Spiral Jetty, monumental earthwork, threatened by oil drilling

Paddy from the blog Art Fag City says:

I just received an email from a colleague of mine informing me that new oil development plans threaten the integrity of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. According to the artist's widow Nancy Holt, a number of pipes and pumps will be laid beneath the water and shore, as well as roads built for oil tank trucks, and cranes for other project needs, all of which promise to severely alter the surrounding environment including Spiral Jetty. A call for help is currently being circulated, the protest deadline, 7 PM ET today. Those wishing to voice their concerns should email or call Jonathan Jemming 801-537-9023 jjemming@utah.gov. Refer to Application # 8853.
Link to Paddy's post. A copy of the drilling document ("Application #8853") is here: PDF Link.


  1. have you ever been to the Salt Lake? the only things that live in it is algae and sea-monkies

    btw the spiral jetty is a pretty awesome drinkin’ spot

  2. Also, this was underwater from about 1975-1999, and I think it’s partially submerged now. But that’s part of the work. Robert Smithson was not philosophically opposed to his sculptures succumbing to to forces of entropy. Dunno if oil pipelines count as entropy tho…

  3. If you’ve ever flown into SLC airport and looked out the window then you’ve seen that much of the area surrounding the Great Salt Lake is already in use as evaporation ponds and who knows what else. You’ll certainly see some weird colors of water when looking down from a plane.

    In any case, it isn’t clear from the post or the pdf how close this will be to Spiral Jetty or what the impact would be. Spiral Jetty is actually underwater much of the time as the level of the lake rises and falls due to not having any outlets.

    All that is clear is that they plan to drill from barges. Unless they’re drilling right on top of the spiral then I’m not sure how they’d harm this particular pile of rocks.

  4. #5 “I thought we were done with oil.”

    We are well past peak for the US. That doesn’t mean there is no more oil. Only that as prices rise it will become more and more attractive to extract what little is left.

  5. Wait. There’s oil in the Salt Lake?

    It’s kind of hard to excited about the “possibility” of losing this, though. Meh.

  6. “… all of which promise to severely alter the surrounding environment including Spiral Jetty.” The blind hypocrisy is a hoot. It’s like robbing a bank, then going to the cops b/c your accomplice stole the loot. Not that I’m a big supporter of oil drilling, but c’mon now.

  7. A Random John said:

    “In any case, it isn’t clear from the post or the pdf how close this will be to Spiral Jetty or what the impact would be. Spiral Jetty is actually underwater much of the time as the level of the lake rises and falls due to not having any outlets.

    All that is clear is that they plan to drill from barges. Unless they’re drilling right on top of the spiral then I’m not sure how they’d harm this particular pile of rocks.”

    I’ve made an illustration of just how close the drilling rigs will be to the Spiral, using Google Earth and the coordinates from the PDF document.


    The harm isn’t so much to the “pile of rocks” as it is to the complete environment of the Jetty. You can see from the Google Earth Panoramio photo included in the screenshot, the surrounding area is beautifully stark, and a big pile of drilling barges would most definitely change the experience of visiting the Jetty.

    As a Utahn who is both a photographer and fan of the Jetty, I would hate to see this pristine wilderness environment ruined by drilling platforms and infrastructure.

  8. In response to the criticisms above (a version of this comment also made on my own blog):

    The real problem here is preserving the art work. I don’t think there is any contradiction in wanting to preserve an art work just because it happened to require machinery to build it, or even because entropy is meant to be a part of the piece. We preserve historical buildings all the time because we believe their cultural value outweighs whatever monetary benefit a real estate developer might gain. Nobody makes the argument that those structures don’t deserve the protection because in their time, they too saw economic benefits, or disrupted the landscape in some way. I am quite certain that Smithson would not find the results from oil drilling a perfectly acceptable end to his piece.

  9. If they just make the pumps and pipes out of brass, then BB can cover it again as a steampunk coup against elitist art.

  10. >links to see the spiral

    That’s just what I hoped to find in the comments – thanks, Hoffmanbike.

  11. Or maybe you take the view that all organisms shape their physical environment and that ‘art’ and ‘industry’ are both just as natural as a termite mounds.

  12. “we’re going to screw up the world one way or the other, call it art or call it industry…”

    Then I’ll take the art, thanks.

  13. The other thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet is the proximity to Gunnison Island, an important rookery site for the White Pelican, among many other birds. You can see from the PDF that these oil rigs would be close enough to cause enormous havoc. If there were ever a spill or accident at the wrong time of year, it could potentially kill thousands of birds.

    From Wikipedia:

    Approximately 1 mile long and a half-mile wide, Gunnison Island is best known as an important rookery for the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus). The California Gull (Larus californicus) also nests on the island, and occasional nesters include the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Common Raven (Corvax corvax), Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus), and Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoltetus).[1]

    The entire island is the Gunnison Island State Wildlife Management Area.[2] Access to the island is restricted to prevent curious tourists from disturbing the nesting birds.[3] It is estimated that the population on Gunnison Island (about 10,000) constitutes about 10-20% of the entire American White Pelican population; there are also about 15,000 California gulls that nest on the island.[4][5]

    The island’s remote location protects it from predators, making it an ideal spot for birds that nest on the ground. Unlike some of the islands in the Great Salt Lake, Gunnison Island does not become a peninsula when the lake level is at its lowest point.


  14. I work in environmental review (not in Utah) and visited the Spiral Jetty last year and it’s not really clear to me if there’d be a significant impact here. If this were in my jurisdiction, I would at least ask for an initial study, though.

    It’s worth noting that there is an old oil jetty just a mile or so south of the Spiral Jetty, on your way there. The decayed industrial landscape is part of the experience of seeing the artwork already. It’s a pretty remote location, but it would be a mistake to call it wild or pristine. It has definitely been altered already, by cattle ranching, oil exploration, and the artwork itself. The potentially significant effect is to cultural resources, i.e., the artwork.

  15. I should also note that artist’s widows aren’t necessarily the last word on their spouse’s artworks. Look at what Audrey Geisel’s let happen to Dr. Seuss’s works since his death — Seussical, the live-action films… yecccchhhh.

  16. BluHeron,

    I can’t tell from your image what the scale is. How far away is the drilling from the work?

    I’m well aware of the landscape. My grandfather was an owner of Fort Ranch on Promontory Point and we went out pretty frequently. I’ve also spent 18 months working at the Thiokol plant. So I know how “pristine” the environment is.

    While I certainly think that Spiral Jetty is worth preserving, I also think that it is pretty durable given that it is a pile of rocks that is frequently under water. I doubt anyone is looking to actively harm it.

  17. As AdamVillani mentioned, Rozel Point (which you can see part of in the image above – it’s the streak of sand sticking into the water in the far background) has already been drilled before. Oil (well, tar) actually seeps up out of the ground through the sand there. Had a heck of a time getting that off my dog’s paws (not to mention washing the salt out of her fur…)

    Spiral Jetty is interesting, but not only do I doubt substantial impact on it from drilling, and not only did the guy credited as the artist suggest that he wanted it to end up disappearing (entropy, blah blah blah), but on a completely separate note I have to wonder why they guy is credited as the artist. As far as I was able to find out, it appeared he thought up the idea of having a big spiral made of local volcanic rocks…and then he paid someone else to make it.

    I mean, come on, if I come up with an idea for a painting and pay someone else to paint it for me, do I still get to call myself the artist of the painting?…

  18. Epicanis argues that Robert Smithson wasn’t the artist because he paid someone else to make the piece.

    That is a deep and complicated question which has a …no, actually, it is not complicated at all. Of course he is the artist. Of course it is his creation. Even in the classic and traditional arts much of the ‘work’ was done by apprentices and members of the artist’s workshop.

    Modern large scale art is as much about pulling together a collective vision as anything else. We credit the conductor of the orchestra, the director of the film, the architect of the monument.

  19. Is is, say it’s not so, the SAME school that said that non–sanitized and thus BURSTING million-dollar cans of “artist poop” were were a million dollars? Lets dim BoingBoing to half brightness. Millions of people logging on a day. Used to come to my mailbox write on paper. Yeah, I’m old. Old enough to remember when a picture of an artist INSTALLATION was enough to not turn it into the latest archeological site of the century. And like some oil company now want to destroy it? Oil companies don’t have entire armies of PR people in and out sourced?

    OR…might this be a dead artist’s family conspiracy to up the price of his resale market?

    Could YOU go out to your local lake and spend two weeks making BATTERY ISLAND in a spiral (the landfill that allowed some residential skyscrapers in Manhattan to be built)? Yes , you can. And yet, THIS remote, soon-to-be-washed-away-by-speedboat-wakes-anyway, “Magic Spiral” (look into…into…my eyes), is worth a million times as much as some little oil company who want to give you the gas it takes for you to drive to your work each day?

    “Earthworks?” Asteroid killed all complex live on earth, yesterday. News today? The Emperor’s New Clothes? No, wait, that’s old news. Ah, but this is a “retro” site, right? Don’t tear down any mildew filled motels, either. National monuments they are.

  20. I should clarify that I’m not actually making that argument, only asking about it.

    I’m not so much bothered that the “idea guy” gets credit, but rather that the person who actually does the work and successfully implements the idea doesn’t.

    One might think that wouldn’t apply in this case since, after all, how much skill does it take to load rocks into a truck and dump them in a spiral? However, I’ve seen the roads – such as they are – out there. Anyone who can haul large amounts of basalt out there and dump it offshore in Gunnison Bay in some kind of coherent shape deserves to share in the credit, I think.

  21. #26 epicanis
    “I mean, come on, if I come up with an idea for a painting and pay someone else to paint it for me, do I still get to call myself the artist of the painting?…”

    MARK KOSTABI I searched for a credible link that he isn’t involved in but it’s late.
    in the mid to late eighties his kostabi world cranked out numerous “kostabi” paintings which sold in the high range. although he gave instruction and final review his staff of low paid workers created all of the works.

  22. UPDATE: The time for comments has been extended by the State of Utah until February 13! Comments addressing the idea that Smithson’s concern for entropy might mean he would find the oil drilling acceptable here.

  23. Smithson’s entropy theory has become a favorite argument among nature haters and greedy prophets of The Latter Days. His desperate irony should not be considered as a license to destroy. Smithson actually wanted his work to exist physically as long as possible:

    “There’s a word called entropy. . . . It’s like the Spiral Jetty is physical enough to be able to withstand all these climate changes, yet it’s intimately involed with those climate changes and natural disturbances. That’s why I’m not really interested in conceptual art because that seems to avoid physical mass. You’re left mainly with an idea. Somehow to have something physical that generates ideas is more interesting to me than just an idea that might generate something physical.” -R. Smithson, Salt Lake City, 1972.
    Interview with Gianni Pettena in ‘Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings.’ Jack Flam, ed. (U. of California Press, 1996), 298-99

    The State of Utah and its Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, who are currently examining the West Rozel drilling application, have recently spent a fortune to rid the site of tons of indistrial waste and debris left by previous oil explorations (in the words of Smithson, “The products of a Devonian industry, the remnants of a Silurian technology,”… “man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes”). They wrote in May 2006:

    “In addition to the earthwork art and natural wonders such as red brine, white salt, black basalt, and crude oil seeps, tons of industrial debris left from decades of activity at Rozel Point was obvious to anyone who visited the area. Although the natural oil seeps continue to flow, we are pleased to report that the debris is now a thing of the past!”


    “Mr. Bitterman,” a fake name with fake ideas, seems to conceals some idustrial lobbyist trying to manipulate the American utopian/apocalyptic vision. The end of time is not near, neither is the end of stupidness. We only have one earth left, don’t believe those who tell you that Mars is next. Those losers just need a few more bucks for whores in their bubble tubs, leather in their cars, gold taps and marble in their bathrooms: “My kingdom for a 500 horsepower”…

    Smithson’s environmental view evolved with time. His apocalyptic tendencies waned throughout the years and he became more and more involved in reclamation projects. Spiral Jetty and Broken Circle are reclamation works. RS distrusted reckless developers (”The Monuments of Passaic,” “Hotel Palenque”) and mining companies, but he needed their cooperation to achieve his reclamation proposals.

    Smithson bought Little Fort Island in Maine in 1971 for a possible earthwork. In 1972 he decided not to use it because it was “too scenic.” (Hobbs, ‘Robert Smithson: Sculpture,’ Cornell UP 1981, 242)


  24. The Spiral Jetty vs. “blind progress”:

    “I have already demonstrated that it is possible to combine reclamation and art in two completed projects–the Broken Circle in a sand quarry in Holland which was slated for reclamation, and the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah near an old oil mining region. …The artist must overcome the inequities that come in the wake of blind progress.”

    –Robert Smithson, “Proposal,” 1972 in ‘RS: The Collected Writings.’ J.Flam, ed. (U. of Cal. Press, 1996), 380.

  25. Trailer Trash at Work:

    Besides drilling at West Rozel, the Canadian project aims at building a truck road and facilities at Promontory Point, jeopardizing the landscape, wildlife, and peacefulness around the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Remember your history books; 1869, the Transcontinental RR, Central Pacific and Union Pacific meeting at Promontory… Just check out what oil activities left behind at Rozel Point before the state of Utah eventually removed almost everything in Dec.2005 (a Flickr slideshow):


  26. “The real problem here is preserving the art work (Spiral Jetty). I don’t think there is any contradiction in wanting to preserve an art work just because it happened to require machinery to build it, or even because entropy is meant to be a part of the piece.” – Art Fag City.

    Consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. It has been restored so many time there is probably less than 20% of de Vinci’s original paint remaining, yet it is still da Vinci’s painting.

  27. The buzzword in this comment is “viewshed” which I guess is kind of like watershed… anyway, the evaporation ponds that are mentioned by random flieger’s coming and going from Salt Lake City (almost 65 miles south) are not at all visible to the veiwer at the Spiral Jetty site. I talked with a lot of other folks and there are already several other wells in the same area from previous explorations. Thick crude oil naturally seeps to the suface at other areas in and around the lake (I’ve seen these personally on my hikes in the area) so the environmental impact is questionable. The view is what counts the most so I hope this is the main consideration.

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