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Spiral Jetta

January 2, 2014

I took home the big book “Art & Place: site specific art of the Americas,” photographs of ancient and modern in-situ works of art, such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake or Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

The next day, I was handed “Spiral Jetta: a road trip through the land art of the American West” by Erin Hogan. It was marvelous synchronicity. In “Art & Place,” I’d just seen all the places visited on this trip.

“Spiral Jetta” is a gem. The title refers to “Spiral Jetty,” the author’s first stop on her journey, and also to her Volkswagen Jetta, which she blithely drives across the Western deserts despite raised eyebrows from the locals.

The author—I’ll presume to call her Erin, for she is delightful company—is a self-acknowledged city girl so cloistered she is surprised even by features of the Chicago outskirts as she leaves. She is frankly terrified of the journey, not because of traveling to strange and rural lands but because she’ll spend most of the time alone.

But she finds her way, despite driving empty lands in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico in an inappropriate vehicle with poor directions, no compass, ill-prepared for any kind of trouble. (The truth is, she’s quite capable, but the city-girl character is wonderful.)

She also takes the reader through the art world of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, for she is trained in art history, and most interestingly through her reactions to the “land art” she encounters.

The artists who made these monumental works were themselves looking for something other, larger, overwhelming, from art. As Rothko wrote: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”

Artists such as Smithson left the canvas behind seeking art in experience and, not to put words in Erin’s mouth, in experiences ultimately inviting words and philosophy to authenticate them, despite the underlying desire to find something so fundamental as to require neither.

The painter Barnett Newman wrote about his visit to ancient burial mounds in Ohio: “Somehow one is looking out as if [from] inside a picture rather than outside contemplating any specific nature.”

Which to me is the kind of experience that joins art and architecture. Which invites the question of how do we live our lives. Are we on the outside looking in? James Joyce was moved to write: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” We often live through ideas of ourselves rather than in our own bodies.

Erin realized at one point she was looking for an experience that hadn’t materialized, but I couldn’t tell if this energized her search or helped her let go of grasping after something.

At one point she said, “If pressed, I had to admit that the natural landscape was doing more for me in this regard [meaning awe and wonder] than the works I was out there to see.”

But she also has an epiphany of sorts, coming to a certain understanding through these works of art. I left the book sad the road trip was over but content to be done with this particular strain of art so desperate for experience it merely merges with life itself.

While reading “Spiral Jetta,” I came upon reference elsewhere to a Borges story about cartography. In it, the cartographers of an imaginary land perfect their art such that they create a map so large it lays over the entire land—a one-to-one correspondence that renders cartography irrelevant.

It would take a whole book to talk about Erin’s book, so I’ll stop. Merry Christmas.

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