Helicography | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University


by Craig Dworkin

Punctum Press, Goleta, CA, 2021
220 pp. Paper, $21; OER, free
ISBN:-978-1-953035-64-6; DOI: 10.53288/0352.1.00

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
April 2022

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, is beyond any doubt one of the most iconic creations of modern sculpture and land art (the term “earthwork combines both in an efficient as well as elegant way), and its impact on contemporary thinking in arts and science is gigantic. Yet visitors of the Great Salt Lake site in Utah where Smithson built his counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake often feel underwhelmed, as if the size of the construction, 1,500-foot-long (460 m) and 15-foot-wide (4.6 m), were not big enough to impress them. Yes, in art it is not “size” that matters, but “scale”, in other words: not the objective, independently measured dimensions of something, but the relationships one subjectively creates between a given object and something else. As Smithson himself stated: “Size determines an object, but scale determines art.” Yet if Spiral Jetty is the visual and sculptural attempt to explore the widening gap between size in scale, then Helicography is the attempt to continue its dynamics in the field of writing –and to show what writing is still capable of inventing as a specific medium, just words on a page, so to speak, but words and pages that go much beyond much today’s experimentalism, where the future of writing is often envisaged in the expanded space of intermedial and transmedia combinations.

In Helicography, this exercise in (up)scaling Spiral Jetty in writing is seen through the lens of ‘pataphysics,’ that is, according to the definition of its inventor, Alfred Jarry (the author of the infamous King Ubu character, depicted by the author with a spiral adorning his belly), the “science of imaginary solutions”, a science that later forms of ‘pataphysics, for instance in the context of Oulipo, the workshop of potential literature, will link with the notion of the “clinamen”, theorized by Lucretius in his De rerum naturae and referring to the to the unpredictable swerve of atoms, more precisely to the erratic twists that suddenly change the trajectory of particles.

In writing, ‘pataphysics’ allows for two major stances: on the one hand, universal analogy (everything can  be linked to anything else, like the chance encounters on Lautréamont’s dissection table); on the other hand, breaks and disruptions (the clinamen that virtually breaks all rules and constraints, while creating completely new forms and mechanisms). As Dworkin summarizes near the end of his book: “The conclusion I hoped to reach with this story, with this series of caprices and tocades, was the following: the most dissimilar facts can be connected in such a way that they participate in the same narrative, and their incoherence can become coherent” (p. 132). From the point of the view of the reader, and if it is allowed to introduce another metaphor, this translates into an amazing mix of the music of the spheres and a headache, for one is at the same time under the spell of a total work of art (really “everything” is included in Helicography), thanks to the law of universal analogy) and exposed to permanent challenge and questioning. Playing with “everything” as well as “anything” produces a feeling of information overload, which is clearly meant to test the reader’s capacity to go as far as possible beyond her or his own limits.

All this may seem very abstract, but nothing is as concrete, material, precise, and razor-blade sharp as Helicography. The book is all text, for only the cover and the opening paratextual pages are illustrated, and it presents a mix of scholarly research and creative writing. In practice, the progressive unfolding of the “description” of Spiral Jetty goes in two directions.

First of all, there is a thematic, almost encyclopedic widening of the theme: a work of art (but a work that aims at eventually becoming part of nature), an author (but also a whole range of collaborators and stakeholders), a medium (but which one?), an environment (a geophysical setting characterized by a high degree of instability), a history (all kind of histories), a motif (a meandering one), in short everything that can be associated with Smithson earthwork is welcomed in the book and becomes the starting point of sometimes wild and always astonishing comparisons, analogies and extensions, in a way that both subtly and aggressively combines Surrealist invention and scientific argument. A simple example here would be the countless variations on the notion of “length”, first defined in objective terms of “size” and then ceaselessly redefined in terms of “scale” via all kinds of totally unexpected comparisons with comparable lengths.

Second, the widening is also strongly verbal, both at the level of syntax (Helicography can be read as an effort to shape new forms of rhythm via repetition, accumulation and variation, the result for reader being an impression of humming and drumming) and at that of vocabulary. Dworkin does not only introduce a remarkable number of technical and scientific terms, while also exploring the properly verbal dimensions of these words: their length, their sound, their rhyming effects, etc. He also combines languages, mainly French and Latin, all of them being considered as objects moving and changing in time and space, hence the emphasis on etymology and long-forgotten meanings, and above all mutually interacting, from a formal as well as from a semantic point of view.

It would be easy to describe Helicography as a tightly knit network, a maze, a web, but such a description remains too much on the side of “size”. Dworkin’s book is also a mash-up, a whirlpool, a swirl, a vortex, a work always in the making, which gives an idea of the “scale” component. It is a story and the negation of a story (narrative is everywhere, but an overarching storyline never coagulates), an “arts and science” product but also the negation of what we believe art and science represent (there is a lot of gai savoir, of merry knowledge, which is also often very disturbing and disquieting), it is a document as well as a fiction, it takes us by the hand while putting us at risk as if we were facing a rattlesnake, that is a mobile spiral, or one of the many forms that mobile spirals take in this book, it is totally new while reinforcing a fuzzy set of comparable textual experiences. For my part, it was impossible not to think of Christian Bök’s Crystallography or J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud, among others, all works that can be situated in the same field of strongly committed documentary art and science creative writing and that play with the both possible and impossible superposition of microcosm and macrocosm, where the fragments manages to capture the whole, but where the experience of the whole is never that of the fragment, and vice versa, in an endless as well as endlessly changing loop.