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.
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 virtual pilgrimage to view directly.
The removal of art from the gallery into the open land was also a means of rejection of the gallery and museum system by the Earthworks artists. 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.
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 which is absent in many forms of modern 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. » Read more: The Art of Earthworks – Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty