By Craig DworkinDecember 24, 2020

“SIZE DETERMINES AN OBJECT,” wrote Robert Smithson, “but scale determines art.” Accordingly, questions of scale have been an important lens for considering his own artworks, especially Spiral Jetty (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year). The form of the earthwork, a curling arrangement of rocks and earth on the lakebed of Great Salt Lake, Utah, takes its cue from the many spiral forms in nature, as well as evoking any number of artificial helices. The following is excerpted from Helicography (Punctum Books, 2021), a book that pataphysically scales those other spirals — from fern fronds and galaxies to phonograph records and watch springs — to the size of the Jetty. The final text will itself be at a scale of one word per half-inch.


A rough granular crumble adds a facture to the calcified hoodoos raised in stocks and stones above the flats and fractures the light through miniature forests of prismatic foliage, arithmetically accumulating, to execute with its kaleidoscope of bone-snapping powers a fraction beyond the reach of any language, an excecation pixelating carcasses and carapaces coated in skeletal abstractions of crystal-covered elemental forms; arthritically articulated and mortised in place, the grotesqueries — like specimens in a medical museum of lapidary pathology — all posed in torsion, frozen in a ballet of rigor mortis above the crust, stage a morbid scene of azoic topiary gloating with the equivalent of cranial grins, as so many gods of wood and stone, abandoned by the estuary drain.

The encrustation of all abandoned objects on the pocked and dented plain scries the post-anthropocenic with a bleak portending of its torpent epoch.

Thin residues of nucleates condense on any surface left exposed. Laminal strata of sodium chloride columnate, supporting the entablement of the etiolated sky. The sun abacinates all daring gazers. Come dusk, cautious scavengers in serfdom to the shore will scurry in the gloom, carrying away stipites and pabulum, restocking their stores. Two isolated pyramidal pillars, of naked freestone rock, the resort of sea birds and the breeding place of encroaching eagles, rear their vast fantastic summits to a considerable height, substituting air, merging with the sky, disarranging the perspective at that formidable altitude with the retort of their holohedral forms, and strike the eye of a stranger, in approaching them, as the sunken piled spires of some old submerged cathedral. Their attitude accessorizes the hillside down which boulders, over eons, cumulate.

The styles forecast the passing hours.

Twenty thousand years ago, an ice age chronicled the quartzite in grooved striations, its frozen cryospheric script inscribing lines as if composing some epic literary work planned and commenced with pensive, coplanar, petroglyphic iterations. With the power and solace of lithic patience, the glacier pulled up boulders, stripping the fields with an austere scour and polish, breaking and loosening the surface of the ground, redepositing rocks as the ice sheet made its gradual retreat across the pedosphere in a slow-motion catastrophe of forced migration: fallen, transported erratics in a scatter-plot pattern of random distribution discernible only from a fully graticulated atlas, with an inframince intermundium, coextensive with the unscaled territory it claims to map, projected at a one-to-one ratio.

The same process, in miniature acceleration, took place across the baked edge of the dry lakebed by the now extirpated species of Oreohelix strigosa once endemic to the region, in simple streaks of slow erosion as the snail’s ambulatory passage wimbles the pebbles, detaches the topsoil, and rakes the sand with its forward thrust, fanning the jumble of various grains — like tailings of waste rock mined from a quarry — into a lapidescent wake. The lithic tillage araches. The silt forsakes its crust. Tracks are taken for symbols.

To move from the Jetty to the receding waters of Great Salt Lake today would take the patient creature 13-and-three-quarters hours (the glacier would have required a full decade to outpace the race of the water’s decline). The speed of snails remains independent of their dimensions, and so even if the precipitation of calcium carbonate forming its shell accreted to the size of the Jetty it would neither hasten nor prolong the journey’s span. But enlarged to equal the measure of that mineral ossature, it would be culpable of other distortions. The ocular bulbs at the top of its twin pronged eye-stalks, for instance, in causal interaction with the pantomime of light and shadow in play across the lakebed, would be 96 times the size of the pyroclastics ejected by volcanoes above the slopes of the promontory hills: cooled into alkalic basalt boulders, skidloaded, and dumped by Phillips into the salt and sand suspension of the lake’s shallows where the crude seeps, unseen, oozing to the surface from Pliocene deposits beneath Rozel Point.

The shadow of a gull wing briefly shades the scene; tentacles flinch in phototaxis.

The snail creeps with an incremental, pendular cruising: extruding and clenching; surging and quailing; exposing to risk and quickly recoiling, proffering a body that’s just as soon rescinded; heeling, thus, with a determined lean into the wind, it approaches the shore in even measures. The single foot, mucus-lathered, slides over a discordant intrusion of igneous rock with roughly oval cross-sections and steep sides, somewhat smaller than a batholith, each pebble paving the pelopate path. The creature propels itself with the bobbing nod and lazy indefatigable rhythm of the counter-weighted head of an oil-well pump. It passes over clover pastures, ungrazed and choked with helianthus. In stately stride, without haste, in his sumptuous ruffe, dermis writhed with corrugations and then taut with stent extension at his greatest height, he shall be stocked in full many a straight, though few get to witness the entire relentless commute, or sit through the incessant rehearsals of graded inertia, or fathom the tempus fugit refusal posed by the foot’s ungartered, guarded pace — in limpid hose at once both lubricative and adherescent — of its spatial traversal.

Rocking in sync with the wash of distant waters the gastropod undulates in tropotactic locomotion. It rows through the sand like an oarsman in a skiff.

Thin wisps of fricative wind thrust with rapier gusts, as if to say: “And if a horned diuell should burst forth, I would passe on him with a mortall stocke.”

The shank of a hawke tenses, anticipating launch.

Lymph absorbs the lipids of the chyle.

The snail’s ommatophores swing like inverted pendula, impelled by the weights of their ocular orbs, grandfatherclocking. Each counters the arc of the other’s pivot with a cautious, mirroring parry. Their crossed épées sway with the graciosa feints and clever barba cuts of open-and-shut dramas endlessly replayed.

Remontoires register regular intervals.

Gulls rehearse their commonplace phrases.

Two cranes, with their long shankes staulking full untowardly, mimic the pivot and sway.

Spotless and sombre egrets saunter with similar step.

Curious waders move forward, pecking away at artesian secretions from receding breakers with artisanal, scimitar beaks.

Interested, at first, and then taking an interest, investigating, before giving full credence to some new stimulus, invaginable ocular peduncles retract with a reflex reaction.

A thick liquor of red-wine brine stains the runs of the inlet’s eddies. Dispersed seeds leave an emulsion of cellulose substrates exposed in the kallitypic sun.

Emulating their leader, the entire portion of a pelican fleet, floating, gauring, gazing, jesting, laughing, mocking, pointing, sporting, talking, torturing, align along rails toward the vanishing point of their elegant, migratory formation.

Stems inserted in graft upon trunks attach at an angle like quill feathers cut to a nib for writing with ink. The sap seal weeps and draws from the lesion.

A bit of straw, a “mote,” in sunlight winks as it floats in the draught.

Laid up, provisioned, the pier piles rise straight as the stale of a ladder, the petiole of a leaf, the pedicel of a flower, fruit, or inflorescence, the stip of an ovary, or the like.

Flocks pratter and rap as the grasshoppers happer the dried pattern of tiles cast in cracks when exposed evaporites, exsiccating, contract.

Vertiginous, Stansbury, parched from heat and deep dehydration, sees the shore fissures, apophenic, morph into a nightmarish series: a roller for a map, a perch for a bird, the hasp of an alms box, trough, or wherever the cloth is placed to be beaten by the faller, or mallet, or brace, as with the beater in a scutching mill, or a swarm of bees, or a wool-card’s woolen head, or the handle of a fowling piece or capital distinct from revenue, principal from interest, the stipulated from the foil, endowment and dowry and the wealth of nations in the whole of every whit entirely.

Above the bedraggled, talcomicacious crust, all distance disappearing in the waning light, the metasomal mechanical motion slows like the cementing flow of volcanic tuff across the pedregal field: the entropic fate of all matter in its suspended cosmic flight.

The basic mollusk, in translation (a perfect calque of metaphora) across the great basin, toward the fine limn of its chalked meander finish line, slowly approaching the brim of the shore’s scored curve with a calculus of closing approximation, continues to pick up pebbles with its viscous tread and redistribute them, with gradual absumption, across a surface recalcitrant, calcinated, callous, indurated, weathered through long exposure, and frosted in a sodium snow.

Beneath the breme, keening winds the tack of its track sheens the matte of the plat with a subtle sateen.

The cautious and vulnerable result of Stylommatophora shelled, coiled, torted and pulmonate, in a long race of vertuous Ancestors, descending from mollusca antient and venerable, over millennia, to this single pedigreed specimen, cousin to the common Helix pomatia, in slow roam endures beneath threatening sun and the even more ominous shadows of circling birds in avian scavenge.

At long last attaining the shingle’s strand, where the edge wave, at home in its narrow margin relicks the shoal in sinusoidal laps, the snail falters — petrified, dangerously sunned, stunned stiff and benumbed and stunted in abrupt halt stoken, standing, withering with the sequent lysis, contracting in the osmotic shrivel equivalent of a sudden desiccation, its final sensation, the last thing it feels: the pervasive sting of the tender, cauled membrane from the saturated salt of the brack, piquant waters of the vast desert lake.

Lashed in the sand, as if an anchor hauled to by a tackle and tightened, locked fast in the pan, the calcium-carbonate epiphragm seals with the adhesive operculum unique to the clade.


Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of The Pine-Woods Notebook (Kenning Editions, 2019); he teaches literary history and theory at the University of Utah and serves as founding editor of Eclipse.


Banner image: "Photograph of Robert Smithson's earthwork, Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point, Utah on the shore of the Great Salt Lake" by Netherzone is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

LARB Contributor

Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of The Pine-Woods Notebook (Kenning Editions, 2019); he teaches literary history and theory at the University of Utah and serves as founding editor of Eclipse.


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