Table of Con­tents | PDF

Image and Discursive Landscape:
Roaming the Land Art of the American Southwest

Kaitlin Pomer­antz

Abstract | The writer, a inter­dis­ci­pli­nary visu­al artist focus­ing on land­scape and land use, took a trip in the fall of 2016 through var­i­ous icon­ic land art sites with Texas Tech University’s Land Arts of the Amer­i­can West pro­gram. Immer­sive engage­ment with sites such as Robert Smithson’s Spi­ral Jet­ty (1968) and Michael Heizer’s Dou­ble Neg­a­tive (1969-70) offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect—critically and experientially—on the ways that the land artists’ spec­u­la­tions on nat­ur­al his­to­ry and humanity’s expe­ri­ence of land­scape res­onate both with the planned degra­da­tion of the sites, and our new, more fraught rela­tion­ship to envi­ron­men­tal change.

Résumé | L’auteur, artiste visuel inter­dis­ci­plinaire se con­cen­trant sur le paysage et l’utilisation du ter­rain, a effec­tué un voy­age à tra­vers divers sites artis­tiques iconiques dans le cadre du pro­gram Texas Tech University’s Land Arts of the Amer­i­can West. Un tra­vail d’immersion dans des sites tels que la Spi­ral Jet­ty de Robert Smith­son (1968) et le Dou­ble Neg­a­tive (1969-70) de Michael Heiz­er lui ont offert la pos­si­bil­ité de réfléchir—de façon cri­tique et expérimentale—à la façon dont les spécu­la­tions sur l’histoire naturelle et les exéri­ences humaines sur le paysage chez les artistes du paysage se font l’écho de la dégra­da­tion plan­i­fiée des sites et de notre nou­velle rela­tion ten­due avec le change­ment environnemental.

Doubles diptych (Spiral Jetty; Double Negative) 2016

Dou­bles dip­tych (Spi­ral Jet­ty; Dou­ble Neg­a­tive) 2016

Two Photographs

This writ­ing unpacks two pho­tographs that I made while trav­el­ing through the Amer­i­can South­west in fall 2016, just pri­or to the nation’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The pho­tographs fea­ture icon­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Robert Smithson’s 1968 Spi­ral Jet­ty and Michael Heizer’s 1969-70 Dou­ble Neg­a­tive—the images by which I first came to know these artworks—projected onto our van, along­side the two sites as they cur­rent­ly exist. In these delib­er­ate­ly com­posed images, I sought to jux­ta­pose the sta­t­ic view of these doc­u­ments with the view offered by my expe­ri­ence in the moment. I also meant to high­light the phys­i­cal degra­da­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of the works over the decades since their mak­ing: in the case of Smithson’s, that there was, in that moment, no water sur­round­ing the jet­ty; and with Heiz­er, the com­plete ero­sion of the walls of the Neg­a­tive’s gash­es. In con­sid­er­ing these icon­ic images along­side the real art­works and land­scapes that they rep­re­sent, I want­ed to bridge some kind of gap in the way that we learn about art and the actu­al expe­ri­ence of art—the pil­grim­age to seek it, the trekking and sweat­ing with­in it—and to reflect on the role of the image as both invi­ta­tion and pos­si­ble red her­ring to a landscape’s greater com­plex­i­ty. I also seek to open ques­tions about the rel­e­vance and lega­cy of these works today, not only in light of the phys­i­cal land­scapes around them that have shift­ed, but also the political.

Image as Invitation to Artwork

I encoun­tered the canon­i­cal works of Land Art, as most do, through images. This was some time in my ear­ly 20s as an art his­to­ry stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, as I dis­cov­ered Lucy Lip­pard and expand­ed ideas of where art can be and who can make it. Images of the works—a spi­ral made of rocks, gash­es in the earth, and others—acted as post­cards, delib­er­ate­ly com­posed pieces of land­scapes meant not just to be seen through the plane of pho­tog­ra­phy but vis­it­ed in the round of sculp­ture and inhab­it­ed as land­scape. The ori­gin sto­ries of these works, in a dif­fer­ent way than sites built by druids or oth­er bygone com­mu­ni­ties or civ­i­liza­tions, left me with a com­pli­cat­ed curios­i­ty. The works were cre­at­ed by indi­vid­u­als: white male mod­ernists mak­ing mon­u­men­tal marks in the land­scape, made pos­si­ble by the fund­ing of a female heiress of indus­try. Wit­ness­ing the works first­hand seemed like a nec­es­sary step towards grasp­ing the mean­ing and effect of these projects.

Over a decade after I first took inter­est in the work and went on to become an artist explor­ing issues of land and land­scape myself, I final­ly made the trek. I joined a group of artists, archi­tects, and stu­dents on a pro­gram called Land Arts of the Amer­i­can West based out of Texas Tech University—a ram­bling jour­ney to major earth­works, ancient ruins, Indige­nous struc­tures, ura­ni­um mines, mis­sile test sites, and more. Our vis­its to these sites were mul­ti­day camp­ing excur­sions with­in and among them. This is how I found myself, at the sites of Spi­ral Jet­ty and then Dou­ble Neg­a­tive, wak­ing before dawn to fum­ble around in the dust and wind with equip­ment and a rental van to stage the two pho­tographs that would allow me to more point­ed­ly con­sid­er the entan­gle­ment of image and real-life expe­ri­ence, and the ensu­ing intel­lec­tu­al and expe­ri­en­tial nego­ti­a­tions of inter­sec­tions of these two modes.

Spiral Jetty

Arriv­ing at Spi­ral Jet­ty, my focus was imme­di­ate­ly drawn to all that sur­rounds the jet­ty. After not­ing its sur­pris­ing­ly diminu­tive size and tak­ing the oblig­a­tory walk-run to its end,1 my sens­es extend­ed out­wards. It was the walk itself, direct­ed by the spi­ral form of the work, that encour­aged this exten­sion of the senses—a con­cen­tric 360-degree ori­en­ta­tion and walk­ing med­i­ta­tion. After that ini­tial sojourn, I bare­ly paid the spi­ral itself much mind, focus­ing instead on what lay beyond the spi­ral: entrop­ic forces that I had under­stood as a sort of poet­ic con­ceit in Smithson’s work, writ large in dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the land­scape. Entropy was vis­i­ble in every­thing: the atmos­pher­ic con­di­tions (gale-force winds), the bright pink halo­phyt­ic Great Salt lake (undrink­able, bare­ly touch­able, ter­mi­nal), the wildlife (teem­ing flies, glim­mer­ing salt-encrust­ed pel­i­cans who had touched down in the waters of the lake only to be con­sumed by those waters and ren­dered flight­less), the relics of tourism (toi­let-paper bits jump­ing through the sage­brush), and the relics of indus­try (the loom­ing fac­to­ry build­ings of the defunct Mag­Corps plant, vis­i­ble from the end of the jet­ty across the lake).2 So entranc­ing was this mori­bund whorl of con­di­tions that the spi­ral itself became a mere sign point­ing out­wards in all direc­tions, deflect­ing atten­tion from itself to say, look there, and there, and there. The pièce-de-résis­tance, entrop­i­cal­ly speak­ing, was a sec­ond jet­ty, a dark twin, which lay just a short dis­tance from Spi­ral Jet­ty. At this site, oil pil­ings and der­rick pieces stood erect, each like its own Ozy­man­dias. I observed in my note­book, “the most alive thing we saw was a half-dead spar­row stuck in fresh black tar bub­bling up from the earth.” Oil Jet­ty, as this sec­ond jet­ty is called, was a for­mer drilling site that nev­er proved finan­cial­ly viable, and was men­tioned, albeit briefly, in Smithson’s writ­ings. This ver­i­ta­ble junk­yard of aban­doned dreams and schemes recalls Smithson’s pas­sage from The Mon­u­ments of Pas­sa­ic, “Pas­sa­ic seems full of holes com­pared to New York City, which seems tight­ly packed and sol­id, and those holes in a sense are the mon­u­men­tal vacan­cies that define, with­out try­ing the mem­o­ry-traces of an aban­doned set of futures” (52).

At Spi­ral Jet­ty, the images through which I had come to know this work were mere invi­ta­tions to the work itself, which was, in itself, an invi­ta­tion into a com­plex and unique land­scape func­tion­ing as a sort of micro­cosm for Smithson’s greater artis­tic, philo­soph­i­cal, and meta­phys­i­cal con­cerns. As Francesco Gagliar­di artic­u­lates in Per­for­mance, Land Art and Pho­tog­ra­phy, “It is the nature of pho­tog­ra­phy to be selec­tive, to offer only par­tial views of a real­i­ty that extends, both tem­po­ral­ly and spa­tial­ly, beyond the instant cap­tured by the cam­era.” Fol­low­ing this, Smith­son thus made the work—and its documents—into a kind of semi­otic. Spi­ral Jet­ty, in its doc­u­ments and even more so in the flesh, exists as a draw­ing and as a sign. As such, it is less a focal point than a start­ing point, one that accepts the con­stant flux around it, ask­ing us to mon­i­tor and observe.

Double Negative

If entropy could be said to be the expe­ri­en­tial leit­mo­tif of Spi­ral Jet­ty, edge—that lim­i­nal shift in surface—could be said to define my expe­ri­ence at Dou­ble Neg­a­tive. Mor­man Mesa, on which the work is sit­u­at­ed, into which it is carved, is a flat expanse of harsh desert ter­rain, dis­rupt­ed only where the mesa ends and over­looks a lush val­ley, and by the two trench­es of the sculp­ture, which func­tion as ersatz ridges into a shal­low­er abyss.3 Upon arriv­ing at Dou­ble Neg­a­tive, also dur­ing gale-force winds, I shoved my way against the air first toward the edge of the sculp­ture, and then towards the edge of the mesa. Like a dog ascer­tain­ing the lay­out and lim­its of a room, I need­ed to know where things began and end­ed. With­out these ver­ti­cal drop offs, the space seemed dizzy­ing­ly pla­nar and endless.

Pho­tographs I had seen of Dou­ble Neg­a­tive did not give much of a sense of the rela­tion­ship between Heizer’s trench­es and those of the mesa itself, this ele­gant echo. Unlike Smith­son, who employed aux­il­iary media such as pho­tog­ra­phy, film, and writ­ing to ampli­fy his projects,4 Heiz­er has pro­mot­ed a view that Dou­ble Neg­a­tive can only be expe­ri­enced phys­i­cal­ly, first­hand, and has nev­er offi­cial­ly sup­port­ed any pho­tog­ra­phy or oth­er relat­ed doc­u­ments. About this work, Heiz­er asserts, “There is noth­ing there, yet it is still a sculp­ture,” empha­siz­ing his inter­est in locat­ing the mer­it of this work in its form as a sculp­ture com­prised of neg­a­tive space, cre­at­ed through a process of removal. This state­ment also down­plays much of the beau­ty of the work, which is that there is every­thing there: rocks, earth, plants, scor­pi­ons, wind; mesa ridges that echo the ridges of his sculp­ture; and the harsh desert forces that bleach bones, which have also erod­ed his mas­sive gash­es. The col­lec­tive Post Commodity’s conceptual/sound artist Raven Chacon’s recent words about the land artists of the 1960s come to mind: “they just con­tin­ued the destruc­tion of the earth, and con­tin­ued to go and col­o­nize dif­fer­ent places that they thought were theirs” (Through the Repel­lent Fence). Indeed, Heizer’s ges­tures seem to be more about mark­ing ter­ri­to­ry, about claim­ing of space, than about invit­ing a kind of engage­ment with it. Iron­i­cal­ly, this cre­ation (or destruc­tion) here has come to be in a state of total recla­ma­tion by the per­sis­tent earth. Whether Heiz­er artic­u­lates it or not, the work directs us toward the land from whence it came, the earth which it dis­placed and which is grad­u­al­ly fill­ing it back up, con­sum­ing it. It is this con­sump­tion, of the work by the land which it attempts to mar, that I view as the inter­est­ing aspect of the work: the kind of with­er­ing mon­u­men­tal­i­ty of man’s colo­nial ambi­tions. Return­ing to Ozy­man­dias, it is the top­pled and decayed being—and not the once-erect, colos­sal status—that makes the poem.

Artwork as an Invitation to Landscape

Spiral Jet­ty and Dou­ble Neg­a­tive are both, due to respec­tive sets of eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions, in states of decom­po­si­tion. Spi­ral Jet­ty, which once peeked out of the water of the Great Salt Lake and then for sev­er­al years was com­plete­ly sub­merged, is now com­plete­ly dry and at risk of being buried in salt par­tic­u­late. Dou­ble Neg­a­tive is crum­bling, and as Heiz­er explains, will con­tin­ue to do so unim­ped­ed. The works have become, and per­haps always were, barom­e­ters for eco­log­i­cal change. In the same way, these works have also func­tioned as mea­sures of what was con­sid­ered appro­pri­ate or pos­si­ble regard­ing the rela­tion­ship between artist and land. When tracked upon each other—the eco­log­i­cal and the social—these works can be seen as shift­ing, if van­ish­ing, mon­u­ments of the anthro­pocene that point at pos­si­bil­i­ty, pow­er, and loss of control.

My pho­tographs pluck a moment from my expe­ri­ence of relat­ing image to real­i­ty. Like a fly in a van­i­tas paint­ing, or Zoe Leonard’s sun pho­tographs, they hov­er in a space of bardo—futile tes­ti­mo­ny to a present that is already past, a first­hand per­son­al expe­ri­ence that through doc­u­men­ta­tion becomes demo­c­ra­t­ic and loric, and a visu­al dis­course on dis­course itself.

Discursive Landscape

If the land­scape con­sumes the works, these ear­ly images become records, the works become images, and the earth con­tin­ues on, as it were.

Works Cited

Gagliar­di, Francesco. “Per­for­mance, Land Art and Pho­tog­ra­phy.” MAP Mag­a­zine, no. 23, August-Sep­tem­ber 2010.

Mag­Corp Mag­ne­sium Chlo­ride Plant, Utah.” Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, http://​clui​.org/​l​u​d​b​/​s​i​t​e​/​m​a​g​c​o​r​p​-​m​a​g​n​e​s​i​u​m​-​c​h​l​o​r​i​d​e​-​p​l​ant. Accessed 16 July 2018.

Smith­son, Robert. “Tour of the Mon­u­ments of Pas­sa­ic, New Jer­sey.” Art­fo­rum, vol. 6, no. 4, Decem­ber 1967, pp. 52-57.

Through the Repel­lent Fence. Direct­ed by Sam Wain­wright Dou­glass. Amer­i­ca Reframed, 2017.


1 This is the same walk-run that Smith­son does in his 1970 film Spi­ral Jet­ty (pro­duced by Robert Smith­son, with the assis­tance of Vir­ginia Dwan, Dwan Gallery, and Dou­glas Christ­mas, Ace Gallery director). 

2 From The Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Land Use Data­base: “This remote plant employs a few hun­dred peo­ple in an intense­ly indus­tri­al­ized site on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. It pro­duces all the mag­ne­sium met­al made in the Unit­ed States, a mate­r­i­al used most­ly in met­als. For many years, accord­ing to the EPA, this plant was the nation’s worst air pol­luter, releas­ing hun­dreds of tons of chlo­rine per day from its stack, which was around 90% of the chlo­rine emit­ted into the atmos­phere from all sources nation­wide. After a fed­er­al law­suit was filed against the com­pa­ny in the late 1990’s, claim­ing near­ly $1 bil­lion for envi­ron­men­tal infrac­tions, the com­pa­ny that owned the plant, Mag­Corp, filed for bank­rupt­cy pro­tec­tion. A new com­pa­ny, called U.S. Mag­ne­sium, now oper­ates the plant, and has cleaned up much of its emis­sions, releas­ing a few tons of chlo­rine per day, as opposed to a few hun­dred tons, as it did in the 1980s.” [http://​clui​.org/​l​u​d​b​/​s​i​t​e​/​m​a​g​c​o​r​p​-​m​a​g​n​e​s​i​u​m​-​c​h​l​o​r​i​d​e​-​p​l​ant]

This abyss grows ever shal­low­er as the walls of the pieces crum­ble inward.

Sur­round­ing Spi­ral Jet­ty, Smith­son pro­duced a film Spi­ral Jet­ty (1970), pub­lished writ­ings (“The Spi­ral Jet­ty”, 1970, Robert Smith­son: The Col­lect­ed Writ­ings, edit­ed by Nan­cy Holt, New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press), and autho­rized pho­tographs by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Gian­fran­co Gorgoni.