Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970), Great Salt Lake, Utah, black rock, salt crystals, earth, 1,500 feet long, approx. 15 feet wide. All photos by Jason Metcalf unless otherwise noted.
On Monday, September 3, I took a cab out to JFK for a nonstop flight to Salt Lake City. In the lounge area, sleepily waiting to board, no one really looked like a Mormon. This wouldn’t have actually occurred to me, but I had been warned. There would be young men coming back from their missions, wearing white shirts and ties, clean shaven, well scrubbed, and, as a rule, always traveling in pairs. This may have something to do, I was later told, with how they keep an eye on and watch out for one another, how they try to avoid being tempted or seduced, as they might be if they were out on their own. While this does make sense, it doesn’t account for those non-believers who, shall we say, prefer a challenge, and are not actually averse to a three-way. I had bought a copy of the New York Times, and at the moment the prospects of the paper were slightly of greater interest. The cover stories were mainly election-related, such as: “Effects of Romney’s Tax Plan? Key Variables Are Left Blank.” One major point of contention raised in the story is Mitt Romney’s claim that his policies won’t raise the taxes of middle-class Americans, and yet you have to wonder how he expects to do this while covering about $1 trillion in tax breaks annually, and without increasing the federal deficit. Economists and tax experts—no mater what their political affiliations—don’t see how he can pull it off without seriously hurting the middle-class, but boarding a plane and the economy have one thing in common: it’s always business first.
Members of the Manson “family” congregate at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice on February 24, 1970, for the arraignment of Patricia Krenwinkel, a defendant in the Sharon Tate murder case. From left are Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sandra Good, Mark Ross, Paul Watkins, and Catherine “Gypsy” Share holding Good’s son Ivan. Photo Wally Fong, AP.
Flipping through the paper, a headline jumped out at me, waiting as I was for a flight out west: “Inspired by the Pull of the Desert.” The photo below showed a bright-eyed attractive woman, probably mid-to-late 20s, identified as Claire Vaye Watkins, while further down the page was another photograph, obviously of a certain period, showing a hippie-ish group of young people, with brightly patterned, velvet, silk or crocheted shirts and blouses, long straggly hair, some of the men bearded, all of them smiling, laughing or looking slightly bemused or high. The only person who does not appear happy is a small baby in the arms of one of the women, perhaps overdue for a nap or just bored. According to the caption in the Times: “Claire Vaye Watkins’s father, Paul, center, and other members of Charles Manson’s family in 1970. Ms. Watkins was relieved to discover that her father was not found to be a killer.” The piece on Ms. Watkins, who is a writer, is more interestingly an interview rather than a review of her first collection of short stories,Battleborn, which was published last month. From the start, the Times refers to the book as having a “notable provenance,” the fact that her father was “Manson’s chief procurer of young girls,” though not one of his murderous henchmen, and how the opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” is “a mix of history, memoir, and fiction.” We learn that she was only six years old when her father died, and was mostly raised by her mother in the isolation of the Mojave desert, near Death Valley, and later in Nevada, where all of her stories are set. In the interview she refers to these places as “pretty remote, geographically and culturally. They’re places you go if you want to be left alone.”
Robert Smithson on the Jetty, 1970, photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni.
I thought of this as the flight finally departed, and it was still very much on my mind five hours later as the plane made its descent over the Great Salt Lake, the sunlight bouncing off the water and also intermittently shadowed, as if a mirror of my own anticipation, and I couldn’t help but wonder: if your writing is about your life, and it’s somehow meant to be true, isn’t it always a mix of history, memoir, and fiction? Why should it seem exceptional, or an exception to the rule? As I craned to see out the window, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the Spiral Jetty, the great earthwork of Robert Smithson, created in 1970, and my main reason for making this trip. After all, I had waited more than 25 years to see the Jetty. It is one of the landmarks of contemporary art, and a personal touchstone. At a time when art is routinely bought and sold, and for some it’s just another form of currency and instant cultural cachet in an increasingly money-mad and superficial world, here is a work that represents, above all, the higher elevations, art’s relationship to nature, to time, to a mystic idea of a journey and endless turning. And yet it also reminds us of the limits of life, particularly where humans are concerned. The Spiral Jetty, as it appears and disappears with the rise and fall of the lake, and in terms of its setting within the landscape, is one of the only monuments of any consequence in this country. Even when it’s submerged it’s there, a question mark coiled around itself, its uncertainty at the center of the artist’s fascination with how space and time reverberate, as traced in the form of the spiral. The fact that Smithson died young, and not long after completing the Jetty, gives the work and the place a haunted quality, though in an otherworldly rather than morbid sense.
I had also come to Salt Lake City to give a talk at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as to see one of my favorite bands, the Melvins. They are, both bravely and preposterously, attempting to play all 50 states and the District of Columbia in 51 consecutive days, and are driving to all the shows except for those in Anchorage and Honolulu. Their goal: to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. My aim, minuscule in contrast, was simply to arrange a friendly ambush and surprise them at one of the stops on their tour of tours, and the more unexpected the location the better: destination, Salt Lake City. Over the course of three days, the triangulation of the Mormons, the Melvins, and Robert Smithson was too good to pass by. Time better spent, I thought, chasing some ghosts and cowboys of my own, un-spiraling myself from the irreality of New York in order to get a closer look at the West, a very red state, and the Temple to which Mitt Romney owes his spiritual if not his political allegiance—though all places of worship, as Smithson would have it, are ultimately non-sites. But no matter. If you worship God, power, and the almighty dollar, a place will always be made for you in this mean old world.
I was picked up at the airport by Aaron, a recent transplant from Berlin, who had invited me to Salt Lake City. Once in town, we stopped for a coffee and ran into the filmmaker Trent Harris, best known for The Beaver Trilogy, one of the most bizarrely moving and unforgettable semi-documentaries of all time, starring an incredible Crispin Glover and also Sean Penn, for whom it is probably no longer listed on his resume. From there a quick stop at Ken Sanders Rare Books, where you can easily and very pleasurably lose a few hours. (Friends who knew I was making a trip to the land of the Mormons had suggested Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, but it seemed too heavy, and anyway I preferred to see what the city itself would yield.) At Sanders I found copies of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, for only $6, a mere pittance, and J.G. Ballard’s 1996 collection of essays and reviews, A User’s Guide To the Millennium. I had interviewed Ballard just after the book was published, and remember well how he mused on our temporal dislocation:
“Does the future still have a future? That’s what I want to know. Is it what it used to be? No, I think the future is about to die on us, actually. I think it may have died a few years ago. I think we are living in the present. We theme-parked the future just as we theme-park everything. We theme-parked the past. We theme-parked the future, and visit it only when we feel we want some sort of glittery gimmick.1
Smithson had memorably referenced Ballard in an important essay in 1966, “Quasi Infinities and the Waning of Space,” in which he quoted from the author’s story, “The Overloaded Man”—”Without a time sense, consciousness is difficult to visualize.” I kept this all in mind as I settled into a comfortable room at the historic Peery Hotel, built in 1910, a few blocks from the city’s original arrival points, the Rio Grande Depot and the Union Pacific Depot, magnificent relics of the great fortunes made here a very long time ago, twin portals which symbolized the importance of Salt Lake as the crossroads of the West, as it was once proudly acknowledged. Just 90 minutes away, near the location of the Spiral Jetty, is the marker for the Golden Spike, where the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined the country, East and West, in 1869. Abandoned by Amtrak in the late 1990s, the depots today are used for restaurants, shops, concerts, and the offices of the Historical Society. Where travelers once boarded and disembarked the California Zephyr as they made their way purposefully across country, you now find the mindless idling of impassive tourists, weary office workers, and indifferent teenagers with skateboards tucked under their well-inked arms, all appearing leisurely bored. If only the bland airport terminals of our theme-parked present will one day be resigned to a similar fate, then the Ballardian/Smithsonian future will have truly arrived.