Action, Perception, Meaning: Spiral Jetty

I read the first section of Robert Irwin’s Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art, and my brain is mush and I wrote “what” in the margin half a dozen times but here we go anyway because this is graduate school and I have to be analytical.
So, if you’re just one of my casual readers who is here for the art, sorry, this is a school thing, but you are more than welcome to read! If you’re Professor Jay Wolke, good morning, sorry about this train wreck you’re about to read.

Definition of Action: the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.

Definition of Perception: the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.

Definition of Meaning: what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action

Irwin discusses change, subsidiary awareness, and focal awareness, which can be translated into easier vocab: Action, Perception, and Meaning. I started this blog post off with the definitions of those words, to try and start somewhere, because man this reading is dense. But, onto the good stuff– the art!

An artist whose work I think may fit into Irwin’s ideas of change, subsidiary awareness, and focal awareness is Robert Smithson, specifically his piece, Spiral Jetty.

Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" as seen from Rozel Point

I’m going to break it down with the three magic words.

Change/Action: Smithson changed the landscape of the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah to create the piece, Spiral Jetty. However, Irwin makes it clear in his writing that the end result isn’t necessarily the “change” or the “action.” I think, in the case of Spiral Jetty, that the action is either the building of the Jetty (when it was being made,) and also the experience of a viewer visiting the site and walking along it. In the case of building the Jetty, the aim was to create a land art piece. This is still an action. In the case of a viewer, the action would be wanting to walk out to the center of the spiral– which is an action. And, as the start of this blog states, and action is something that typically achieves an aim.

Subsidiary Awareness/Perception: Through change, there is subsidiary awareness, or in easier terms, perception. An action takes place and it is perceived. Perception is a result, a side-effect, of a change. Perception is awareness caused through the senses (thanks, dictionary,) and Spiral Jetty is a piece that uses more than just the sense of sight in its experience. Spiral Jetty is a piece that exists temporally, and because it is land art and not a painting or a print in a museum, it is experienced differently. The Jetty changes over time, you can walk out on it at low tide, can barely see its shape at high tide. You can bend down and touch the stones, smell the salt, feel the wind on your face and hear the lapping of waves. The senses are engaged, and it is through these senses the experience happens.

Focal Awareness/Meaning: So, we had our action which resulted in perception which results in meaning. “Subsidiaries exist, as such, by bearing on the focus to which we are attending from them, and are integrated one to the other by the act of a person…” So meaning is the result of perceiving. And, in the definition of meaning, is the word action. Meaning is what is meant by an action. In the case of the Spiral Jetty, as an earthwork, it is supposed to challenge the ordinary notions of modern art. It takes art out of the museum and into “nature,” and uses the landscape in its creation. Land art is almost always massive in scale and must be experienced in person to fully appreciate it– perception!

So, yeah. Not sure I did this right but. Y’know. Trying isn’t so bad.

5 thoughts on “Action, Perception, Meaning: Spiral Jetty

  1. There are artists that focus on the process of the work. The end result is bonus. Whenever landart is discussed I can’t help but wonder: why? Why make an intervention into the landscape and not leave the process at the drawing or conceptual stage? How does an artwork like Spiral Jetty change my own perception? Or how did it change/influence the thinking process of the artist. Okay, so it’s big, it’s even fantastic, yes, it can be done and be called art. So I can walk the spiral. I could’ve walked the edge of the water also and been influenced. The artist Christo’s interventions I enjoy better: he wraps up whole buildings and bridges in cloth. I also would like to hide the ugliness of these constructions. I’m obviously coming from a very personal point of view, I’d like people to leave nature alone! 🙂

    • I agree, I find earthworks and land art that take away from the environment to be problematic in some ways. I suppose part of the art though is to take it out of a gallery setting, and when we do that and mess with the landscape, we ask “why bother with this when nature in of itself is art?” I think that is one of the many questions raised by Smithson’s and Long’s pieces. And art is all about raising questions– even questions we don’t agree with.

      Jessica Sladek, one of my classmates, was thinking about these issues when working on her pieces last year. Some of the work is up on her website, if you’re interested!

  2. I also think, the result being unimportant is because the result will keep on changing. The entire thing might get submerged at some point. Nature will take its own back, over a period of time. I still remain with the question, why do it in the first place? Why not photograph the changing shoreline over a period of time? I will admit to not reading Long’s artist statement and maybe I should.

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