Monday, April 27, 2009

New messages from Spiral Jetty

Brilliant memoir of Ballard by the amazing artist Tacita Dean at The Guardian, drawing out connections I was previously unaware of, like the fact that a copy of Ballard's Voices of Time is on the picnic blanket in the Eames's Powers of Ten, which I pondered countless times in book form as a kid:

My relationship to Ballard had begun a little earlier, with our mutual interest in the work of the US artist Robert Smithson. In 1997, I tried to find Smithson's famous 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty, in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. I had directions faxed to me from the Utah Arts Council, which I supposed had been written by Smithson himself. I only knew what I was looking for from what I could remember of art school lectures: the iconic aerial photograph of the basalt spiral formation unfurling into a lake. In the end, I never found it; it was either submerged at the time, or I wasn't looking in the right place. But the journey had a marked impact on me, and I made a sound work about my attempt to find it. Ballard must have read about it, because he sent me a short text he had written on Smithson, for an exhibition catalogue.

It was the writer, curator and artist Jeremy Millar who became convinced Smithson knew of Ballard's short story, The Voices of Time, before building his jetty. All Smithson's books had been listed after his death in a plane crash in 1973 - and The Voices of Time was among them. The story ends with the scientist Powers building a cement mandala or "gigantic cipher" in the dried-up bed of a salt lake in a place that feels, by description, to be on the very borders of civilisation: a cosmic clock counting down our human time. It is no surprise that it is a copy of The Voices of Time that lies beneath the hand of the sleeping man on the picnic rug in the opening scenes of Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames' classic 1977 film about the relative size of things in the universe.

Smithson understood the prehistory of his site. Beneath the Great Salt Lake was, for some, the centre of an ancient universe, and his jetty could have been an elaborate means to bore down to get to it. As if understanding this, Ballard wrote in the catalogue text: "What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty?" He elaborated later to me in a letter: "My guess is that the cargo was a clock, of a very special kind. In their way, all clocks are labyrinths, and can be risky to enter." The two men had a lot in common, and Ballard believed him to be the most important and most mysterious of postwar US artists. My interest in time, cosmic and human, future and past, as well as the analogue spooling of the now, has Ballard at its core.

[Video: Charles and Ray Eames, "Powers of Ten"]

Time to try it yourself:

Odometer readings vary with each vehicle. The distances given below are only approximations. The Department of Natural Resources has posted signs at each turn/fork to indicate directions to the Jetty. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THESE SIGNS AS SOUVENIRS.

1. Go to Golden Spike National Historic Site (GSNHS), 30 miles west of Brigham City, Utah. Spiral Jetty is 15.5 dirt road miles southwest of GSNHS's visitor center.

To get there (from Salt Lake City) take I-15 north approximately 65 miles to the Corinne exit (exit 365), just west of Brigham City, Utah. Exit and turn right onto Route 13 to Corinne. LAST GAS before Spiral Jetty is in Corinne at the Sinclair truck stop.

Past Corinne, continue heading west and veer left on Highway 83 for 17.7 miles.

3. Turn left onto "Golden Spike Road" and continue 7.7 miles up the east side of Promontory Pass to GSNHS. LAST BATHROOMS before Spiral Jetty are at the GSNHS’s Visitor Center.

2. From the Visitor Center, drive 5.6 miles west on the main gravel road to a fork in the road. Continue left, heading west. (From this vantage, the low foothills that make up Rozel Point are visible to the Southwest.)

5. Immediately you cross a cattle guard. Call this cattle guard #1. Including this one, you cross four cattle guards before you reach Rozel Point and Spiral Jetty.

6. Drive 1.3 miles south to a second fork in the road. Turn right onto the southwest fork, and proceed 1.7 miles to cattle guard #2.

8. Continue southeast 1.2 miles to cattle guard #3.

9. Continue straight 2.8 miles south-southwest to cattle guard #4 and an iron-pipe gate.

11. At this gate the Class D (gravel) road designation ends. From here, four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles are strongly recommended.

If you choose to continue, drive south for another 2.7 miles, and around the east side of Rozel Point, you will see the Lake and a jetty (not Spiral Jetty) left by oil drilling explorations that ended in the 1980s.

12. Southwest beyond the site of the oil jetty, turn right onto a two-track trail that contours above the oil-drilling debris below. Travel slowly--the road is narrow, brush might scratch your vehicle, and the rocks, if not properly negotiated, could high center your vehicle or blow out your tires. Don't hesitate to park and walk. Spiral Jetty is just around the corner.

13. Drive or walk 6/10th of a mile west around Rozel Point and look toward the Lake. Spiral Jetty may be in sight. The lake’s levels vary several feet from year-to-year and from season to season, so Spiral Jetty is not always visible above the water line.

For more, track down a copy of Ballard's essay for the 2001 Tacita Dean show at the Tate.


David Pringle said...

Great stuff. Thanks for showing us the film Tacita Dean alluded to...

"It is no surprise that it is a copy of The Voices of Time that lies beneath the hand of the sleeping man on the picnic rug in the opening scenes of Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames' classic 1977 film..."

Ah, but is it a copy of Ballard's "The Voices of Time" that lies there on the picnic rug -- or is it a copy of _The Voices of Time: A Coöperative Survey of Man's Views of Time as Understood and Described by the Sciences and by the Humanities_, edited by J. T. Fraser (1966)?


(The British edition was reviewed by Ballard, belatedly, in _New Worlds_ in 1969.)

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

David! Buddy! Where you been keeping yourself, man?

Unknown said...

And of course, it's mapped by Google:,-112.668883&z=18

Christopher Brown said...

David -- I wondered the same thing (without knowing of the other tome), more so after arriving home this evening and reading the opening section of the titular JGB story, suspecting the connection a bit too tenuous to the Eames film. But the Smithson connection is intriguing indeed, and far more plausible...

-- Chris

Armitaj said...

It is the Fraser and not the Ballard book, going by this cover, which matches the one in the film.

Víctor Raggio said...