A quartet of exhibits at the UMFA explore the landscape around us through contemporary and traditional art.

Image above: Jean Arnold, Kennecott: Big Pit, 2012. Oil on canvas. ©Jean Arnold. Courtesy of the artist.

British artist Tacita Dean was challenged by late author J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun) to solve a mystery: What is the meaning of Robert Smithson’s land sculpture Spiral Jetty?

Ballard and Smithson were fascinated with each other’s work. The literary cult figure’s New Wave science fiction story Voices of Time was found in Smithson’s library after the artist died in a plane crash in 1973. The themes of the short story and Spiral Jetty are uncannily similar.

“Ballard believed the Jetty was a clock and Smithson was bringing time to Utah—which I think is a wonderful idea,” Dean told a British interviewer last year. In her JG film installation at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Dean ponders Smithson’s iconic 1,500-foot spiral of black basalt on the remote northwest shore of the Great Salt Lake. Like the Jetty, Dean’s film in itself plays with time and spirals. Captured on 35 mm film, her story unspools and re-loops through a pre-digital-age projector. (JG required the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to build a sound-proof projection room.)

JG is one of a quartet of UMFA exhibits exploring the interaction between Utah’s forbidding landscape and humans.

“The lake is an aesthetic object as well as an experiential one,” says Matt Coolidge, of the L.A.-based Center for Land Use Interpretation. Coolidge directed the UMFA-commissioned Great Salt Lake Landscan. The landscan is a gyro-stabilized high-definition video portrait shot from a speeding helicopter. “The lake looks and feels like a place that precedes human existence and probably will follow it,” Coolidge says. “It’s remote, it’s hard to get to. You have this huge body of water that is off the radar.” 

Unlike most contemporary art, Landscan doesn’t interpret. It simply unblinkingly captures the stark landscape and its human exploitation.

Coolidge explains CLUI’s intent: “We would like people to be compelled to think about the lake—be inspired or amazed. Maybe just confused.”

Another work in the series, The Savage Poem Around Me is more conventional. As a teenager in 1866, Alfred Lambourne trekked the Mormon Trail to become an artist, studying with Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. In 1887, Lambourne became Utah’s answer to Henry David Thoreau when he spent a solitary year on Gunnison Island. “Ghostly, wrapped in its shroud of snow, my island stands white above the blackness of unfreezing water,” Lambourne wrote. “What have I done? … I realized at once, and with a strange sinking of the heart…the savage poem around me.”

The most timely exhibit in the series is Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine. Artists have sought meaning in our immense hole in the Oquirrh Mountains. The exhibit offers paintings, drawings, and prints of the copper mine from 1873 to photographs of the massive landslide last year. 

“It’s a crazy, uniquely Utah story,” says Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA director, of the exhibits. She and Contemporary Art Curator Whitney Tassie share the fascination with the lake. The UMFA watches over Spiral Jetty in an agreement with owner New York-based Dia Foundation.

“I like the idea of having our visitors rethink the place they live,” Dietrich says. “They’ll see the traditional art of Lambourne, then stumble onto a contemporary art take on the land. It may force them to come to terms with this landscape.”

Here's a rundown of the exhibits:

The Savage Poem Around Me: Alfred Lambourne’s Great Salt Lake
Utah's Thoreau
Through June 15

Image of lake from Alfred Lambourne oil.

The Great Salt Lake Landscan: The Center for Land Use Interpretation
The view from 4,000 feet
Jan. 24–May 4

Creation and Erasure: Art of the Bingham Canyon Mine 
Is the earth’s largest man-made hole art in its own right?
May 30–Sept. 28

JG: a film by Tacita Dean
Exploring three artists’ thoughts on time, space and the Spiral Jetty
Jan. 24–May 4

Images shown from Tacita Dean's film.

Utah Museum of Fine Arts
University of Utah campus
801-581-7332, umfa.utah.edu

Explore the savage poem yourself Antelope Island State Park
801-725-9263, stateparks.utah.gov

Back>>>Read other stories in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.