Jessica Varner’s Notes from the Field: From the Outside Looking In

A jetty, concrete tunnels, salt lakes, small towns, and long drives. Day one on the Landscape Experience Field Trip proved as expansive and jam-packed as the itinerary proposed.

 By Jessica Varner

Laying out a plan for a trip collapses time and space into rigid, typewritten lists. Arrive here, depart there, and eat lunch at this spot. No amount of detailed planning prepares travelers for the thrill, road time and exhaustion of the actual journey. And no amount of planning could have prepared us for the first day of Landscape Experience.

Our team arrived at the Salt Lake City Airport ten minutes earlier than expected after a quick, uneventful flight from Boston. From the air, the vast, strange landscape of Utah was visible: roaming, natural landforms resisting the containment of planned grids, a tableaux on a scale inconceivable from our East Coast origin point. After a round-up of our MIT crew, along with a group of Harvard students studying Technical Lands and several additional guests, we set off to pick up supplies and experience the West on a large, white passenger bus equipped with leather seats, presentation screens, audio jacks and various other field trip luxuries.

We stopped briefly at the mother lode supplier, Wal-Mart, and left with sunscreen applied, snacks in hand, and pleased with ourselves for being precisely on schedule to head north towards our first destination, artist Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Land art abuts historic landmarks in Utah’s wide-open parcels of land. Both Thiokol Rocket Garden—the site of a former chemical-manufacturer-turned-rocket-company—and the Golden Spike—the ceremonial site of the joining of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad—were short stops on the way to Spiral Jetty.

These side trips allowed us to stretch our legs and switch from one large bus to a smaller, more agile vehicle, but they also served another purpose. These stops—and the readings and lectures about these sites—gave us the chance to draw connections between seemingly incongruent propositions: sites of military and technological interest and the land art pieces on our agenda. The impact of experiencing such key places in U.S. history within the span of a few short hours cannot be overstated. Without too much time for reflection, we were whisked away from Thiokol in a smaller van to manage the rough road to the jetty.

Thiokol Rocket Graden. Photo: Jessica Varner.
Thiokol Rocket Graden. Photo: Jessica Varner.


After a wrong left turn and a missed fork in the road, we turned around and headed back on track. The group was hardly fazed; getting lost seemed like a natural part of the land art experience tour. Back on the correct road, small signs indicated “Spiral Jetty, 9 miles.” Golden grass marked the rolling dusty hillsides; ranches, which seemed tiny and faint in the distance, danced in the haze of the hot day. Finally, the path straightened and the Great Salt Lake came into full view.

Seen from the hillside as Smithson intended, Spiral Jetty included both land and sea in our first glimpse of the work. In the scorching heat, the pink water stood far away from the work that was once engulfed by water. The lack of water surrounding it surprised us, despite our understanding of how the landscape is constantly shifting due to environmental factors. We pulled into the small, dirt lot adjacent to Spiral Jetty and scrambled out for closer inspection. Group members experienced the jetty on their own time and at their own pace. Some rushed and scrambled up the hillside for a higher vantage point. Others ran down to the curving jetty below, walking on the course basalt path towards the dry salt bed. The work appeared vast in the view from above but intimate in the short paces of the spiral; in both views, the Spiral Jetty was everything and nothing you imagined at the same time.

Following a generous period of time, we loaded the bus again, heads counted and ready for the next stop. We headed on to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976), hoping we would arrive before the sun went down behind the hillside. A wrong turn quickly led us off course and took us unexpectedly into the state of Idaho, but soon we turned onto another dusty, desert road, this time headed for the counterpoint experience to Smithson’s Jetty on the other side of the Great Salt Lake.

The Sun Tunnels appeared on the horizon, appearing to sit lightly on the ground in the midst of a vast valley surrounding it. The Sun Tunnels’ relatively diminutive reveal was an inverse of the massive scale of Smithson’s heavy, constructed spiral. Four culvert-like tubes were placed in proximity to each other, large enough to crawl inside, but seemingly minuscule in the Utah desert expanse. The group’s worries about the diminishing daylight vanished as the sun dipped just below the cloud cover to bathe the land art piece in warm, golden light. We all climbed in, on, and around the tunnels, peeking through each carved hole, wondering how the piece was constructed or how it responded to its context. As the light slowly faded, three students and I waited until everyone was on the bus and the driver honked a warning beep. We took every last second to experience the piece before running back to our touring mobile, which looked so out of place on the horizon.

A group vote decided our last stop for the evening—”The Cowboy Bar,” Nancy Holt’s and Robert Smithson’s frequent watering hole in Montello. The bleary-eyed group exited the bus and entered the small tavern to drink and relax. I sat beside two local gentlemen smoking at the bar. We began chatting, and soon one of them mentioned his best friend was the contractor of the Sun Tunnels. He fondly recalled helping out on the project himself and explained what the land art piece meant for the small town. “We all used it in different ways, but mostly it was a spot to get together when we were young, with a beer and chatting into the night.” This conversation left a lasting mark on my day, clarifying that the works we experienced were not exclusively part of historic, technical or art landscape scholarship. Instead, they were a living, breathing part of the here and now, meant to be experienced for as long as they would last.

Returning to the bus to move on to our resting spot for the night at the Montego Bay Casino, I looked down at my itinerary again. I thought of the impossibility of capturing what the group had experienced during this first day of our trip in a half-page, black and white itinerary. Likewise, the pages of a book or a semester-long art history class also seemed impossibly incomplete; instead, I thought, landscapes must be experienced.


Jessica Varner is an architect and historian. Her interests include the intersections of the history of environmentalism and the history of architecture from the eighteenth century to the present, including production histories, construction industries, and building material toxicity. Ms. Varner received a B.S. from University of Nebraska, a Master of Architecture degree, and Master of Environmental Design from Yale University, and is currently a third year PhD student at MIT.

Landscape Experience: Seminar in Land/Art (MIT 4.S67) is co-taught by Rebecca K. Uchill and Caroline A. Jones in Fall 2016. The course is co-sponsored by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and the MIT History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art (HTC) program. 

Posted on November 1, 2016 by Sharon Lacey