Utah Land Art, Vandalism, and Natural Environment – The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Native lands

I would be remiss if I did not start by acknowledging the fact that these works of art, and all of Utah, are on stolen native land. Utah, which takes its name from the Ute tribe, was the crossroads of many native tribes and is the ancestral home of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute tribes.

It is important to frame these conversations about land art through this lens in order to fully understand the impact of these works, as these land art installations are statements and scars of colonialism on this land.

Scattered across the state, many important spiritual sites are too often vandalized and disfigured. Pictographs and petroglyphs are among the oldest examples of vandalized land art in Utah. At the end of April 2021, the “Birthing Rock” petroglyph near Moab was disfigured by vandals. The more than 1,000-year-old artwork featured images of an “ejaculating penis” as well as a bold letter “white power … and [other] scribbled sexual vulgarities, ”according to Smithsonian Magazine.

This degradation of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples not only underscores Utah’s racist underbelly, but also the devaluation of land art and the environment in general. Due to the remoteness and lack of protection, many of these sites have allowed this behavior to go unchecked.

Spiral pier

Undoubtedly the most famous work of land art in the world, that of Robert Smithson “Spiral bridge” is at the heart of many other environmental controversies. Smithson was first drawn to the Rozel Point site because of its unique, alien environment. The north arm of Grand Lac Salé turns bright and vibrant pink at certain times of the year. This pink color, as well as the networks of cracks and crystal formations, are due to the high salt content of the lake. It has become a central element of this work of art.

Since its creation, “Spiral Jetty” has had a strong impact on its environment. The pier was actually built twice. The one we see today, the second iteration, is much larger than Smithson’s original design, measuring 1,500 feet long and made up of 6,000 tons of basalt rock, sand, and earth. The “Spiral Jetty” was completed in April 1970. Although the construction of the jetty only took about seven days, the heavy machinery used left lasting traces on the environment. You can see an area completely cleared of native sagebrush just above the parking lot. The impact of the construction of the pier can still be seen in the landscape.

In 51 years of existence, “Spiral Jetty” has seen its share of visitors. But lately, visits have increased dramatically. 2020 saw the daily number of cars driving to the remote site jump astronomically. One day in March, according to an underground sensor, more than 700 cars drove to the pier. This increase in attendance at the facility was unfortunately accompanied by an increase in the environmental degradation of the site.

Visitors and vandals

In my own trips to the pier over the past few years, I have noticed an increase in campfires, initials etched in the sand, and other man-made degradation of the site. The mantra “leave no trace” does not seem to apply to the pier.

On my last trip to the site, I saw several campfires roaring over the artwork as well as the addition of two new concrete slabs in the center of the pier. Don’t take my word for it, though. According to Sean J. Patrick Carney, writer for Arts Forum, a couple recently drove their Jeep Wrangler down the pier for a photo op.

When artists are inspired by and choose to place their work in and around natural landscapes, they must understand how their work changes it – not just in the moment, but in leaving it in the hands of the beholder. Whether it’s any outside material brought in for creation, or anything visitors bring with them that they don’t take away, we lack a collective conscience on how to respect and preserve sites. like these.


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