Desert Obsessions: Apsara DiQuinzio on Utah earthworks

November 2, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes
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Image: A salt desert, looking toward the center of the Spiral Jetty. Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

[Assistant curator of painting + sculpture Apsara DiQuinzio, on the Utah desert, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, and more. Part I is here.]

In August I went to Utah for the first time to continue my art-mediated obsession with desert landscapes. I traveled to a portion of The Great Basin—famous home to the Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Church, the glorious Wasatch Mountains, and the Bingham Copper Pit. My purpose, however, was to see the Spiral Jetty (1970) by Robert Smithson and the Sun Tunnels (1973 – 76) by Nancy Holt (two earthworks made by artists who were, incidentally, married), as well as the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Wendover base (active since 1996).

My journey began with a visit to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), where my friend and former colleague Jill Dawsey (now curator of contemporary art at UMFA) had organized the exhibition Desert Secrets, comprised of photographs from the museum’s collection. Trevor Paglen’s photos—about the geography of state secrecy—were of course already familiar to me. And although I was familiar with Richard Misrach’s work, I had never seen his stunning photograph Chrysler Newport, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah (1992), of an abandoned old car in the middle of the white, crackling desert, taken in an area in Utah renowned for being so flat and expansive that when you stand in it you can see the earth’s curvature. Misrach has been photographing desert landscapes for over 35 years, and has produced a large body of work referred to as the Desert Cantos, about which Reyner Banham has written, “Misrach’s images are important because they make us see with the eye of art this man-mauled desert that we try not to see in real life, and to see that it is beautiful.” Coming away from the exhibition, I was reminded again of the ominous presences the desert conceals: military bases, nuclear test sites, industrial wreckage. These harbingers of doom are of course interspersed with revelatory moments of natural wonder, making the desert a place rife with contradictions.

Well-stocked with water and fuel, Jill and I set out for the Spiral Jetty. Smithson realized this monumental earthwork with the help of two dump trucks employed to move 6,650 tons of basalt rocks and earth from the shore of the Great Salt Lake into a spiral formation that stretches out into the water. This work helped to redefine physical and conceptual art practices in the 1970s, so my sense of anticipation was high. On our way we stopped to see the Golden Spike Monument, commemorating the spot where the lines of the first transcontinental railroad meet I was struck by the Spiral Jetty’s canny proximity to this historic monument, just twelve miles north of the earthwork. The natural, entropic patterns of the environment—the rising and falling water levels, the changing density of the salt crystals, the shifting visibility of the red micro-bacteria—and the lake’s relation to industry all enfold into Smithson’s idea of the work, meant, in part, to remind us of our own human and cultural relationship to monumentality.

I expected to see “the countless bits of wreckage” and the “fragments of junk” Smithson recounted upon first visiting the site, vestiges of the oil drilling that once took place nearby and that threatened the work’s preservation even just a year ago. But surprisingly, the industrial imprint near the Jetty was relatively invisible. Instead, I was bemused when our rented truck was overtaken by a herd of horses crossing the dirt road right in front of us, about nine miles away from the site. There must have been twenty of these beautiful beasts, a vision that colored my experience more romantic Wild West than industrial wasteland. A couple miles away from the site, we found ourselves discussing details like, what was the appropriate music to be listening to when the Jetty first slid into visibility? I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Julian Myers, who once told me Smithson owned several Elton John albums and a Black Sabbath LP. No, those wouldn’t do. We opted for the more ethereal, earthy sounds of Bay Area art band Coconut. Finally, at Rozel Point, I found myself pleasantly distracted by the profusion of little wild sunflowers dotting the shoreline.

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Image: Horses, just before they crossed the dirt road leading to Rozel Point. Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

Outside, the atmosphere was dry and dizzyingly hot. About a decade ago the Jetty was rendered invisible by high lake waters; now the waterline is so far receded the terrain looks more lunar than lake-like. Jill and I trekked over the black basalt rocks lining the shore and out into the center, faithfully walking the entire 1500 foot length of the spiral. White salt crackled beneath our feet. We noticed a faint pink tinge to this scorched salty earth—the only sign of the lake’s signature red algae (and an important factor in Smithson’s selection of the site). I wondered if this was evidence of the ecosystem’s demise. Once in the center, we read aloud Smithson’s essay, The Spiral Jetty (1972), and I understood what he meant by “the mirage faded into the burning atmosphere.” I felt the blistering rays of the sun seep into my skin listening to Jill read, “Between the heat lightning and heat exhaustion the spiral curled into vaporization,” and I was blissfully enveloped in both Smithson’s language and the atmosphere he described. The essay ends with the artist’s notes delineating the dialectic of the Site (a place in nature) and the Non-site (nature displaced into a gallery/container)—one of his most significant conceptual contributions to art. Upon leaving, we playfully ruminated over what the Spiral Jetty’s “Non-site” might be, if such a thing existed. The film he, Nancy Holt, and Robert Fiore made after finishing the work? The ever-growing collection of Jetty documentation disseminated as its afterlife? The 2005 Smithson retrospective in New York—the center of the art world? We couldn’t decide. As we were walking back to shore, a stranger arrived and clambered down across the rocks. Looking out again from the lakeside we could see this lone flickering figure hovering above the spiral; his small human scale threw the Jetty’s monumentality into relief.

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Image: The Stranger on the Jetty. Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

The next day, we set out for Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, by way of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), the self-described “research organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface.”  For this adventure, we were joined by another former colleague of mine, Stephanie Schumann, a Utah native freshly arrived from New York. Many people travel to Holt’s Tunnels via the northwestern route around the lake, visiting CLUI afterward. We reversed this order and went to CLUI first, driving four hours from Salt Lake City to Wendover, a small town heavily saturated with casinos, situated on the border of Utah and Nevada. Passing through this desolate land made me think of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays (1970), with Maria speeding down lost desert highways, eventually ending up in some forsaken casino, recklessly searching for an anchor.

CLUI’s facilities consist of two primary exhibit halls in nondescript former military barracks, and a residency facility where artists intermittently live and work. These buildings are scattered throughout a fenced area that appeared depressingly deserted—ruins of a once-thriving military compound. As we surveyed the area, we passed two foreboding hangars, one of which, we later learned, sheltered the Enola Gay bomber that dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. This realization cast a surreal and deathly specter across the desert land. Spending time perusing CLUI’s informative displays of maps, photos, and written documentation on the surrounding landscape heightened my uneasy feeling. I came across one particularly unnerving schema of the Dugway Proving Ground, the nation’s primary testing ground for biological and chemical weapons. The label described it as “one of the most unusual, complex, and mysterious landscapes in the nation,” and indicated that some of its facilities were still active. And to think this invisible, menacing presence was only about fifty or so miles southeast of us, concealed by three mountain ranges. It was familiar to me because I had seen Paglen’s photo that attempted to document it from a distance of 42 miles away (in SFMOMA’s collection). CLUI’s displays reinforced many of the ideas present in Jill’s Desert Secrets exhibition, but looking at these documents and plans while actually being in the correlative desert space made it a profound experience. Though it seemed as if I was in the middle of nowhere, it became quite clear that I was decidedly somewhere.

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Image: The Enola Gay Hanger. Photo by Stephanie Schumann

After CLUI, we headed directly for the Sun Tunnels; they were only about an hour away.

The Tunnels are notoriously difficult to find. We knew of people who had failed. Even with CLUI’s helpful directions, locating them proved a challenge, but I now understand that this difficulty is an inherent and significant part of the work. While still about ten miles away, Jill pulled out a chapter of Julian Myers’ dissertation she had printed out from the university library, evocatively titled “Scattered and Shining: On Nancy Holt, Lucin, Light, and Death.” She read us portions of it; namely a section that explained that Holt conceived of the Tunnels in Texas, just after Smithson died in an accidental plane crash in 1973, while she, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi posthumously completed Smithson’s earthwork Amarillo Ramp (1973). This, too, cast a melancholic, yet wistful tone to the excursion. The Sun Tunnels are located four miles from the town of Lucin, but it isn’t until you are veering left onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere that you realize the “town” consists of a railroad crossing, an abandoned white shack, and a signpost. As we passed “Lucin,” Smithson’s multiple mentions of it in the essay we’d read the previous day echoed in my thoughts. Holt says she searched areas of New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, looking for the perfect location for the Tunnels, and I couldn’t help but think that the location she ultimately chose, in the Great Salt Desert just about four hours away from the Spiral Jetty, was not a coincidence. And upon further reflection, there are more threads intertwining the two sites: the nearby railroad tracks (and the implied demise of the railroad), the Great Salt Lake versus the Great Salt Desert (the later seems an inversion of the former), the disorienting, bumpy dirt roads crisscrossing the landscapes, the inescapable heat. Yet, if Smithson’s intention was to highlight our relationship to the monumental, perhaps Holt’s was to demonstrate that the unmonumental can be just as profound.

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Image: Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

From a distance the Tunnels appear so small one must vigilantly scan the landscape in order to find them. Just as we started to wonder whether we were lost, Jill spotted them. We stopped the car and fixed our eyes on the distance. They were so faint we could have easily missed them. I tried to zoom in on them with the lens of my camera. Whether it was due to my excitement or the disorientating nature of the desert, I’m not sure, but somehow I unwittingly left my camera on the roof of our vehicle. Of course, I realized this only after we had already driven two or three miles back to the correct turn-off. Silly as it seems, the experience of spending the next hour or so searching for it in on the sides of the dirt road, amidst the desert shrubbery (and actually finding it!), focused our attention on the minutiae of the landscape and kept the presence of a camera at the forefront of our thoughts. This was significant because it helped us to reach the important collective conclusion that the Tunnels act as lenses unto their environs, framing the horizon line and the mountains in the distance.

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Image: Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

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Image: Photo by Apsara DiQuinzio

The Sun Tunnels consist for four concrete cylinders placed on their sides in an X formation, at a distance of about 85 feet from one another, and set in a 40-acre piece of land Holt purchased. Each tunnel is 18 feet in length, with an opening 9 feet in diameter. During the summer solstice, holes pierced into each tunnel align with a corresponding constellation (Draco, Perseus, Capricorn, and Columba). Looking up into the night sky from inside the tunnels, the holes frame the individual stars that comprise each constellation. We lamented we wouldn’t experience the Tunnels at night and witness this celestial convergence. Like a postindustrial Stonehenge, many people make pilgrimages to see them during the solstice, camping out around the site. I imagined sharing the Tunnels with a bunch of strangers, and was content that we had them all to ourselves. We did, however, consider the possibility that we were not alone in the landscape. The day before a UMFA staff member told us that there was a Sun Tunnel Hermit. As the story goes, the Hermit had once been a successful corporate executive who abandoned his comfortable life to take up residence in a cave set in the hill nearest to the Tunnels. We attempted to identify his hill and imagined what such an existence would be like, and a part of me understood why he might have been so compelled. While examining the Tunnels we were perplexed to find black diagonal lines strafing the interior of the concrete. Stephanie finally deduced it was from bullets, pointing out the indentations along the outer edges. I wondered what kind of person would use the Tunnels as target practice. We also saw evidence of this violent human behavior on a nearby sign.

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Black lines strafing the interior. Photo by Apsara Di Quinzio.Bullet holes in a nearby sign. Photo by Stephanie Schumann

Finally, after scrutinizing the site to our satisfaction, we nestled into a sun-drenched section of concrete and cracked open a hefty copy of Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art so we could together read Holt’s essay “Sun Tunnels” (1977). As I read out loud, I could hear my voice bouncing off the concrete. The Tunnels not only amplify their surroundings visually, but they do so sonically as well. I wanted to hear the sound of high desert winds whipping through these cylinders. Holt eloquently describes her site in the essay, and when reading it one notices her attentive engagement with the setting:

“My land is in a large, flat valley with very little vegetation—it’s land worn down by Lake Bonneville, an ancient lake that gradually receded over thousands of years. The Great Salt Lake is what remains of the original lake now, but it’s just a puddle by comparison. From my site you can see mountains with lines on them where the old lake bit into the rock as it was going down. The mirages are extraordinary; you can see whole mountains hovering over the earth, reflected upside down in the heat. The feeling of timelessness is overwhelming.”

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Image: Reading “Sun Tunnels,” by Nancy Holt. Photo by Stephanie Schumann

Time is, indeed, a primary element of the earthwork, operating on many levels; Holt discusses this throughout her essay. I thought back to the year it took her to find this site, the several years it took her and others to build the work, and about how the work’s alignment with the constellations marks a universal, cyclical time. And I reflected on the day we spent traveling to the site, the amount of time the Hermit has spent isolated inside a nearby cave, and the shifting light and shadows we witnessed both inside and around the Tunnels—reminders of the earth’s physical movement, its rotational turn and revolution around the sun. As Holt remarks, “’Time’ is not just a mental concept or a mathematical abstraction in the desert…. [It] takes on a physical presence.” But this presence is not just witnessed in the environment; it evolves on a personal level too. As one of three women nestled inside a concrete tunnel, I was also again reminded of scale, and our own minute presence in this expansive desert land. The intimate experience inside the tunnel, reading Holt’s essay in the waning sunlight, was in great contrast to the vastness that enveloped us as we stepped outside. Driving away I fixed my eyes on the Tunnels and watched them dissolve back into the landscape, “into the mirages in the distance,” and I thought to myself there was no better way to experience the desert.

–Apsara DiQuinzio, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture

2 Comments

  1. Bruno Says:

    So evocative of place and work. I grew up in a desert where bullet-ridden road-signs were the norm (not the exception). They have new meaning now thanks to this pairing with the sun-tunnels.

  2. adq Says:

    Randy Kennedy wrote a nice piece in today’s New York Times that addresses many of the issues concerning the preservation of the site/work. For further reference see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/arts/design/18spiral.html?ref=arts

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