Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2002


Maps to Nowhere: Seen from above, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty emerges dramatically from the rocky shores of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Like a swirling vortex steadied and then stilled, the earthwork begins as a straight line of stone extending far into the water, the form then curving, arching and coiling in upon itself until abruptly coming to an end. Rocks and boulders are seen in various shapes and sizes, with brown soil packed and flattened within the spiral, making a broad path that one might walk upon. The water washes upon the earthwork's shaped shores, surrounding and filling it, a cloudy bluish to brown on the outside, and then increasingly, a murky, milky red toward its ever tightening center, moving from still to stagnant. To the side of the Jetty, small waves break the lake's otherwise smooth surface, casting patches of light caught in their crescence; blue sky and clouds are faintly reflected on the water, the bottom of the lake occasionally glimpsed through its shallow depths. And there as well, in 1970, seen alone on the shore of the lake is the late Robert Smithson, standing in silhouette and fixed in motion, a small figure alongside the sprawling dimensions of his Spiral Jetty. For his earthwork is enormous, indeed monumental, filling the page upon which it is printed, the photograph within which both he and his Jetty are arrested and recorded. Focusing further, we can see there on the paper (the past) in the present tense and then speak it; 1970 now. The image of the object convincing—as if one were there, as if it were visible—effectively persuading of presence. The photographed stones still—rising out of the lake, off the page—an inscrutable hieroglyph, a free-floating question mark written on water.


Originally published in Discourse 24.2 (Spring 2002): 84-118.