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Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land…
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Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West…

by Erin Hogan

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Spiral Jetta is, like other recent memoirs, two books in one. Like Eat, Pray, Love is both personal memoir and foodie travel guide, and Julie & Julia both personal memoir and cook's journal, this book, by Erin Hogan, is both personal memoir and art travel guide. And no, I've read neither of those other two, though I did see the latter flick.

A dyed-in-the-wool city mouse, Hogan drives solo into the deserts of the American southwest in search of various landmarks of land art, like the sculpture Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson, from which the book takes its name (she drives a Jetta -- God knows what the book would have been called if she drove a CRV), and the Lightning Field of Walter De Maria.

She starts off fearful well point the past of humorous. You really sense she could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. Slowly she gains confidence -- not only in her ability to be with, and take care of, herself, but in her artistic sensibility. About two thirds of the book is Hogan narrating her journey: where she drives, where she sleeps, what she eats, whom she meets. The remaining third is an art journal: reflections on the land art she visits (and, in the case of one piece, doesn't manage to visit). It's a minor thread, but as the art descriptions proceed, she seems less beholden to her source material, less enthralled by the authority of the art critics who preceded her, and more comfortable staking out her own experience and interpretation thereof.

The two parts don't fit perfectly, and part of that is because they don't work together perfectly on their own. The personal journal isn't all that personal; we know little of who Hogan is, what she's escaping, and what beyond a certain mousey-ness (city or otherwise) she wants to shed. The art journal is written in such a different voice, that it's unclear either voice is truly Hogan. If the book were great, then by the end those voices would merge. Instead, it's just a pretty good book: enjoyable, informative.

There's one sentence that to me signifies the disparity between the sections, and the weakness in the book. At the end of chapter five, Hogan sleeps endures a very cold night of camping, not once fearing for her safety. We know this because the night isn't easy, and she makes it through. And then she feels the need to tell us, "Perhaps I really was learning how to be alone and to adapt to new environments." Perhaps? Of course she has, and more to the point, this is already self-evident. If she trusts us as readers to understand, secondhand, the art she is witnessing, it's odd that she doesn't trust us to connect the dots in the other section of the book.

Two additional notes:

The first half of the book is illustrated occasionally by way-amateur photos taken by Hogan, and then, after page 106 (of 180 total, including references -- at least in the paperback edition), there are no more photos. And no explanation why.

At the every end, there's a map of her journey. It wouldn't have hurt to have it up front, because as in The Lord of the Rings, a little visual orientation can be a big help. My personal experience of the map's appearance was one akin to the occasional sudden eye-opening shock Hogan experiences in the book. After almost 200 pages of descriptions of art, and a couple handfuls of blurry black and white photos, suddenly there is a crisp, geometrically intriguing map. My mind had been so deep in the idea of looking at art while reading the book, and so parched for the lack of actual visuals, that the map was like a very cool glass of water after a very long drive in the desert.

  Disquiet | Mar 30, 2013 |
An interesting travelogue. Erin Hogan, director of public affairs for the Art Institute of Chicago, sets out, woefully uprepared, to tour the great works of American Land Art. She has no compass or GPS, few directions, and very little ability to exist outside of a comfortable, Sex-In-The-City-style urban existence. Predictably, she finds it tough going. At times, Hogan seems to be trying to make this book a story of overcoming personal obstacles, finding inner strength, etc., etc. This attempt is unfortunate, because her challenges, however real they may have been for her, do not inspire great sympathy. (In the opening pages, she nearly has a panic attack when she realizes, while relaxing in a nice room in a hotel full of people, that she is utterly alone.) Luckily, Hogan seems to realize, despite a few awkward attempts to universalize her situation, that no demons were fought, and no lessons were learned. Her journey was a road trip, not a pilgrimage, and the resulting book is just the personal impressions of a woman in a car on a rather poorly planned vacation. And that is precisely what makes it an interesting read: despite a few quotes from art historians in the text, there is very little theory here. American Land Art is typically (pun intended) buried in theory. So few people actually get to see the works in person that most people's relationships with Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, and the rest are entirely based on over-interpreted representations in the literature of art. Hogan offers a personal, fallible, occasionally irritating, but always refreshingly human perspective on these works. And that's worth something more than the personal journey of self-discovery that Hogan may have been attempting to relate. ( )
1 vote ben_h | Apr 6, 2011 |
I went into this book expecting a description of the author’s visits to various land art projects, hoping to learn about new opportunities for personal exploration. I got some of that – enough that I was not overly disappointed. However, what I also got was the author’s self-exploration and personal analysis. And, that part of the book just didn’t work for me.

First the good. There are some interesting pieces described in the book, and it does an excellent job of placing these in their geographic and historic contexts. And, it also did a good job of warning me that, unless I was already close (and that won’t be very often for most of them), it probably is not worth the drive. The art looks to be interesting, and the travel might be worth it (one thing about the Southwest – getting to the land is often as good as what ever you may be heading for). But, in spite of the author’s best efforts, there is kind of anticlimacticism that occurs at each spot. This is not helped by the author’s deep discussions of how and why they are important pieces of art.

Which leads to why the book fails. Right from the outset, the author makes no bones about the fact that this book is really chronically her own self-discoveries, not least of which is the need to learn to live alone. But these discoveries and accompanying analysis fall very flat. And, rather than the land art holding this all together (after all, it is the thread of the book) it adds nothing to the narrative.

This theme of land art keeps getting waylaid. The search for a piece of art turns into the author spending an afternoon and an evening in a remote bar where her fears (probably some of them well-founded) overtake the monologue. The tour is interrupted by stops at Arches and Zion National Monument where the author attempts to try and say something about man’s art versus nature’s. And there is a chapter on Juarez which focuses on the ugliness of this border town; a chapter which seems to serve no purpose other than to maintain the completeness of the travelogue.

Ultimately, there is a formlessness and purposelessness about the overall arch of this book that bothered and bored me. Yet, with all that, I couldn’t come to dislike the book. And that goes back to the reason I bought it – to learn more about land art. The book accomplished one thing – it piqued my interest. And, after reading it, I immediately went to the internet to spend another hour looking up the art referred to in the book as well as other examples. I guess I’m saying that, in spite of the fact that so much of a book does not work, how can you say anything bad about a book that teaches and makes you intrigued to learn more? (I just don’t care to know any more about the author.) ( )
1 vote figre | Apr 25, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226348458, Hardcover)

Erin Hogan hit the road in her Volkswagen Jetta and headed west from Chicago in search of the monuments of American land art: a salty coil of rocks, four hundred stainless steel poles, a gash in a mesa, four concrete tubes, and military sheds filled with cubes. Her journey took her through the states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. It also took her through the states of anxiety, drunkenness, disorientation, and heat exhaustion. Spiral Jetta is a chronicle of this journey.

 

A lapsed art historian and devoted urbanite, Hogan initially sought firsthand experience of the monumental earthworks of the 1970s and the 1980s—Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, and the contemporary art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Armed with spotty directions, no compass, and less-than-desert-appropriate clothing, she found most of what she was looking for and then some.

 

“I was never quite sure what Hogan was looking for when she set out . . . or indeed whether she found it. But I loved the ride. In Spiral Jetta, an unashamedly honest, slyly uproarious, ever-probing book, art doesn’t magically have the power to change lives, but it can, perhaps no less powerfully, change ways of seeing.”—Tom Vanderbilt, New York Times Book Review

 

“The reader emerges enlightened and even delighted. . . . Casually scrutinizing the artistic works . . . while gamely playing up her fish-out-of-water status, Hogan delivers an ingeniously engaging travelogue-cum-art history.”—Atlantic

 

“Smart and unexpectedly hilarious.”—Kevin Nance, Chicago Sun-Times

 

“One of the funniest and most entertaining road trips to be published in quite some time.”—June Sawyers, Chicago Tribune

 

“Hogan ruminates on how the work affects our sense of time, space, size, and scale. She is at her best when she reexamines the precepts of modernism in the changing light of New Mexico, and shows how the human body is meant to be a participant in these grand constructions.”—New Yorker

 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:39 -0400)

Erin Hogan hit the road in her Volkswagen Jetta and headed west from Chicago in search of the monuments of American land art: a salty coil of rocks, four hundred stainless steel poles, a gash in a mesa, four concrete tubes, and military sheds filled with cubes. Her journey took her through the states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. It also took her through the states of anxiety, drunkenness, disorientation, and heat exhaustion. Spiral Jetta is a chronicle of this journey. A lapsed art historian and devoted urbanite, Hogan initially sought firsthand experience of the monumental earthworks of the 1970s and the 1980s?Robert Smithson?s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt?s Sun Tunnels, Walter De Maria?s Lightning Field, James Turrell?s Roden Crater, Michael Heizer?s Double Negative, and the contemporary art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Armed with spotty directions, no compass, and less-than-desert-appropriate clothing, she found most of what she was looking for and then some.… (more)

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