Francis Halsall

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty: between text and non-text.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty: between text and non-text.

This paper explores Craig Owens’ description of Robert Smithson’s artwork Spiral Jetty (1970):

Like the nonsite the Jetty is not a discreet work, but one link in a chain of signifiers which summon and refer to one another in a dizzying spiral. For where else does the Jetty exist except in the film which Smithson made, the narrative he published, the photographs which accompany that narrative, and the various maps, diagrams, drawings, etc. , he made about it? Unintelligible at close range, the spiral form of the Jetty is completely intuitable only from a distance, and that distance is most often achieved by imposing a text between viewer and work

Craig Owens, ‘Earthwords’

This paper will discuss 3 main areas:

  1. Robert Smithson’s use of writing as a strategy by which he expanded his sculptural practice beyond a visual field. This can be read, historically, together with the turn in Conceptual Art towards text and the move in post-modern practice away from the purely visual aspects of works of art.

  2. How reading Spiral Jetty as a text prioritises the textual aspects of the work, and thus opens its up to the literary form of post-structural critique which Owens employs.

  3. In conclusion I argue that such post-structural strategies run the danger of reducing everything to textual paradigms. In other words, to read Spiral Jetty as a text is to negate the important differences between the mediums of its varied manifestations (sculpture, film, photograph and narrative) and thus to limit multi-sensory experience by means of the medium of writing.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.