Utah is home to the most famous land art in the world. Are earthworks like this still worth investing in?

Land art—like Utah’s ‘Spiral Jetty’—adds more than just artistic value

Utah is home to the most famous land art in the world. Are earthworks like this still worth investing in?

“Land art,” an art movement that began primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, can be found all over the world. Also called “earth art,” “earthwork” or “environmental art,” land artists create works into the landscape by either sculpting the land itself or using natural materials in the area. The desert areas of the United States are especially popular for land art, with Utah homing some of the world’s most notable land art installations.

Nearby, in the high desert of Nevada, a new land art sculpture called “City” has sparked controversy. The project has been on the radar of art enthusiasts since the artist, Michael Heizer, began working on it 50 years ago. Opened to the public in September of 2022, the sculpture has cost around $40 million to develop, including plans for future maintenance. 

Several art foundations helped fund the project, and while it is surrounded by state and federally-owned land, the sculpture itself sits on private property owned by Heizer. The exact location of “City” is not accessible without a $150 reservation. Visitors are picked up in Alamo, Nevada, before being dropped off at the art location to wander for a few hours. 

For those who don’t live in one of the three counties surrounding “City,” which are granted free access, visitation is exclusive, with only six reservations accommodated per day. While earthworks are often created in off-grid locations, the lack of accessibility to such an expensive, large-scale art installation is surprising. The dialogue surrounding “City” poses the question: Were Utah’s land art monuments controversial, too? 

“Utah’s unique landscape has inspired artists for thousands of years, so it is not surprising that two of the world’s most awe-inspiring earthworks—Nancy Holt’s ‘Sun Tunnels’ and Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’—are both located here in Utah,” says Annie Burbidge Ream, co-director of learning and engagement at the Utah Museum of Fine Art (UMFA).

“Spiral Jetty” was built in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake in 1970. The 15-foot wide coil evolves with the environmental changes of the water and is entirely submerged at some points of the year and is exposed and covered in salt crystals at other points. 

In 1999, through the generosity of the artist Nancy Holt, Smithson’s wife, and the estate of Robert Smithson, ‘Spiral Jetty’ was donated to Dia Art Foundation,” says Mindy Wilson, marketing and communications director at UMFA. “The Utah Museum of Fine Arts works in collaboration with Dia Art Foundation, Holt/Smithson Foundation and the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College to preserve, maintain and advocate for this masterpiece of late twentieth-century art and acclaimed Utah landmark. Dia leases the lake bed where ‘Spiral Jetty’ is located from the State of Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.” 

“Spiral Jetty” is free to visit and attracts thousands of visitors annually. Tourism generates significant revenue for Utah’s economy, so in that regard, “Spiral Jetty” is a helpful addition to Utah’s landscape. 

Tourism is not the only benefit of land art, however. 

“‘Spiral Jetty’ and Rozel Point are often used as research sites for scientists studying the Great Salt Lake,” Ream says. “The dramatic changes in the lake’s water levels are clearly witnessed around the artwork. In the 1980s, it was fully submerged, but droughts caused the lake to recede in 2002, and the water has moved farther and farther away from the sculpture ever since. The artwork acts as a lens or a tool to see and measure the extreme changes to the landscape and the critical point the lake finds itself in now.”

In some ways, earthworks have become statement pieces for environmental consciousness. If “Spiral Jetty” visitors can actually see the sculpture, that indicates water levels are low—which isn’t great news for the environment.

The Great Salt Lake has no outlet point, and evaporation is the only way for water to escape. If excessive amounts of water are escaping the lake without being replenished, a drought is indicated. When “Spiral Jetty” was built, the lake was relatively low. This made for easier building and gave insight into how Utah’s drought periods impact the lake. 

In some ways, earthworks have become statement pieces for environmental consciousness. If “Spiral Jetty” visitors can actually see the sculpture, that indicates water levels are low—which isn’t great news for the environment. Visits to the earthwork might bring awareness to drought conditions and spark conversations about protecting the environment. 

When “Spiral Jetty” was built, artists were astonished by the magnitude of the build. Something that large, with that much natural material, wasn’t even imaginable for most people at that time. 

“It took six days, 625 man-hours, 292 truck-hours, $9,000 and 6,500 tons of basalt, limestone and mud to construct the sculpture that April,” reads the Visit Utah website. “It took only a few years after that for stunning aerial photos to show up in art history textbooks, which heralded Smithson’s spiral as an icon of the new land art movement.” 

While the art piece and the artist were well-known in some circles, the way of the world was different at that time. Without social media and cell phones, word didn’t travel as quickly as it does now. Within two years, flooding covered “Spiral Jetty.” The earthwork didn’t become a tourist attraction until the water began receding, and at that point, the cost wasn’t nearly as interesting as the fact that it existed at all. For many reasons, Spiral Jetty was not a point of widespread controversy. 

“Sun Tunnels,” another Utah earthwork that is also free and accessible, consists of four large concrete cylinders arranged on the desert floor of Utah’s Great Basin in a cross pattern. The cylinders perfectly align with the sunrise and sunset on the summer and winter solstices. Smaller holes cut into the tubes represent the Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn constellations.

“To visit ‘Sun Tunnels’ is truly a remarkable experience that stays with you,” Ream says. “The Great Basin often shows off its great forces of nature. From hot sun, bitter cold, fast-rolling lightning storms and wind, the artwork becomes a welcome shelter: a place to stay dry or cool, a place to laugh and play. I have never known an artwork before that became a haven for new experiences in the same way as ‘Sun Tunnels.’”

Holt was quoted in 1977 as saying, “The local people and I differ on one point: If the land isn’t too good for grazing, or if it doesn’t have water, or minerals, or shade, or interesting vegetation, then they think it’s not much good. They think it’s very strange when I camp out at my site, although they say they’re glad I found a use for that land. Many of the local people who came to my summer solstice camp-out had never been out in that valley before. So by putting Sun Tunnels in the middle of the desert, I have not put it in the middle of their regular surroundings. The work paradoxically makes available, or focuses on, a part of the environment that many local people wouldn’t normally have seen.” 

It seems Holt was right about that. Arguably, “Sun Tunnels” did not spark the kind of controversy that “City” has sparked partly because that land wasn’t being used for anything else.

While many can’t see the benefits of “City,” there was actually an environmental benefit for the piece being built where it was. In the process of the build, railroads, nuclear storage and radioactive waste facilities had their eyes on the surrounding land. In an effort to preserve the land, the Garden Valley Withdrawal Act was introduced in 2014. The area was designated as the Basin and Range National Monument. “City” being built on such a large portion of land actually helped to prevent mineral and energy development, which could have been detrimental to the environment and surrounding landscape. Limited accessibility to the earthwork is due to the conservation agreement in place between The Triple Aught Foundation, which owns and administers “City,” and the arts organizations involved with the project. 

It could be argued that economics was never the point of any land art in the first place. These immersive installations give visitors a unique interaction with their environment and the surrounding earth. 

“The experience of earthworks is different from standing in front of a painting or sculpture in a museum or gallery,” Ream says. “‘Sun Tunnels’ and ‘Spiral Jetty’ are meant to be walked in, on and around. You can sit on them, touch them … they exist in the same spaces we do. The journey to travel to these places becomes part of your experience of the artwork, too. That real connection to the world makes these works of art important and memorable.”