Elisabetta Benassi’s work The Dry Salvages is an impressively large orange book, which at first glance appears to be a specific resource, packed with a decidedly organized volume of information. A little further digging and an inspection of the introduction page reveals the fact that it is actually a collection of 10,000 entries, each specific to details collected by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) in their Space Object Catalog. As you may infer from the name of this document, this resource is a collection of all the known pieces of detritus left suspended in orbit within our atmosphere as a result of humankind’s many forays into space exploration.
A number of the objects listed are satellites we purposefully positioned within our stratosphere for one reason or another. On the other hand, as accident almost always out-weighs intention, the majority of the categorized debris were not left behind on purpose. Everything from apparatus released in routine comings and goings of spacecraft, to articles left behind as the result of aeronautical mishaps are collected here and organized by multiple pieces of data. Some examples of the categories of definition include the objects being listed by size, weight, country of origin, and calculated distance from earth in the nearest and most remote periods of their regular orbit. Benassi has restricted herself to collecting all the known information for objects over a certain size and placed it in one massive volume for our inspection.
The sheer thickness and heft of the book are enough to make one think twice about all the articles we are responsible for leaving behind. It is odd to think of these pieces of space trash as never changing. Typically things we discard are left to rot or are subject to some form of slow decay, until they finally melt away, becoming part of the landscape they come to call a second home. The articles Benassi has brought to our attention are similarly discarded, but being left to hover in the vacuum of space, they find themselves doomed to a different fate; one that involves a seeming infinity of floating solitude, never to change, they are fated only to circle, looking down on us forlornly from above. The articles will not be subjected to weathering. Liberated from rain, wind, or invasive insects, they remain suspended over our heads forever—spinning around in a cold, lonely orbit.
Personification of detritus aside, the work seems to access an important philosophical link between our understanding of the human body and the unfathomable power of thought, as connected by the utility of the imagination. This very abstract, intangible set of information and has been organized as a charting of hard, real numbers; able to be understood in relation to our own experiences with knowable objects. It is a cleverly practical and analytical system to define a quantity of orbital objects whose actual location and trajectory the average viewer can only access via his or her own imagination. Unless we are experts, we also have to trust Benassi’s word that these hovering pieces of detritus do in fact exist at all.
It’s a leap of faith that is pertinent to any work of art, really—a trust that what you see aspires to some form of aesthetic truth in one way or another. The Dry Salvages stands as a solid compendium of facts; a daunting collection of stated truths in a bold orange and cobalt jacket. It’s a book that stares back at you from the shelf, patiently awaiting the next time you feel inspired to peruse and comprehend a far-away reality of spinning debris.
Reviewed by Matthew Hassell