This summer, due to the generosity of the Chase Coggins Scholarship, I was able to visit and conduct research at some of the most remote and inaccessible works of art within the history of American art. My project centered around three works: Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, and Double Negative by Michael Heizer. These works, each incredibly significant to the 1960s art movement, Land Art, are located in remote areas of the deserts of Utah and Nevada. Although I have studied images of these works for many years, the experience of seeing the artworks in person was unlike anything I expected. These large-scale sculptures are only accessible after many hours of driving, often over dirt roads, in a vehicle equipped with four-wheel drive. The Chase Coggins Scholarship made my hope to see these sites possible.
This past August, I drove through the deserts of Utah and Nevada over the course of a week. I traveled along hundreds of miles of road stretching between gas stations and small towns, each made up of only a handful of homes. Beginning in Salt Lake City, I drove along the Great Salt Lake, following single-lane highways and then dirt roads, to the site of the Spiral Jetty. There, I walked along the artwork and around the surrounding salt flats for hours. I camped at the site that night and woke before the sunset to climb the nearby hill overlooking the jetty. I also visited the Golden Spike National Historic Monument, located only 16 miles away from the Spiral Jetty, which marks the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
Following this, I traveled over many miles to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels and the Bonneville Salt Flats, and camped in a Nevada state forest. I visited Great Basin National Park and toured a large cave system. Each of these sites, which represent various interactions and relationships between humans and nature, are interesting comparisons to works of Land Art.
From here I traveled to Double Negative, an artwork located on the edge of a large mesa in southeastern Nevada. Upon seeing the work in person, I was struck by the dissonance between what I expected of it through my reading and the embodied experience of standing on the edge of the artwork. Following this, I wrote my senior thesis this fall on situating Double Negative within the environmental and cultural history of the region.
I also visited Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, located 80 miles southwest of Double Negative. At the local Hoover Dam museum, I learned about the history of its creation and its role in the development of the southwestern United States. During my trip, I became increasingly interested in the relationship between works of Land Art and the industrialization and modernization of western America through large-scale infrastructure.
Through the course of this trip, I reflected on works of Land Art in relation to the long histories of the consumption and conservation of natural resources throughout the American West. I also considered my travels in relation to histories of westward travel, beginning with the transcontinental railroad and today continued through the quintessential American road trip. Along the trip, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, similarly set in the desert of the southwest. Because these artworks are largely about the land and environment that surround them, the opportunity to experience the desert landscape they occupy was hugely influential to my understanding of them. Ultimately, I found that even experiencing the extreme heat of the desert in August or getting lost on an unmarked dirt road influenced the ways in which I considered the pieces.
The opportunity to research and experience these artworks and their environments radically influenced my understanding of the works of art, as well as their environments and regional histories. This trip informed my consideration of the role of Land Art works within larger social, political, and economic contexts. It has also provided me with a great amount of insight and clarity as I think about the kind of work I hope to do in the future relating art and the environment. These travels would not have been possible without the generosity of the Chase Coggins Scholarship, for which I am exceedingly grateful.