, professionally lit walls are retrofitted onto parts of a fenced complex of barracks on the edge of economically challenged East Wendover. The buildings, flaking and crumbling in the sun since the U.S. Army abandoned them in 1977, have accumulated decades worth of “character” and “history” of the type that inspires artists to say things like, “you could do something with this place.”
What, exactly, the CLUI is doing with it is not fully obvious upon arrival. Even with a map and accurate directions, we kept asking each other, “Is this really it?”
Easy-to-overlook signage points to “Exhibition Hall 1,” a long, wooden structure, one of the few with a door. To enter, all you need to do is call the Southern California office on a cell phone, and ask a friendly staffer for the secret code that unlocks the door.
“I feel like a detective,” Christina announced. After roaming the decrepit barracks for about an hour, we had just begun to get our bearings. But we did keep stumbling upon exhibit spaces, and we’re fairly sure we saw most of what the place has to offer visitors.
Christina and Elaine disappeared for about 15 minutes and came back saying they’d interrupted a German-accented, San-Francisco-based artist from her yoga routine. She’d graciously invited them to the stay for tea.
Meanwhile, in Exhibit Hall 2, where sunshine leaks through the roof boards and new walls display photographs and lightboxes, Nico and Aurora were rapt with a large yellow contraption, shaped like a 1980s video game. The contraption’s monitor cycled through a database of photos and sounds of industry in and near Wendover.
Even though the art was intriguing (to kids and adults both; gold star for the curator, if there is one), the context was far more so. Seeing contemporary, academically based artwork in an empty facility on the edge of a town that’s in such dire straights it wants to defect to Nevada was strangely satisfying. The absence of a gate, guards, staff, admission fees or any trace of the canned experiences that have become the mainstays of American vacationing put the Center for Land Use Interpretation, in the estimation of our research team, right up there with Disneyland.
Our crew deemed the Center for Land Use Interpretation an good spot for off-the-beaten-path family exploring.
If you go: Check out the CLUI’s web site (www.clui.org), an excellent repository of photographs and information on surrounding areas, including the Sun Tunnels and the Spiral Jetty, to which the CLUI offers guided tours. Directions: From Wendover, exit I-80 south to Wendover. At the Shell Station, turn south onto First Street. Cross the railroad tracks, turn right into gated complex, then follow CLUI signs to the east side of the old airbase. Be sure your cell phone batteries are charged so you can call headquarters, (310) 839-5722, for the entry code.