All clocks are labyrinths

“My relationship to JG Ballard had begun […] 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…”

Text: Tacita Dean: The cosmic clock with Ballard at its core

Image: Tacita Dean, Aerial View of Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac. 16th September 1998.

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