Earthworks: Spiral Jetty

Earthwork Examples: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty

The Earthworks movement, a unique part of the history of contemporary art, clearly had something to say about society, technology and modern culture. Rather than utilizing nature motifs and creating two-dimensional painted landscapes, the Earthworks artists pursued direct modification of the landscape itself. This approach was both traditional and progressive.

Earthwork Examples Ancient Shrines

Druids Temple in the Isle of Jersey,  Caesarea Illustration 1797
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Man Vyi, Public Domain

Earthwork Examples and Ancient Shrines

The tradition of prehistoric monuments and their possible esoteric meanings was a passionate interest among the underground culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The form of Robert Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty (1970) was like a huge petroglyph.

This archaic symbol also had ancient associations with the labyrinth. The Spiral Jetty, located in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, was a quarter of a mile long and formed out of bulldozed rock. Like many ancient shrines, it was inaccessible and required a pilgrimage to view directly.

Earthwork Examples Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty from Atop Rozel Point, April 2005
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Soren Harward, Public Domain

Earthwork Examples and the Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson’s work shares an essentially organic form with many other modern artists. The impersonality of the Spiral Jetty, however, is explicit. Because of the massive scale of Smithson’s work, the only way to fully apprehend the piece is to see a photograph taken from the air. This means of documentation is complemented by mapping and text-based accounts.

The Spiral Jetty also contains an element of performance-based art. Other modern artists often worked in private and even kept their methods secret. The site-specific aspects of Earthworks and the momentous scales made them inherently public performances in spite of their characteristic isolated locations. Furthermore, the outdoor location of this earthwork emphasized the impact of natural forces and the temporality of art and life.

The Spiral Jetty exemplifies many of the themes which separate modern art from that of the classical era. This work in particular, as well as earthwork examples in general, challenge the traditional ideas of reality and permanence in art.

Moundsville Earthwork Examples

Grave Creek Mound Near Moundsville, West Virginia
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith, Public Domain

Themes of Earthworks

Modern earthworks expressed the recognition and admiration of earthwork examples of the past including the burial mounds of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In addition, the removal of art from the gallery into the open land was a means of rejection of the gallery and museum system. This established art as a non-commodity in the face of a consumer society and was a challenge to social orthodoxy.

The massive size of the Earthworks creations favored the value of actual manual labor over the endless debates and criticism of intellectual society. There were additional feminist tones as the artists attempted to sculpt their ideas into the bosom of the maternal earth.

Finally, the isolation of such works away from cosmopolitan areas carried an environmentalist message of concern about man’s destruction of natural resources in the post-industrial wastelands.

Kathleen Karlsen Video Resources Thumbnail

Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

Share this article with a friend today!

Scroll to Top