Tour Of The Monuments of the Great American Void
The Center conducted an epic two day public bus tour of the Great Salt Lake area in October, 2004, examining this remarkable giant puddle at the bottom of the Great Basin. The tour was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which at the time was displaying a retrospective of the work of the artist Robert Smithson.
The first day of the tour addressed notions of the perceptual void, as the bus traveled over the top of the remote northern reaches of the Great Salt Lake, and visited Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. The second day focused on the underside of the lake shore, and the physical removals and replacements that occur there—the material void.
Day One, 9:00 AM, Salt Palace, Salt Lake City, Utah
The bus met the passengers at the Salt Palace, a convention center across from Temple Square, the cultural center of Utah, ground zero of the global LDS empire, and where all numbered roads in Salt Lake City originate. Once everyone was on board, we headed north up the interstate, while the group listened to an introduction about the Center, the tour, and the Great Salt Lake itself, slowly being lulled into a state of readiness for the transformative events that lay ahead.
As we traveled around the edge of the lake, it became apparent that the lake is often on the edge of perceptibility, is elusive, vague, and mysterious. Almost impossible to look at, at times. The water and sky sometimes merge to create a silvery spaceless perceptual chasm, a sort of hole in our sight. It is into this hole, this perceptual drain, that we were headed. Smithson’s precedent (especially his Tour of the Monuments of Passaic) set the trajectory, from which we launched into an experiential miasmic odyssey.
Like the Spiral Jetty itself, the journey was a counterclockwise spiral inward, around the lake, and into the void. We followed along the path of least resistance, like captives of the great hemispheric coriolis effect, going down the drain of the Great Basin. But this is where the metaphor stops, as there is no Away—this basin does not drain anywhere. There is no connection with the rest of the continental landscape, no sedimentary streams of erosion carrying the powdered mountains out to the sea. What happens in the Basin, stays in the Basin. The drain is plugged, and the backed up flood is the Great Salt Lake.
In the age of the glaciers, pleistocene ancestors of the Great Salt Lake once covered much of the state. Even the high ground where Temple Square is today was once submerged. Then a great rupture occurred in the north, ending Utah’s terrestrial baptism, when the lake broke through its natural dam and spilled across southern Idaho. As this cataclysmic inundation dissipated and the lake shrank, a new age took hold, and grips the land still: now it is evaporation that rules this landscape.
In the Great Salt Lake basin it rains as little as four inches per year, while the evaporation rate rises as high as six feet per year. Snowmelt coming down the slopes of the Wasatch keep the lake in a fluctuating equilibrium. Over the past 40 years, the lake surface elevation has changed within a range of 20 feet, and with its gradual shoreline this resulted in a doubling, and halving, in size.
In 1986, the lake was at the highest it had been in a hundred years. Railways and real estate were being flooded, so the State built a battery of pumps at the edge of the lake to spread the lake out into the western salt flats. 18 years later, in 2004, the lake was nearing its lowest level again. By the time the CLUI tour group got to the Spiral Jetty, the lake level was 16 inches lower than when the Jetty was constructed in 1970.
11:30 AM, Spiral Jetty
The group was met by Bob Phillips, the contractor who built the Jetty for Smithson. Mr. Phillips told us about how his rocky relationship with Smithson became one of mutual appreciation, as the jetty grew, and how the construction period—just nine days—was later extended another five days when Smithson hired Mr. Phillips again to change the form of the tip of the Jetty to what we see today. Two other employees of the Whitaker Construction Company worked on the Jetty, driving the dozer and loader, and backing the dumptruck out further and further on the emerging spiral to dump its load of rock on the mud. Mr. Phillips was experienced at this sort of work, as he had built miles of dikes in the lake for the evaporation ponds of the Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation.
For the next hour or so the group then rambled about the Jetty site, left high and dry by the low lake level, and ate box lunches in the sun. Mr. Phillips and CLUI associate Hikmet Loe were on hand to answer any other questions.
After the bumpy road back to the Golden Spike visitor center, where we got back into the bus (vans were hired for the round trip from the Spike to the Jetty as no tour bus company could be convinced to drive a bus down that road), the group headed back on the highway while watching Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film on the video monitors.
Over the Top
The bus stopped at the sprawling Thiokol rocket plant for a brief briefing by a Thiokol representative, who assured us that a visit inside the site’s dozens of square miles of intriguing architectures of explosives production and storage facilities would not be possible.
Then it was over the top of the lake via Interstate 84, Highway 42, and Highway 30, a total of 120 miles that were remote to the extreme. For many miles the only structure we saw was an Asian American meditation center, surrounded by trailers and goats. This is ranching country, just south of the Idaho line. We passed through two small towns, neither with any services except a highway department yard, Mormon church, a school, and a telephone relay station. We watch the film Sun Tunnels in preparation for the next stop. Then at Grouse Creek Junction we meet with the vans again for the dirt road portion of the trip to Lucin.
6:00 PM, Sun Tunnels
The Sun Tunnels are just south of the town of Lucin, which no longer exists. Lucin is where the gravel rail causeway that cuts across the middle of the Great Salt Lake makes its western landfall. Early efforts to arrange to take the bus across the cutoff on the dirt road that runs next to the tracks were thwarted by the railway company, and eventually abandoned due to the high likelihood of a tire failure. That trip will have to wait.
The Sun Tunnels emerge from the flat plain south of Lucin as a distant grey dot, that slowly grows into a cluster of four 18 foot long concrete tubes as you approach. The tubes are aligned with the solstice and are large enough to walk in. They were constructed by the artist Nancy Holt, who visited the region often with her husband, Robert Smithson. It is tempting to make comparisons between the two famous land art sites of the Great Salt Lake desert: one a feminine, circular, astrological axis mundi, the other a peninsular, quarried rockpile, but it is best to just let them be, to let them become much more than that, on their own.
As the sun sank low, it was time to go. Back on the bus, it was an hour and half to our stop for the night, at Wendover, Nevada. To pass the time on board, the group was subjected to the film Damnation Alley. The film depicts an arduous journey across a United States that has been transformed by a nuclear armageddon into a landscape of violent toxic geography, with radioactive storms, mutant monsters, and other hardships of the post-apocalypse. The filmic journey is being made by a small group inside an elongated four wheel drive vehicle, which, though not exactly like the CLUI tour bus, is not altogether unlike the CLUI tour bus. This film was shown, partly, in the context of Smithson’s appreciation of such monolithic sci-fi. Much of the film was shot in the Great Salt Lake Desert, and its themes were a sort of prelude for the next phase of the tour, to be had on the following day.
Day 2, 9:00 AM, Wendover, Nevada
Wendover calls itself a town “On the Edge.” And it is. It is located where the Basin and Range of Nevada spills into the Salt Flats of Utah. Bisected by the state line, the town also claims to have “Too much fun for just one state.” It is also notable as where the Enola Gay practiced for a few months before heading to Hiroshima.
After a nights rest in the casino resorts that loom over the state line, the group boards the bus and loops through the old airbase at Wendover, stopping at the CLUI Regional Information Center building for a briefing and an orientation. This is the “material void” day of the Monuments of the Great American Void tour. As such, the group will be looking at sites along the south shore of the lake that are related to the removal and placement of material in the region.
Perceived as one of the emptiest places in America, this region draws material into it like a vacuum. Conversely, much of the material that is native to this place is extracted and dispersed across the nation. These notions of concentration and dispersal will follow us throughout the day, starting with a visit to the Bomb’s nursery, the Enola Gay hangar, then to the assembly areas and launch ramps at the edge of the edge at Southbase.
Leaving Southbase, we watched, on the bus monitors, this very landscape get destroyed by John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage in the movie Conair, shot at this location in 1996. We then headed out onto the Interstate 80 (America’s main street), passing Danger Cave, an archeological site that was worked by Dr. Robert Heizer, father of the earthworks artist Michael Heizer, friend/enemy of Robert Smithson. Danger Cave is one of the oldest sites of continuous occupation in the country, though no Indians live there anymore—it is gated to keep vandals out.
11:20AM, Bonneville Speedway
The bus heads out on the Bonneville Speedway access road, a four mile peninsula of asphalt that ends at the salt flat. The end of the road, this day, was marked with a new looking old sign welcoming us to the Bonneville Speedway—a prop temporarily installed by the movie company filming out on the flats, a film, it turns out, about motorcycle racing, with Anthony Hopkins, called the Fastest Indian (accidentally alluding to a very short duration of occupancy).
This road is one of the great American landmarks. It is a road to nowhere—the asphalt abruptly stops at a rounded cul-du-sac type bulb, surrounded on all sides by a sea of white salt. But the end of the road also marks the beginning of the roadless 2-D void, the landscape tabula rasa, the limits of imagination. Like an unwound Spiral Jetty, this road is a point of embarkation to another terrestrial realm.
After debussing and wandering around aimlessly, wallowing in directionlessness, which is what most people do on the flats, we reembarked and headed east again on the Interstate, continuing our counterclockwise spiral around the lake, watching different cinematic interpretations of the flats (despite their featurelessness, they are among the most filmed and photographed places in the USA).
At the midpoint of the longest stretch of interstate without an exit, across from a new cell tower, the third of the great trilogy of site specific artwork around the lake looms: the Tree of Utah. This construction is the work of an Iranian-Swedish artist, Karl Momen, who made it because he felt that the salt flats were just too empty. A mix of Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, and pragmatism, the 87-foot tall tree is a true manifestation of the void.
As further testament to the “emptiness” of this stretch of highway, large yellow highway signs east of the Tree warn “drowsey drivers” to pull over, the land so empty and boring that it induces sleep. Meanwhile, south of this point, a few weeks earlier, the Genesis space ship crashed into Dugway Proving Ground, like a saucer on an alien planet, which this may in fact be.
The bus exits at Clive, and circulates around the recently closed hazardous waste incinerator, seemingly abandoned, its gate thrown open. It is for sale. Then to the radioactive waste burial site called Envirocare, where pieces of the plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee are visible on top of the mound, being broken up by men in white suits for permanent entombment below, along with parts of other radioactive places across America, a veritable museum/midden mound. Then, to the north, we pass the Grassy Mountain hazardous waste site where ashes, dust, and filtercake from toxic industries across the nation are buried with asbestos and PCBs. And to the south the Aptus incinerator at Aragonite, now operated by Clean Harbors, a company from Braintree, Massachusetts, with its origins in the toxic sludge of Boston harbor, now sweeping up hazardous waste sites across the nation.
The tour stoped for a picnic lunch at the Aragonite Rest Area, the only rest area in the state of Utah with a house for its keepers, as it is considered too remote for a commute. The rest area also offers a good view of the hazardous waste incinerator.
The interstate continues east through a fifteen mile wide corridor between two bombing ranges, then descends into the Skull Valley, where the haze of chlorine gas from the magnesium plant—the only magnesium plant in the US—spreads south towards the Goshute Indian Reservation, where the tribal leaders are trying to build a home for spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. We pass the town of Delle, still posted as “for sale” after nearly ten years, but perhaps a bit cheaper since the clerk at the gas station was shot a few months earlier. We exit at an abandoned gas station, used in films, its ruins partially art directed, and catch a glimpse of the stack of the magnesium plant, 12 miles distant, at the end of a deadend road. There 500 people work to extract magnesium from the concentrated brine of the Great Salt Lake.
The group turns in to the Cargill Salt facility, and picks up our local briefer, Ed Wanlass, who describes industrial salt harvesting at the southern edge of the lake. Cargill is one of three major salt operations on the lake, who, along with the magnesium company, maintain around 100,000 acres of salt evaporation and concentration ponds. The bus heads out to some of these ponds, where the bright blue and red water contrast strongly with the flat expanses of pure white salt, planed flat by harvesting machines.
I-80 east again, past the Tooele Army Depots hillside of munitions igloos, then the Kennecott Copper Smelter, with the “tallest stack in the west,” (just 35 feet shorter than the Empire State Building), then south on Highway 11, past miles of Kennecott processing facilities, mixed in with tailings mounds, garbage dumps, and explosives plants, heading towards the Bingham Pit, “The biggest hole on earth.”
3:10 PM, Bingham Pit
The Bingham pit may or may not be “the biggest hole on earth” (a copper mine in Chile may have surpassed it), but it really doesn’t matter. It is 2.5 miles wide and 3/4 mile deep. Looking into it is like looking into space. It is the ultimate man made landscape void.
When the pit first began operation, in 1907, it was the first large scale open pit operation in the US. Moving enough material to process this much low grade ore had never been done. The bold plan that was implemented used a railway with movable tracks to transport the tremendous amounts of rock out of the pit. The train spiraled into the mountain on tracks built on the ledges of the sides. The effect was like a giant screw drill. Funding for the project came from the Guggenheim family, who later built a museum bearing their name in New York City with the profits made from investments in industry across the country, like the Bingham Pit. The museum is a kind of cultural ingot extracted and refined from the raw material of the earth. And the museum, curiously, has a multi-story open space in the middle, surrounded by a long spiral ramp.
While the Guggenheim museum has displayed the work of Robert Smithson after his death, before he died in 1973, Smithson proposed building a four part spiral sculpture at the bottom of the Bingham Pit. The proposal was never seriously considered by the company. But the plan looks remarkably like it might be a drain, a drain for the bottom of the Great Basin.
The group was asked to ponder these notions while gazing over the guardrail into the pit, where the house-sized haul trucks, that long ago replaced the train, look like ants moving grains of sand.
Back on the bus, we had one more stop to complete the Tour of the Monuments of the Great American Void, a sort of swan song. Though we had been circling it, looking at it, talking about it, and even smelling it, most of the group had yet to touch the Great Salt Lake. We stopped at the Saltair III pavilion, a shoreline building constructed as a gateway to the lake, and as a smaller re-creation of a grand Moorish pavilion that once existed nearby. A hundred years ago there were several Victorian pavilions on the southern shore of lake, where people swam and frolicked in the salty water. As times changed, all of them were torn down, burned, or collapsed, including the largest and most grand of them all, the original Saltair II.
The cavernous, echoing, vacant Saltair III has had the feeling of a future ruin since the day it was built (construction was halted for a few years in the late 1980s, as the lake was so high waves were breaking through the partially constructed main hall). Though open to the public, the only life inside is a young woman in a sparse souvenir shop. After giving people a chance to walk the white expanse beyond the pavilion to the lake, and to visit the gift shop, the group headed a couple of miles down the shore to the site of the original Saltair, where some old passenger railcars decay, and the partially submerged jetty that led to the pavilion can be seen stretching out into the emptiness of the lake.
Saltair II was still there in the 1960s, a teetering spooky ruin. At that time it was used as a filming location for the film Carnival of Souls, a film that seems to have been written for the picturesque relic. We watched a clip from the movie, where the protagonist, a young organist at a church, gazes out at the fenced ruin, which seems to be drawing her towards it. Her companion, a minister, asks her, “What attraction could there be for you, out there?” She replies, “I’m not sure. I’m a reasonable person, I don’t know...Maybe I want to satisfy myself that the place is nothing more than it appears to be.” “Shall we go along now?” the minister says, disapprovingly, as he guides her back to the car. They leave, but she says, wistfully to herself, “Maybe I can come back some other time.” The bus then headed back to the Salt Palace, the end of the tour. ♦