“The mise-en-scène of the picnic with which Powers of Ten begins is of importance, for it presents us with an image that we might locate in a very specific thematic tradition. Certainly the care with which the picnic tableau was constructed is well documented. When we look down, what do we see? The recumbent figure of the man, his hand—which we will shortly plunge into—resting across his chest, some plates, some fruit, a book, and some magazines. Then we see what appears to be an oddly oversized clock (perhaps it is the cover of another book), sliding out from below the volume that sits upon it. Once we notice this, clock faces begin to proliferate: the wristwatch that now seems intentionally turned toward us, and then the plates, with the knives playing the role of chronometer needles […]. The reading matter is suggestive as well. At the top of the frame, to the left of the man’s head, are positioned issues of Scientific American and Science, which—together with the sleeping figure—indicate that we might connect this image to others in which sleeping men are slumped over documents of the work of reason, most obviously “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the forty-third plate of Goya’s Los Caprichos.
“Turning to the book on which the man’s left hand rests we find that it is not, as we might expect, Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View, but rather The Voices of Time, a 1966 collection of essays edited by the Hungarian-American physicist and social scientist Julius Thomas Fraser. And here we perhaps detect an echo of a book that was published in the US four years earlier, namely J. G. Ballard’s The Voices of Time and Other Stories. The title story in Ballard’s collection tells of a scientist (curiously named Powers) who is slowly going to sleep, victim of a “narcoma syndrome” to which increasing numbers are succumbing. There is not space to describe the story in detail here, or—in Powers’s words—the “monstrous surrealist” future it envisages, save to say that it concludes with the scientist lying in the center of a mandala that he has obsessively constructed, perhaps indeed a mandala like the one reproduced on the cover of Fraser’s book, upon which the hand of our sleeping picnicker rests. As Powers falls asleep, his consciousness dissolves into the universe’s great stream of radiation: “Above him he could hear the stars, a million cosmic voices … Like jostling radio beacons … To Powers the sky seemed an endless babel, the time-song of a thousand galaxies overlaying each other in his mind.” Notably, when the story was published in Britain in 1963, it appeared in a collection titled The 4-Dimensional Nightmare.”
Text: Mark Dorrian, Adventure on the Vertical Cabinet, Issue 44 24 Hours Winter 2011/12.