The foremost common feature between the two works is how they embrace the theme of nature. Both of them are exemplary specimens of the ‘Land Art’ genre and they attempt to extend human imprint onto the natural world and vice versa. For example, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is an audacious attempt to create an artificial spiral jetty on the edge of the iconic Salt Lake in Utah. The spiraling quay-like structure spans nearly 1,500 feet in an anti-clockwise fashion. The land art ‘sculpture’ can be construed as a tribute to the unique ecology of the saline lake. Indeed, the choice of mud, basalt rocks and salt crystals were based on their complementary qualities. For example, the basalt rock is naturally black and the salt crystals are of various hues. Together they present a mosaic like appearance. Apart from this attention to aesthetic detail, the Spiral Jetty is of great utilitarian value. Not only does the construction please the eye, but it serves as a medium for experiencing nature intimately. It is not an exaggeration to say that a walk through the spiral till its terminal point is conducive to meditating about the mysteries of nature.
Ana Mendieta’s Tree of Life shares the same nature theme with the Spiral Jetty. The Tree of Life specimen in question is part of a series of the same title where the artist makes herself the subject of art. In this work Mendieta applies mud all over her body and poses adjunct to the ancient tree. The symbolism is rich while also retaining an element of intrigue. Mendieta’s works generally reveal her thematic obsession with death, decay and disfigurement – elements that are also written into the conception of the Spiral Jetty. In the Tree of Life, the mud-laden figure hints at human mortality and how no individual can escape the eventual embrace of Mother Earth. Indeed, the dark shade of the mud is contrasted to the lighter background offered by the bark of the grand old tree. This gives the impression that humans have inherited planet earth from time immemorial and our race is as old as Mother Nature herself. Likewise, the uplifted arms and the erect countenance of the female figure represent growth and stability. The association of femininity to growth and wellbeing is a deliberate feminist statement on the part of the artist. In contrast, one cannot read any feminist symbolism in the Spiral Jetty’s construction or functioning.
Finally, there is one aspect in which the two works differ sharply. Smithson’s work is a physical structure whose existence is perennial across time. On the other hand, Mendieta’s can be likened to a still-life photograph which is a visual linked to a particular moment in time. In contrast, far from being a passive artifact, the Spiral Jetty changes in tune with the ecological conditions. For instance, during times of drought in the environs of the Salt Lake, the water level of the lake drops, revealing the structure in all its magnificence. During such phases, the structure calls attention to its own composition. On the other hand, uring times of surplus rainfall, the water submerges partially fully the spiral. When partially submerged the spiral is at union with brimming water.