Wrong Way To Spiral Jetty Turn Right At Intersection Behind You

 Photograph of Zin Taylor’s contribution to The Way of the Shovel, cut from Art News

Commonplace Notebook, Matthew Fluharty

I recently came across a brief article by Harry J. Weil in Art News on the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology. Senior Curator Dieter Roelstraete begins the piece: “I noticed that sometime in the mid-200s, so many artists took to archives and archival research, and the language of excavating became a prominent feature of contemporary art discourse…All around me it looked like people were ‘digging’ for something or other.”

Rural or urban, this is a significant practice to consider across an entire exhibition. While many artists and writers at the start of the twentieth century were engaged in this kind of “excavating,” sometimes literally, this current attention to the archive has a great deal of resonance across many rural projects that include elements of folklife, field recordings, and even design and emerging forms of multidisciplinary practice.

What interests me is how, when working in a rural space, local knowledge and local culture — as well as the interconnections of rural and urban places — can take “archival research” in surprising and complicated directions. Harry Weil concludes the article with a fascinating example from the Ways of the Shovel exhibition:

Throughout the show are continual references to Robert Smithson, whose work is not on view but whose “spectral presence,” as Roelstraete puts it, is evident in a younger generation’s sustained interest in his life, career, and untimely demise. The Smithson connection is most apparent in Zin Taylor’s documentation of getting lost on his way to visit Smithson’s legendary Earthwork Spiral Jetty, located on the Great Salt Lake and accessed via the barren Utah desert.

After several hours of traveling, and nearly running out of gas, Taylor and his companions conceded defeat. “I’ve read about people who have tried and occasionally succeeded in locating the sculpture, but in general, what exists are thoughts about the earthwork,” Taylor writes in his travel log. His project reveals the lengths some artists will go in uncovering the past, only to come up empty-handed.