from the New York Times


Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah

Spiral Jetty 

ROZEL POINT, Utah — Will McMillin and Liz Wing walked more than three miles of rutted, muddy road on a recent afternoon carrying a bicycle wheel, a wooden stool and a golf club.

Following directions they had gleaned from art Web sites and small road signs, they arrived here at a remote spot on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

“We felt like we had to go, and that this was the time to do it,” Mr. McMillin said.

Their goal (more later on what they did with their props; think about the Dadaist/Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp) was “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500-foot curved construction of rock and earth by the artist Robert Smithson that juts into the lake.

A fierce debate, with equal parts art, environmentalism and economics, has erupted over a plan by the state to allow oil drilling about five miles across the lake…. The face-off reflects a profound shift in attitudes about the Western landscape since Mr. Smithson, an earthwork artist, came here with an artistic vision and a dump truck in 1970. Then, these desolate, salt-soaked shores were loved or visited by almost nobody. 

Aerial Spiral Jetty  

Now the soaring price of oil, a new environmental appreciation of the lake’s ecological niche and a tourist boom in bird-watching on the vast wetland fringe have coalesced into a fabric that Mr. Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, never knew.

“Like everywhere in the West, the lake is being discovered and people want to protect it and people want to use it,” said John Harja, director of the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

What Mr. Smithson might have thought about the drilling plan is among the issues in dispute. State officials and some art historians, pointing to Mr. Smithson’s own writing about the “Spiral Jetty,” and the film he made about its construction, said he reveled in the juxtaposition of industrialism and beauty, decay and rebirth, rot and permanence.

Robert Smithson with model of Spiral Jetty 

“The sense of ruined and abandoned hopes interested him,” said Lynne Cooke, the curator at Dia. “He didn’t look for beautiful places, but rather despoiled landscapes where industry and the wild overlap.”

State officials say that Rozel Point has always offered a fine tableau of the despoiled and the natural. A natural seep of oil sludge is right down the beach from the “Jetty,” harvested since pioneer days. And oil drilling was also under way, they say, in view of the “Jetty” in 1970, though it proved economically unviable. The new drill rigs, they say, are much farther away than the ones Mr. Smithson knew, and that can be glimpsed briefly in his movie.

“One of the things we’re having a hard time figuring is what the impacts will be,” said Dick Buehler, the director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

 [ click to view full article at New York Times ]