"Terrains of Knowledge" Class Visits Smithson's Spiral Jetty

“Terrains of Knowledge,” taught by Professor Rachael DeLue, focused on the history of landscape in the United States. The term “landscape,” as opposed to “land” or “nature,” suggests the translation of actual space into a visual image or an idea, and any such translation is always a matter of producing and communicating knowledge. The class considered various case studies of this phenomenon, beginning with the earliest images of the New World made by European explorers in the 16th century, analyzing each example as a “terrain”—simultaneously a physical place or space and a domain of knowledge produced through visual and material reconfiguration. Watercolor sketches of Great Britain’s Virginia Territory by the artist-explorer John White, for instance, documented the flora and fauna of the region but also presented a particular vision of the New World and its inhabitants that argued in favor of imperialist undertakings. Likewise, 19th-century paintings depicting the landscape of Central America weighed in on period controversies about evolution and the origin of the universe, while aerial photographs of the sprawl of 1960s Los Angeles meditated on the fate of the mythic West in postwar America.

The highlight of the seminar was a trip to the Great Salt Lake in Utah to see the Spiral Jetty, the iconic earthwork created in 1970 by Robert Smithson, a pioneer of the Land Art movement in the 1960s. The trip was generously funded by the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project, the Council of the Humanities, and the Department of Art and Archaeology. A discussion of art of the 1960s that included a visit to the Works on Paper Study Room at the Princeton University Art Museum helped prepare students for the trip, as did close readings of Smithson’s own art-critical writing. On the way to the Spiral Jetty, the class stopped at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which commemorates the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Smithson had this event in mind while creating the Spiral Jetty, which he envisioned as a form of counter-history: an entity as much subject to the forces of nature and the geological time scale as it was to the artist’s hand.

Being on site drove home how essential it is to experience a work of art like this one in its intended setting. Through a first-hand encounter with Smithson’s creation—a 1,500-foot spiral of rock, earth, and salt that winds through the red-tinted water of the lake—the students fully grasped how integral the Great Salt Lake landscape and ecosystem are to the piece and how the Spiral Jetty in turn transforms the landscape around it into its own work of art.

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