No Art for Oil

In 1970, artist Robert Smithson rejected the gleaming white gallery spaces and "canonical" minimalism of the New York art scene in search of an entirely different setting for his sculpture. After several exploratory trips, he selected a spot more than 2,000 miles from the Big Apple: Utah's Great Salt Lake. Rozel Point, on the northeast end of the lake's Gunnison Bay, would become the home of his most important piece of sculpture: Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide, 6,650-ton coil of black basalt rock and mounded earth extending counterclockwise into the pinkish water of the lake. The site was remote but not virgin territory. Oil seeped from the ground, and scattered around the lake were the derelict instruments from prior efforts to extract that oil. "A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures," Smithson wrote in 1972. "This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes."

Abandoned, but not forgotten. Today, as oil costs rise, even difficult extraction missions become potentially lucrative projects. Unconventional sources -- be they shale oil in Canada or crude tar under a briny lake in Utah -- previously considered too inhospitable, expensive, or politically untenable are being given a second look. In a development that has alarmed art followers around the world, oil developers are returning to the Great Salt Lake, mere miles from Jetty. Even in a remote corner of Utah, the commercial world caught up with Smithson.

This is all sadly ironic, given that Spiral Jetty is arguably the world's foremost example of land art (also known as earth art or earthworks), a genre that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a fierce critique of the commercialization of art and nature. Defying the commodification of art objects, earth artists intervened in the landscape itself, trading brushes for excavators. At a time when gallery and museum spaces were facing unprecedented scrutiny as structures that shaped the way viewers understood art as well as the course of art's development, earth artists like Smithson transformed natural spaces into the work itself. Land art married site-specific installation, minimalist aesthetics, and institutional critique with a nascent environmentalist movement.

Smithson's name appears in nearly every textbook written about art published between World War II and the present day. At one time better known for his criticism than his work, he developed a theoretical distinction for art, categorizing objects as "site" and "non-site." A non-site work can be displayed in any space (say, an art gallery), whereas a site work exists in a dialectical relationship with its settings. Since most of his significant work was of the site variety, his finished projects are relatively few for an artist of his stature. However, his accomplishments were extraordinary given that he was only 35 when he was killed in a 1973 plane crash while surveying a site for Amarillo Ramp, a rock semicircle that emerged from an artificial lake in Texas. The piece was completed by artists Nancy Holt (who was also Smithson's wife), Richard Serra, and others. A retrospective of the artist's paintings, sculptures, and writings as well as photographs and ephemera related to his land works was mounted in 2004 by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled in 2005 to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. For the New York stage of the tour, the Whitney (with the support of Minetta Brook, a nonprofit arts organization) realized Floating Island, a project Smithson designed but never executed, in which a small island of rocks, trees, and pathways was built on a barge and pulled by a tugboat around Manhattan.


Holt, smithson's widow, first got word that Spiral Jetty was in danger from Lynn DeFreitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, an organization primarily charged with safeguarding the lake's watershed. On Jan. 7, 2008, Pearl Exploration and Production Ltd., a Canadian oil and gas company, applied for permission to establish two exploratory wells on its land leases in Gunnison Bay, some five miles southwest from Rozel Point's shore. Though an agreement reached between the state and various environmental groups revoked many of the mineral leases covering the north arm of the lake, Pearl Exploration's three 2003 leases fell within 55,000 exempted acres. "This is an area of the lake where the state has targeted in a robust way oil and mineral leases," DeFreitas says. "It's under a veritable siege of mismanagement."

Holt sounded the alarm with a letter to art-world insiders in January, which was picked up by bloggers who noted ways that Jetty fans could register their concern. The Utah governor's office accepts comments from the public before granting drilling permits on the lake, but there was only a narrow window for submitting comments on Pearl Exploration's application. Originally, the permit was set to be fast-tracked, with public input closing on Jan. 30, less than one month after the application's submission. Thanks in part to the quick work of e-mail chains and the blogosphere, the governor's office extended the deadline for public comment to Feb. 13.

By the deadline, the governor's office had fielded more than 300 phone calls and 65 letters responding to Pearl Exploration's application, according to Jonathan Jemming, director of the Utah Resource Development Coordinating Committee. In addition, Jemming says, the office received around 3,000 e-mails registering protest. Many of those complaints were sent by organizations representing much larger memberships, adding to the total count of protesters. "I've never seen anything like it. It's been impressive," Jemming says. Though some of the complaints were more generic in nature -- oil wells are never welcomed with open arms, even in remote areas like Rozel Point -- Jemming characterized the overwhelming majority of correspondence his office received as primarily "comments related to the Spiral Jetty from the arts community."

Pearl Exploration's application attracted the ire of the Dia Art Foundation, which has owned Spiral Jetty since 1999, when it was acquired as a gift from the Smithson estate. (Dia owns the rocks themselves and leases the 10 acres of land under the sculpture from the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.) "We're decidedly opposed to the proposed drilling," says Dia's deputy director, Laura Raicovich. She emphasizes that Utah's decision on the application should reflect global interest in the work's preservation. As for the fact that Smithson built Jetty in the shadow of oil-production debris, Raicovich says that modern-day oil activity is a different matter altogether. "Whatever Smithson encountered when he went to the site became part of what inspired the work," she acknowledges. "However, I don't see how endangering the environment that now surrounds the work -- timeless, empty, that's very much a part of what he responded to in the first place -- is going to have anything other than a negative impact on the sculpture."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also issued two statements in protest of the drilling application. In one pointed letter, the trust's senior program officer, Amy Cole, charged that the state had not done due diligence to investigate the impact of the application. The plans "do not evaluate whether there would be a visual or auditory impact on the setting of the Jetty and whether the drilling infrastructure, including the barges, would be seen or heard several miles off-shore," she wrote.


There's more at stake than just one exploratory drilling permit. What happens if Pearl Exploration is more successful than Amoco, which abandoned the site in the 1970s? If the governor's office approves the plans without including a provision for shutting off the valve in the future, more staging operations -- potentially permanent ones -- could be established near Rozel Point. To situate an oil-industry outpost around Spiral Jetty would be to dramatically change its context. "The work was concerned with the origin of life as well as the devastating forces of entropy and the irreversibility of the loss of energy," wrote Peter Selz, a Berkeley art historian focusing on art as a political phenomenon, in a 1996 essay. "Its location near a disused oil-drilling operation reflected Smithson's great interest in the rehabilitation of land damaged by industry."

Although there have been efforts since pioneer days to extract the oil from this region, they have all failed, says Jim Springer, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining. He notes that the oil has a high sulfur content and is best used as road base. In theory the oil can be refined into a gasoline-like product, but refineries near the Great Salt Lake aren't set up for that kind of operation. Asked whether a successful well off Rozel Point could lead to refineries being built nearby, Springer says, "It possibly might." Preservation activists are optimistic, though. "We wouldn't end up with oil rigs on Great Salt Lake -- it's just not going to happen," DeFreitas says.

Though an uninterrupted viewing experience of the art -- "viewshed" is the word used by the state of Utah -- dominates the list of reasons for protest, preservationists also voice environmental concerns. Pearl Exploration's application gives short shrift to the bay's population of brine shrimp and ignores the natural pelican hatchery on a nearby island. The lake, which is also a stopping point for migratory birds, is a "hemispherically important ecosystem," in the words of DeFreitas. But public outcry so far has swirled around Spiral Jetty and any loss -- material or contextual -- that drilling may augur for that site. Environmental activists aren't bitter that it's Jetty, not brine shrimp, that is mobilizing protest. "Gunnison Bay is unique in its salinity and its ecology. That's part of the reason why Smithson chose the place he did," DeFreitas says.

In the end, the decision about whether to preserve the Spiral Jetty experience rests solely with the governor's office. The Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining says that the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan, a document drafted in 2000 that outlines the state's responsibilities with regard to the lake, makes only passing reference to Spiral Jetty and Rozel Point. But individuals within the division recognize the value of the artwork; indeed, every person in the state seems to have firsthand familiarity with Jetty, if not outright affection for it. "I've been out there, it's a fun site," Springer says. "No one wants to see anything happen to it."


Smithson's art was designed to embrace its hostile environment. He famously admired the potential effects entropy might have on his earthworks, a position that offers rather vague guidance as to preserving the works. He built Jetty when the lake's waters were below standard elevation (4,200 feet above sea level); then lake waters rose, and the piece spent most of the next three decades entirely submerged. When drought caused the work to resurface in 1999, the black basalt rocks, already pinked by millions of colonizing lake-water micro-organisms, were completely crusted over with a thin layer of white salt. Dia has considered cleaning the piece, but most Jetty supporters have adopted its new saline skin as an indication of the ongoing exchange between earth art and Earth.

But Smithson's writings, even when he was at his most mercurial, don't suggest that he would have appreciated the return of industry to the lake under a general embrace of entropy. Spiral Jetty is arguably the world's most important piece of earth art and, without question, Utah's most important artwork. It won't remain the same if its context changes. The sculpture was always meant to be a foil to the Great Salt Lake: pitting art against nature, in a sense, and tracking the latter's effects on the former. Smithson may have seen it as poetic justice for the commercial devastation of the environment to be followed by the commercial devastation of art, but it is too high a price to pay for fleeting crude oil reserves.