The view from the north shore of Great Salt Lake
Recently I spent two days working a story about Utah’s west desert. It was a great trip where travel writer Tom Wharton and myself traveled over 500 miles on dirt roads from Tooele, Utah, west across the Pony Express trail skirting the southern end of the Dugway Proving grounds to West Wendover, Nevada, then driving north along the western shore of the Great Salt Lake and cutting across the barren north shore of lake via the old Trans-continental railway back to Wasatch Front. I produced a multimedia project on the trip that can be found HERE.
Clouds reflected in the Spiral Jetty
The Spiral Jetty
But once out there and exploring I came to question the value of some of the “art” that has been installed in the desert.
The Tree of Utah along Interstate 80 is a mammoth nearly 90-foot-tall installation created by Swedish artist Karl Momen in the 1980′s. It is said that Momen was inspired to create the piece in the west desert by “Vastness and relative emptiness” of the surrounding environment.
Then there are the Sun Tunnels near the ghost town of Lucin, Utah, created by Massachusetts artist Nancy Holt. The tunnels consist of four concrete pipes that are 18-feet-long and nine-feet in diameter arranged in a 86-foot wide X. The tunnels and the holes cut in their sides mark the sun’s solstices, equinoxes and interact with the stars in the night sky.
And there’s the Spiral Jetty near Rozel Point on north shore of the Great Salt Lake. Created in 1970 it is considered to be the anchor piece of New York artist Robert Smithson. The basalt rock 1,500 foot long spiral jetty is 15 feet wide and juts out into the lake to create what many call “the circle of life.”
Each of the installations are located in regions of the desert that are overshadowed by stark vast openness.
But this is where I take issue. I am not an artist, nor do I pretend to ever be one, I am a photojournalist. And maybe it’s that perspective that causes me to take issue with what I call environmental vandalism.
Yes, they were motivated in creating an interaction with the environment that most people may not consider in these quiet places. And their mere creation has drawn more, like myself, to venture into the environment that would otherwise be overlooked. Sure these things are fine and good on their own, but what troubles me is that in all of these pieces the artist was inspired/compelled by the sheer vastness and emptiness of the land to place their stamp and their finger print right in the middle of beautiful emptiness.
The Sun Tunnels
Maybe it is just a question of perspective. When working in Beloit, Wisconsin, which is effectively just a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, I had an editor that didn’t like open spaces. He was raised in Illinois, but worked for several years Arizona. He told me several times he didn’t like the west because in his experience he could drive for 60 miles before reaching the next town and civilization. And to me, this is precisely why I left the Midwest. I revel in the vast openness of nature and the reality I am of little significance in an untouched land.
Traveling through these desolate regions is a treat in itself. In the two days on these dirt road we came in contact with no more than a dozen people. That by itself is a reward for venturing out into these stark lands.
The area is full of wildlife and natural formations like beautiful seldom seen snow-capped mountain ranges and free flowing springs that bring life to land that many fear would rather take their life.
To me, in each of the these case, where the artis
t felt inspired to place their vision on the land, I feel they spray painted a big pink X in the focal point of nature’s beauty.
Yes, I am environmentalist but I don’t hug every tree that drops a leaf. However to me these pieces of art seem extremely out of place where the lack of man’s touch should be cherished.
Recently, a Canadian company has applied to drill for natural resources on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake within view of the Spiral Jetty. Many have come out in opposition of the drilling. I am opposed to the drilling and the potential destruction of the natural landscape. However, others have hit the ground in the drilling’s opposition sighting that drilling rigs would disrupt the view of Spiral Jetty and it’s interaction with the beautiful lake shore.
I take issue with this argument. Yes, I agree in trying to halt the drilling efforts. But the Spiral Jetty is already a blight on the land and is environmental vandalism. It doesn’t belong and is no better than a drilling rig. What happened to protecting our wide open beautiful spaces because they are just that, wide open and beautiful and have resisted the touch and vandalism of man?