James Benning: casting a glance

July 2008


Every object if it is art, is charged with the rush of time even though it is static, but all this depends on the viewer. Not everybody sees the art in the same way, only an artist viewing art knows the ecstasy or dread, and this viewing takes place in time. A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.1 — Robert Smithson

I have a very simple definition of an artist: The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back.2 — James Benning

Between May 15, 2005 and January 14, 2007, James Benning took 16 trips to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty with his 16mm camera in hand. That 1500-foot sculpture, a coil of basalt rocks located down some 17 miles of ragged roads beyond the Golden Spike National Monument and Visitor’s Center at Rozel Point at the northern end of Utah’s sublime Great Salt Lake. It has surely become the emblem of the Earthworks movement since its construction under Smithson’s supervision in April 1970. By the time Smithson died tragically in 1973, the rising Salt Lake had already erased Spiral Jetty–at least visibly. The sculpture, made of ancient basalt, would endure the elements for the imaginable future. Time–considered on the geological or cosmological scale, and often represented by the concept of entropy–had emerged as the primary subject of Smithson’s work and a prominent theme in his prolific writing. Whether intended or not, the disappearance of the outdoor sculpture fulfilled Smithson’s investment in time as a potent artistic material.

Writing nearly two years after the construction of Spiral Jetty, Smithson described a visionary–even hallucinatory–initial encounter with the site of the earthwork:

As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.3

Benning first encountered the site in 1989, when Spiral Jetty was still underwater. Curiously, Benning’s recollection of his experience, fueled in part by the intense summer heat, resembles the otherworldly tone of Smithson’s text:

I couldn’t see it anywhere. Then I found it two feet underwater. The lake had risen since it was built. I walked the spiral to the end. I stood there in the salt water. There was no one in any direction. Salt crystals cut at my feet.

I suppose, in a way, my trip ended there at the end of the spiral. I stared into space. A kind of dizziness overtook my body. I was hot and dehydrated. I had no water. I thought about the secrets of survival that were shared by the desert life around me. For a brief moment I thought this to be the end, that I would slowly succumb to my desolation. I walked slowly back under a scorching sun.4

Benning approached Smithson’s earthwork–and the remarkable surrounding landscape of Utah–for many years before making his eventual film of it, casting a glance (2007). The Spiral Jetty site appears in the film North on Evers (1991); the construction of Smithson’s earthwork is mentioned several times in Deseret (1995), a fragmented history of Utah told through Benning’s reading of news articles about the state found in a 140-year stretch of the New York Times; the Great Salt Lake is featured in 13 Lakes (2004); and a number of passing trains were filmed for Benning’s RR (2007) while he was en route to Rozel Point. These films, including casting a glance, connect to two persistently recurring subjects for Benning: American history and the landscape of the West. With a view to Benning’s career trajectory, one can comfortably place Spiral Jetty (and, necessarily, Smithson himself) alongside Hank Aaron memorabilia (American Dreams, 1983), the formation of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Deseret), serial killer Ed Gein (Landscape Suicide, 1986), or the Transcontinental Railroad (RR and others) as a uniquely American subject–really, as a sort of national monument–and, importantly, an exemplary if unexpected cinematic subject.

Benning took a risk in making a film of the earthwork because Smithson already made the extraordinary and well-known film Spiral Jetty (1970). (In fact, the film surely became the primary site of Spiral Jetty while the earthwork was submerged below the Salt Lake’s surface.) As I have argued elsewhere, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film is not, as is often claimed, a documentary about an earthwork sculpture.5 It is a film that begins not with the construction of the earthwork but with solar flares; it quickly transports the viewer to a quarry in New Jersey and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, back to the dusty gravel roads of Rozel Point and a helicopter soaring vertiginously above the earthwork, spiraling outward to consider “the rush of time” before collapsing in upon itself in the editing room where the film is being cut. The flatbed-editing machine allowed Smithson to construct a film that transports the viewer in time, from a prehistoric past to a post-historic future. In “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson writes:

Everything about movies and moviemaking is archaic and crude. One is transported by the Archaeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras. The movieola [sic] becomes a “time machine” that transforms trucks into dinosaurs. Robert Fiore pulled lengths of film out of the movieola with the grace of a Neanderthal pulling intestines from slaughtered mammoth. Outside his 13th Street loft window one expected to see Pleistocene faunas, glacial uplifts, living fossils and other prehistoric wonders.6

Like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film, casting a glance is at once a document and a fiction, and these two possibilities are hinged on time. In casting a glance, Benning employs inter-titles as a subtle fictional trope, with dates indicated from “April 30, 1970″ to “May 15, 2007″–even though he began filming just two years ago, in 2005–bymatching the elevation of the Salt Lake’s surface on days he filmed at the site to historical data. Many of the dates chosen carry deep personal significance for the filmmaker, from the anniversary of Smithson’s death to the birth of the filmmaker’s daughter Sadie Benning.7 The film functions, however obliquely, as a calendar, and as an intertwining of graphs: One, following geological data, is impersonal, inhuman; the second, loaded with personal details beyond the viewer’s grasp, is all-too-human. Benning, always a sly autobiographer, locates his entanglement with Smithson, over time, in the convergences of these rising and falling lines.

If there is a “narrative” or at least some sense of tension in casting a glance, as it unwinds from “1970” to “the present,” it is surely located in the way Benning, who was trained as a mathematician, strategically employs the frame of his stationary camera in order to break or dissolve or undermine the deterministic contour of the spiral–a universal symbol of growth and development, from biology to Hegel–and the way the same camera frame triumphantly returns to, reconstructs, and reclaims that very form. Situated, more or less, as the point-of-view of someone standing on the Jetty (or the adjacent shore of Rozel Point), Benning’s framing frequently disrupts the crisp graphic gestalt of the spiral captured by Smithson’s inhuman helicopter-eye, re-positioning the fragmented, salt-encrusted earthwork as an elemental continuation of nature. The final sequence of casting a glance takes an elevated view of the earthwork and its site–meeting the delirious omnipotence of Smithson’s helicopter point-of-view part way–but from the grounded vantage of someone standing on the steep, basalt-encrustedbluffof Rozel Point, with a nod to Gianfranco Gorgoni’s “official” still photographs ofSpiral Jetty from 1970.

Benning is often discussed in relation to structural film, a historically and culturally specific cinematic lineage beginning in the latter half of the 1960s and closely associated with New York’s Anthology Film Archives and filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Tony Conrad–a scene, it should be noted, that abutted the art world and was frequented and fully absorbed by Robert Smithson as it emerged.8 Structural film was defined by P. Adams Sitney as “a cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film. The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline.”9

Many of Benning’s films would appear to follow that model to the extent that they follow a rigorous (or at least discernible) temporal or rhythmic structure. For example, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977) is comprised of sixty one-minute shots of the filmmaker’s native city of Milwaukee; each film of the “California Trilogy”–El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000), and Sogobi (2001)–contains 35 shots, each exactly two and a half minutes long; Ten Skies (2004) and 13 Lakes feature generous ten-minute shots; and taking a somewhat different approach, the duration of each shot in the recent film RR is determined by the length of time it takes each train to enter and leave the frame. Still, it would be difficult to argue that the content of Benning’s films is–following from Sitney–“subsidiary to the outline.” I would argue that the potency of Benning’s films emerges from the conflict between structure and content and going one step further, I would also argue that time has become the major subject of his films–not unlike Smithson before him.

Time is relative in Benning’s films and difficult for the viewer to measure while watching the film. This is particularly true of Ten Skies and 13 Lakes. In Ten Skies,for example, the passing of clouds–or the barely perceptible organization and disorganization of them–provides the “drama” of the film, and if the clouds are moving across the frame, a ten-minute shot can come and go surprisingly quickly. Stationary clouds hovering in a characteristically static frame present a different temporal experience. In casting a glance, there are 80 shots corresponding directly to the length of the 80-minute film, but the duration of each shot is approximately–rather than exactly–one minute. Likewise, each of the 16 dates indicated via inter-titles is represented by as few as three discrete shots, and as many as seven, though five shots is the average per sequence.

Following from Smithson’s quote that begins this essay, and Benning’s modest definition of an artist as “someone who pays attention and reports back” that seems to follow in kind, casting a glance is a collection of 80 close observations of Spiral Jetty and the way nature perpetually interacts with the earthwork, absorbs it, and accepts it as part of the ecology over time.

Over the course of 16 trips to Rozel Point, Benning’s static camera, framing the point-of-view of a person at the site–opposed to Smithson’s dramatic use of the helicopter as an “eye” liberated from the body–captures truly extraordinary moments: wisps of foam pushed across the lake’s surface by gusts of wind; salt crystals growing on tumbleweeds (recalling Smithson’s own microscopic images of spiraling salt crystals); a dead bird; the near stillness of the dense salt water. Watching casting a glance is as close to experiencing the site of Spiral Jetty as a film could possibly offer–much more so than Smithson’s film, that, I would argue, is more interested in the “site” of film than replicating an experience of being there. Benning, on the other hand, is “report[ing] back.”

It should be noted, however, that this reportage is carefully constructed by the filmmaker. Benning made many choices in the editing room, from relegating footage to the trim bin to augmenting the film’s crucial soundtrack in post-production. In a similar manner, Smithson and Robert Fiore constructed the sound of Spiral Jetty–from the artist’s laconic voiceover to the rumble of bulldozers, breath through a respirator, and the trippy effect of a metronome played through a echo filter–almost entirely in the editing room.10 Although Benning captured remarkable “wild” sound at the site–from lapping water hitting the earthwork to the chilling, animalistic sounds of a Jetty “visitor” high on crystal meth–he worked carefully with his recorded sound and digital editing tools to build a complex auditory site beyond the edge of the camera’s frame. Nowhere is this heightened verisimilitude more evident than when “Love Hurts,” by Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, plays from the stereo of an unseen vehicle.

While watching one of Benning’s expansive nature films–whether Ten Skies,13 Lakes, or casting a glance–where the ostensible subject matter, along with the aleatory soundtrack, floods well beyond the tightly determined frame, one might also become aware of the irony of being seated in the dark interiority of the movie theater.11 “Time is compressed or stopped inside the movie house,” Smithson wrote in his essay “Entropy and the New Monuments” (1966), “and this in turn provides the viewer with an entropic condition. To spend time in a movie is a sign of no good, of termites at work, but also of certain victory: those termites will letting the love of them, a kind of linophilia, if you will, run head long into claustrophobia house is to make a ‘hole’ in one’s life.”12 The intersection of Benning and Smithson at Rozel Point draws together two core samples of film history:casting a glance connects to the Spiral Jetty film as well as a history of the Western film, just as Smithson’s connects to an entire cinematic lineage, from Dziga Vertov’sMan with the Movie Camera (1929) and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) to Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959) and Vertigo (1958), from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) to Michael Snow’s Wavelength and Roger Corman’s The Trip (both 1967).

Perhaps more importantly, casting a glance connects Smithson and Benning–two significant artists at the intersection of art, cinema, and the landscape. By refusing to fix his film in the present, casting a glance overlaps and crisscrosses Spiral Jetty in time, ensuring that Benning’s film is not merely a nostalgic homage to Smithson but is in dialogue with the cinema of his forebear. And it is reasonable to suspect that that conversation is only beginning.

1. Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 142.

2. James Benning interviewed by Scott MacDonald, “Testing Your Patience,” Artforum (September 2007), p. 435.

3. “The Spiral Jetty,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, p. 146.

4. James Benning, “North on Evers,” Fifty Years to Life: Texts From Eight Films by James Benning (Madison: Two Pants Press, 2000). It should be noted that Benning was actually walking on a commercial jetty located near the Spiral Jetty–a derelict structure Smithson refers to in his essay “The Spiral Jetty.”

5. See my essay “Shooting the Archaeozoic,” Frieze, no. 88 (January/February 2005), pp. 78-81.

6. Flam, p. 150.

7. Unexpectedly, my 29th birthday is also represented.

8. See, for example, Smithson’s hallucinatory, but stealthily critical essay “A Cinematic Atopia,” featured in Artforum’s “Special Film Issue” (September 1971), alongside texts by or about Frampton, Snow, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol and others, as well as the first advertisement for the Anthology Film Archives.

9. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 348.

10. Fiore recalls: “Once the picture was in some sort of order, I began to add sound, and this was a great discovery for Bob [Smithson]. He loved all of the effects that went with the bulldozers and other machinery. So we began to think up other scenes to film.” E-mail to the author, August 1, 2004.

11. The soundtrack of casting a glance, which deserves its own essay, is a subtly constructed “fiction” using actual field recordings suggesting an expanse well beyond the camera’s frame.

12. Flam, p. 17.