Erin Hogan’s Spiral Jetta is one those unpretentious travel volumes that largely go unnoticed. It’s only 180 pages. It doesn’t tell of perilous journeys or of discovering exotic cultures. Nor is its author, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, particularly celebrated. Hogan’s unassuming volume merely illuminates a few rarely viewed late-20th-century American artworks. Thankfully, that modest purpose does not conceal the intimacy and insight of its prose.
Travel writing’s appeal is partly, if not largely, about the author’s biography—his or her agenda. Hogan’s mission is to overcome what appears to be a near-debilitating need for “noise and companionship and co-workers to protect [her] from anxiety about [her] own atomic existence.” In order “to learn to enjoy being alone,” she has chosen her travels well. Despite—or precisely because of—their massive dimensions, the art works she has selected to visit are located in some of the least populated regions of the continent, on stark landscapes, and in difficult to locate and poorly known areas of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.
To the 21st-century non-initiate, land art suggests a baby boomer’s answer to Peru’s Nazca lines or perhaps an environmentally oblivious, over-indulgently crafted “Kilroy was here.” More formally, however, land art emerged in the late ’60s as a severely noncommercial response to the commodification of gallery-bound art. For Michael Heizer, one of the practitioners quoted by Hogan, the movement is about “building a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe. Small works are said to do this but it is not my experience. Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere.”
One of the form’s most representative manifestations, and the inspiration for the punning title of Hogan’s book, is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). As its title suggests, the work is a very large corkscrew of dirt (6,550 tons worth) poured into the Great Salt Lake. For Hogan, the work fosters “a sense of articulated space, one that wasn‘t alienating because it was marked by mountains, edges, [and] colors, which together staved off the disorientation I associate with open, ungridded, space, like being on a sailboat at sea.” For Smithson, whose essay on Spiral Jetty Hogan describes as a “stoner’s manifesto,” his creation is a “reinforcement and prolongation of spirals that reverberates up and down space and time.”
Like several of the works Hogan visits, the form and dimensions of Spiral Jetty can be appreciated from the sky—say, with Google Maps. However the size-defying intimacy of such art is Hogan’s special purview, as, for example, when she describes standing in one of the two 50-foot-deep gouges that form Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) out of Nevada’s Mormon Mesa: “[P]erhaps because it is open to the sky and edge of the mesa... the contrast between the wide-open exterior and the enclosed interior engenders a sense of comfort, a vagina dirtata that envelops rather than threatens.”
Hogan is an informed art guide, often citing and confronting the criticism associated with the works she visits. Meantime she’s inclined to the occasional tourist attraction, camping, chatting with the locals, and sharing the humor of her unease in rural settings. And because her travelogue presents such a successful combination of the informative and charming (she plays the ultra-urbanite very well), Hogan can be forgiven for overlooking the environmental anachronisms these art works might imply.