The “Spiral Jetty” is a photograph of time. It is also a film and a film-still. The customary experience of this work by Robert Smithson is through the documentation that verifies that the “Spiral Jetty” exists somewhere on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Located in a site that is moderately inaccessible and off the beaten path of the gallery going establishment, the “Spiral Jetty” continues to elude the monumental status that it might otherwise acquire. The dialectical construct of Site (the location of the work) and the Non-site (the gallery or cinema where the documentation of this work is often located) is retained. Although the “Spiral Jetty” continues to be a satellite of the art system,9 art tourism has the potential to interrupt and redefine this situation. Currently under ownership by the DIA Foundation, it seems probable that the Spiral Jetty site, in order to survive the reliquary seekers, may inevitably acquire defense mechanisms comparable to the prehistoric caves of Lascaux (officially closed to public visits in 1963).
The film that Smithson produced about the making of the “Spiral Jetty” relocates this site into the temporalities of photography, film, history, myth and geological time. The use of film-stills and freeze frame techniques within the film instigates the “Spiral Jetty” with the obtuse meaning that Barthes had already realized in the film-stills of Eisenstein.
The “Spiral Jetty” implies the temporal frame of deep time. Eventually, it will become a smudge in the strata of the earth’s crust, buried by the duration of geological processes. The “Spiral Jetty” is encoded in the entropy of time’s arrow and the Second Law of Thermodynamics that predicts the eventual heat death of the universe. The film that Smithson made about the “Spiral Jetty” also contrasts the event with historical time and myth. In this respect, cyclical time is engendered into a reading of the work as well. The spiral is an archetypical form. The “Spiral Jetty” brings the allegorical cycle of the seasons into a constellation with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return, a moment in time where the eternity of the past and the future create a redemptive analogy for the disillusionment of human experience.
The other Jetty where visible time, the film-still and cinema find an intertextual relationship is Chris Marker’s film “La Jetée”. The film does not rely on the illusion of movement associated with classical cinema. Rather, still photographs are used to create the diegesis of the film through sequence, montage, interval and narration. Released in 1964, “La Jetée” is celebrated as a paradigm of the Cold War science fiction genre. Set in Paris at the end of World War 3, the major cities of the world have been destroyed and human existence is threatened by the nuclear devastation. In an attempt to escape the contamination of Space, callous and painful experimentation is conducted on human subjects in an attempt to find an escape through Time. The purpose of the experiments was “… to send emissaries into Time, to summon the Past and Future to the aid of the Present.”10 The film tells the story of a man chosen for the experiments because of his vivid childhood memory from the jetty at the Orly Airport in Paris. He was obsessed with the remembrance of a woman’s face and that he had witnessed the death of a man at the same moment in time.
At the end of the film, when the experiments into the Past and the Future have been completed, the man asks to be returned to his past, to the moment on the jetty at Orly where his childhood memory resides. When he arrives at the jetty the man is seen running toward the woman from his memory. As he approaches her he sees one of the men from the camp where the experiments had been conducted. “And when he recognizes the man who had trailed him since the underground camp, he understood there was no way to escape Time, and that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death”.11
The insightful use of still photographs to produce a film on time-travel, memory and trauma confounds our perception of temporality. This paradox is emphasized through the fragmentation of Time and Space that occurs by replacing the moving image of film with the film-still. “La Jetée” is a cinematic model of the future perfect, where the past is already present in the future.