Driving through the Great Basin desert, in Utah and Nevada, we visited 3 Earthworks. All three were sponsored by Virginia Dwan, the visionary gallerist and heiress of the 3M company - Minnesota, Mining & Manufacturing. It was at Dwan Gallery, in 1968, that the show Earth Works defined what would become sculpture in the 'expanded field'.
The temperature was over 45°C when we visited Michael Heizer's Double Negative. We arrived at noon, and addressed the visit as a scientific expedition. We went back and forth, like astronauts or divers. Heizer's artistic compulsions can be traced to many artifacts that we saw throughout our journey, as if he is tapping the American id: the tire marks at Bonneville Salt Flats, the monumentalization of extractive industries, the exhibition of human power over nature.
This is Gap Mountain, 100 miles beyond it one finds 'City', Michael Heizer's earthwork in progress since 1972. 100 miles beyond 'City' there is the Nevada Test Site, surely one of the largest known earthworks, comprised of underground laboratories, tunnels, atomic waste repositories and the famous atomic craters. Hundreds of atomic tests were made between 1951 and, surprisingly, 2012.
Route 50 was deemed the loneliest road in the US. It is an epithet that works both ways, as a derogatory and flattering qualifier. Driving a few miles West of Ely, one finds the small company town of Ruth, serving the Robinson copper mine. The mine slopes are so perfectly formed and artfully done, that I wondered if the workers, these artisans who worked with bulldozers, were the ones hired by the artist Michael Heizer to build his earthwork 'City'. Forgetting all the human and earth exploitation, it is easy to admire these earthworks formally. In the last decades the mine was bought and sold by various global companies, but throughout most of the C20 it was owned by the Guggenheim family.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are remains of the vast lake Bonneville of the Pleistocene era. They are well known for the C20 obsession of land speed records. The close surroundings of the Salt Flats are marked by the exploits of the aptly named Intrepid Potash mining company. In recent years, some speed races were cancelled due to the thinning of the salt crust. Intrepid Potash is now required to pump brine on to the flats to mitigate the problem.
The water at Rozel Point is not bright red anymore, but muted pink. At the time I visited the weather was stormy, the sun was heavily veiled by multiple layers of clouds and rainstorms in the distance. The experience was not of horror, on the contrary, but of beauty. This mobile phone photo doesn't do justice to an environment that seemed to be painted by J.M.W.Turner after having borrowed Agnes Martin's palette. I was still surprised to see such an animated landscape, which changed so quickly. Moments before, crossing the ranches framed by the Promontory Mountains, I had seen a 'dust devil' for the first time in my life, a whirlwind raising suddenly a dancing body of sand, which raised two arms in the air. It seemed alive and wickedly happy.
The Spiral Jetty seems to be a device to promote a journey through a series of historical sites. It has the effect of bringing past events to our present experience, and in that sense is a Kublerian work. Driving from Salt Lake City for a couple of hours it takes us to the Golden Spike National Monument, and the history of the Union Pacific Railway. Smithson built his work on the centennial of the railway connection between the East and West coasts of the United States. Moreover, the first jetty we see when arriving to Rozel Point is the ruin of a former oil drilling site. In 1970, the Spiral Jetty was situated on a terrifying site, with blood red water, caused by the Lucin Cutoff, an engineering 'earthwork' in which a railway line cut the Great Salt Lake in two. The oil prospection at the site continued up to the end of the 20th century. Here we only see remains, but a few decades ago this place smelled of crude oil and was scattered with dead birds.