‘The only way one can understand landscape is through time.’ - James Benning
This is a still from TEN SKIES (2004) a film by James Benning that lasts over two hours and consists of ten static shots of the sky over California. You can currently watch it all on YouTube. Claudia Slanar has written about this film and its predecessor 13 LAKES (2004) that the attention they demand ‘leads to a fluctuation between impatience, immersion and digression.’ Scott MacDonald has described the experience of seeing them for the first time as like going into a horror film, where the viewer has to decide to ‘endure whatever the film is about to send their way.’ By the third ten minute sequence it will be clear that almost nothing is going to happen. So what exactly do they offer? MacDonald suggests they provide a kind of visual and auditory retraining. ‘Again and again during a viewing of either film, we ‘awake’ to realise that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry, planning… and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and soundtrack, often to realise that in the interim things have altered more than we might have expected.’
In these films, landscape is transformed directly into art. As Slanar says, they 'represent the concept of nature as a ’ready-made’, as a pre-existing object that is turned into a work of art by means of an artistic signature.’ The fragmentary soundtrack of Ten Skies ‘subtly evokes a sense of place without depending on synchronous sound’. She relates Benning's films to other examples of slow cinema – Peter Hutton's Time and Tide (2000) and At Sea (2007), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), Abbas Kiorostami’s Five (2003). Her essay, and that of Scott MacDonald, appear in an excellent compilation dedicated to James Benning published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The book discusses his work's engagement with ideas of place and the rapidly changing American landscape. As Julie Ault says, the films reveal a persistent iconography – ‘groups of cows, passing trains, emitting smokestacks, farmland being ploughed, billboards, gunshots, oil wells, highways, the Spiral Jetty and the Milwaukee neighbourhood where Benning was born and raised.’
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is the subject of Casting a glance (2007): seventy-eight one-minute shots made during sixteen trips to the Jetty between May 15 2005 and January 14 2007. The title refers to something Smithson said that evokes that idea of landscape as 'ready-made': ‘a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.’ Benning first saw Spiral Jetty almost twenty years earlier. In those days it was much harder to find - he tried various roads from Rozel Point before finding one that led to wards the lake, then had to walk three miles to find it, submerged at that point under two feet of water. I will end here with Benning's evocative description of encountering Spiral Jetty as a site constantly changing, illustrating his view that 'the only way one can understand landscape is through time.'
‘The Jetty is a barometer for both daily and yearly cycles. From morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle) may be the result of a passing weather system or simply the changing angle of the sun. The yearly seasonal shifts and water level changes alter the growing salt crystals, the amount of algae in the water, and the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple, green, brown, silver, or gold. The sounds may come from a navy jet, wildlife, splashing water, a distant car radio, converging thunderstorms; or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving through the veins in your ears.'