17 September 2013

Myths of the Near Future, II

Clip via Adrian Searle at the Guardian, concerning Tactita Dean's latest film project, JG; which is currently on view at Frith Street Gallery in London.

Which I guess effectively completes a triangulation. Dean has in the past acknowledged J.G. Ballard as a formative source of inspiration. With Ballard, in turn, having written quite glowingly of Dean's texts and her abilities as a writer. And both being admirers of Smithson's work, with Dean previously done two projects devoted to the artist -- Trying to Find The Spiral Jetty (1997) and From Columbus, Ohio to the Partially Buried Woodshed (1999).

And Smithson was himself, back in the early days of his career as an artist, an avid reader of science fiction; the inventory of his personal library suggesting that Ballard was perhaps his favorite author in the genre. Which only stands to reason, given Smithson's own fascination with geology, megaliths and primary architectonics, and the increasingly synthetic, artificial character of the built human environment in the modern age. Smithson's own writing about The Spiral Jetty took on the qualities of a fantastic, vaguely SF-ish text experiment at times:

"The helicopter maneuvered the sun's reflection through the Spiral jetty until it reached the center. The water functioned as a vast thermal mirror. From that position the flaming reflection suggested the ion source of a cyclotron that extended into a spiral of collapsed matter. All sense of energy acceleration expired into a rippling stillness of reflected heat. A withering light swallowed the rocky particles of the spiral, as the helicopter gained altitude. All existence seemed tentative and stagnant. The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing into tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into a unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus at the end of the spiral. All that blood stirring makes one aware of protoplasmic solutions, the essential matter between the formed and the unformed, masses of cells consisting largely of water, proteins, lipoids, carbohydrates, and inorganic salts. Each drop that splashed onto the Spiral jetty coagulated into a crystal. Undulating waters spread millions upon millions of crystals over the basalt."

Poking about, I see that Dean's film has been circulating since earlier in the year; with Andrew Frost at the Ballardian blog already having written about it at length some six months ago.

Dean suggests that she’s "solved the mystery" of Smithson’s enigmatic Spiral Jetty, claiming that the work may have been inspired by Ballard’s 1960 short story “The Voices of Time.” As Frost sums it up in the Ballardian post:

"The protagonist, Powers, after encountering a spiral structure meant to represent the square root of -1, surrenders to the flow of cosmic time within a spiral mandala, located on the salt lake of an abandoned air force testing range. Ballard’s use of the spiral as a symbol for cosmic time, from the scale of the sculpture to the magnitude of the galaxy, finds its expression in Smithson's sculptures."

Curiously, the story includes numerous references to Eniwetok – the Marshall Islands atoll which had served as an Pacific H-bomb test site for the U.S. military in the postwar years. Eniwetok also turns up as the setting for Ballard’s story "The Terminal Beach." In that particular story, the narrator describes the island’s abandoned architecture and the telltale signs of destruction left from the detonations; at one point offering:

"'This island is a state of mind,' Osborne, one of the scientists working in the old submarine pens, was later to remark to Traven. The truth of this became obvious to Traven within two or three weeks of his arrival. Despite the sand and the few anaemic palms, the entire landscape of the island was synthetic, a man-made artefact with all the associations of a vast system of derelict concrete motorways. Since the moratorium on atomic tests, the island had been abandoned by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the wilderness of weapons aisles, towers and blockhouses ruled out any attempt to return it to its natural state."
And elsewhere:
"The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudogeological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist's maxim, 'The key to the past lies in the present.' Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton."

The Spiral Jetty is located at Rozel Point along the eastern shoreline the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson chose the site for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the natural reasons – its geographic isolation and the surrounding landscape. Also the lake's high salinity levels and the variety of red algae it harbored. But there were also non-natural aspects of the site that appealed to Smithson, as well. Taking the backroad to the location, one passed through the remnants of a disused oilfield, with leaking abandoned wells and derelict vehicles scattered about the roadside. Likewise with a couple of abandoned military amphibious vehicles rusting away in the sun, which must have somehow – one presumes – found their way to the place from the Dugway Proving Ground located on the other side of the Lake. Smithson described the journey to the location thusly:

"Slowly, we drew near to the lake, which resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stoney matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediments were countless bits of wreckage. Old piers were left high and dry. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern prehistory. The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.

"Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. A hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’ A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes."

This adjoining, interim vista of pollution and ruination was a deliberate choice on the artist’s part – a way of incorporating another landscape for the spectator to pass through en route to seeing the monumental Jetty, a desolate precursor to the experience.*

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* Even though, as I understand it, much of this debris was been cleared from the site back about ten years ago.

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