Off Rozel Point on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a masterpiece by the Land Art pioneer Robert Smithson (1938-1973) is slowly vanishing. Spiral Jetty was built in 1970 of earth, water, the salt crystals that dust the lake like snowfall, and 6,650 tons of local basalt rock. From the sky, it resembles the tendril of a fern, or a bishop’s mitre. Some 460m long and 4.6m wide, it was never meant to last forever. When wind, rain and erosion have completed their work on Smithson’s greatest creation, it will disappear. Regular intervention could maintain it, but it is not clear whether this is what Smithson wanted.
By 1999, when it was donated by Smithson’s estate to the Dia Art Foundation, it seemed that Spiral Jetty was lost. The waters of the lake had risen, and the rock and earth from which it was built had eroded to the point that it was submerged. A few years later the waters receded, and it re-emerged–only to be lost again. Complicating matters, Smithson had left no definitive instructions on whether he wanted nature to run its course.
This column has largely focused on objects already lost. But what of artworks and monuments that are at imminent risk of loss, for a variety of reasons, but which intervention could save? One might think that saving at-risk art is such an obvious course of action that everything known to be in danger would surely be saved. But it is not always so.
First, one must know that a site or a work is at risk. In many cases, objects worth preserving are already under some sort of supervision, but countless structures, particularly ancient monuments and buildings in some state of ruin, remain lost in the sense that their location is forgotten. Their level of preservation is, of course, therefore unknown and no intervention can be made until they are purposely found or stumbled upon.
Consider, for example, the scores of lost ancient Mayan cities that have been discovered by the Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Šprajc and his team within a relatively small swath of Mexican jungle. Each new city found is one that was lost to memory until his team rediscovered it, and throughout that time it has been in a state of deterioration, swallowed by the jungle and in danger of loss through degradation.
There are also objects and monuments at risk because of conflicts, like the ones rescued by the Monuments Men, a group established to scout out, protect and, as proved necessary, recover artworks identified by American museum leaders as being “in the line of fire” in Europe during the Second World War. Natural disasters can also place art at risk, as we saw during the flooding of the Arno River in Florence in 1966, or the earthquake that devastated Aquila, a city in Italy’s Abruzzo region in 2009.
Even sophisticated technology that can sometimes predict earthquakes before they happen cannot protect monuments great or small. When a quake rated 5.8 on the Richter scale struck Aquila, the local cathedral lost part of its transept; the third floor of the Forte Spagnolo Castle, which housed the National Museum of Abruzzo, collapsed; and the cupola of the 18th-century church of Saint Augustine was damaged. The latter church had paradoxically been rebuilt after a 1703 earthquake had leveled it. At least 308 people died in 2009, and six scientists and one government official were convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for having downplayed the likelihood and magnitude of the earthquake and thus prevented action like evacuations. The verdict was overturned in 2014, but the case only highlights how, even in an age in which we can often predict natural disaster, the human response can be insufficient to mitigate the situation.
An earlier earthquake in 1997 wreaked havoc that might have been reversible if the restorers had not botched the job in what some saw as a sort of artistic manslaughter. After the quake damaged the area around the Umbrian town of Assisi, including its famous frescoes by Giotto and other luminaries at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, a team of conservators was tasked with salvaging the frescoes and bringing them back to their former state. When the conservators finished the job and the frescoes in the basilica’s Chapel of Saint Nicholas were displayed again, the effort was considered to have been a success: The conservator Bruno Zanardi, who was not a member of the team, said he saw the site in 2011 and “got the impression that it was a good job”.
But when he returned in 2015, his opinion shifted. “I had a very different impression,” he told La Repubblica newspaper. Some other key figures in the art world were also dismayed by what they saw. As reported in La Repubblica, Francesco Scoppola, who led the Ministry for Cultural Heritage team overseeing the repair, was “most alarmed.” The issue appears to be that the chiaroscuro, the dramatic contrast of light and shadow, has been lost, particularly in a fresco that shows Mary fainting before the cross. The frescoes were said to have become flatter and more monotone, although the head of the restoration, Sergio Fusetti, told The Guardian that “the problem doesn’t exist.”
A thousand tons of debris had collapsed onto the church during the quake, so the squabbling over subtleties of light and shade may sound pedantic—it is a small miracle that the frescoes survived at all, and in a state of sufficient quality to prompt gibes about the quality of shadow-play. Still, the art continued to deteriorate.
Finally, there is art at risk of direct destruction by man. In the idyllic alpine village of Sela pri Kamniku in Slovenia (some ten minutes from where I live), a local artist and architect, Tomaž Schlegl, and the village cultural society built a hollow 25-foot-tall statue that looks like a sort of colossal Donald Trump nutcracker and is dubbed “Slovenia’s Statue of Liberty”. On 28 and 29 August, the international media enthusiastically reported on the statue.
Cleverly mocking Trump with a piece of conceptual art is, of course, delightful clickbait. But there was more to the story, as I wrote in The Observer. A group of more conservative villagers were dismayed by the notoriety of the statue, which they feared would put their tiny village on the map for the wrong reason, making it a laughing stock, or incur the wrath of the president portrayed. There was even a call to burn the work of art, or at least force it to be moved. Not wishing to upset the locals, the cultural society was at first resigned to losing the statue, perhaps by symbolically burning it (to keep one step ahead of the grumpy group of locals, who considered doing so one moonless night).
It is a wily installation, a work of folk artistry and a wry commentary that has turned Sela into a pilgrimage destination for curious tourists. Yet because it is in danger of being destroyed, the village’s cultural society has launched a Kickstarter campaign to save it: If it raises enough funds, it will purchase a piece of land outside Sela on which the statue can stand indefinitely.
In this case, the fate of a work of art is subject to the whim of the masses. Crowd-funding can save it, and a failure to act will mean that, on 31 October, it will be burned. Sometimes, the choice is ours.