Berlin-based British artist Tacita Dean is esteemed for her drawings, photographs, prints, and sound works, as well as her artist’s books and texts. She is best known, however, for her films, which she began exhibiting in galleries in the mid-1990s, making her one of the first artists of her generation to dedicate herself to the medium. She is fascinated by the dynamics between the materiality of celluloid and the passage of time, which she employs in the service of narrative, however apparent or oblique, and regardless of her subjects, which include artists, anachronistic architecture and landscape. Characterized by static camera positions, long takes and ambient sound, her films are imbued by an uncanny stillness that elicits meditative forms of attention. Dean’s acute regard for light and subtle forms of motion combine to create singular evocations of sensibility and place, the spirit of the moment and the essence of film itself.
JG is a sequel in technique to FILM, Tacita Dean’s 2011 project for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It is inspired by her correspondence with British author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) regarding connections between his short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s iconic earthwork and film Spiral Jetty (both works, 1970). The new 26 ½ minute work is a 35mm anamorphic film shot on location in the saline landscapes of Utah and central California using Dean’s recently developed and patented system of aperture gate masking. JG departs from her previous 16mm films in that it marks a return to voiceover and sets out to respond directly to Ballard’s challenge—posed to her in a letter shortly before he died—that she should seek to solve the mysteries of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty with her film. The connections between Ballard’s short story, which ends with its main character building a mandala in a dried saline landscape and Smithson’s earthwork in the Great Salt Lake, are unequivocal. Dean writes: “While Smithson’s jetty spiralled downward in the artist’s imagination through layers of sedimentation and prehistory, in ancient repetition of a mythical whirlpool, coiling beneath the surface of the lake to the origins of time in the core of the earth below, the mandala in ‘The Voices of Time’ is its virtual mirror, kaleidoscoping upwards into cosmic integration and the tail end of time.”
Dean’s use of aperture gate masking is a labor-intensive process, analogous to a form of stenciling, which allows her to use different shaped masks to expose and re-expose the negative within a single film frame. This requires running the unexposed film through the camera multiple times, giving each frame the capacity to traverse time and location in ways that parallel the effects of Ballard’s fiction and Smithson’s earthwork and film. Among the masks used in JG is one that references the template and sprocket holes of a strip of 35mm Ektachrome slide film. The accidental black of the unexposed outlines of the other masks—a range of abstract and organic forms that suggest mountain horizons, planets, pools, and Smithson’s Jetty, appear to be traced by hand. A work that could only be made using 35mm film, JG is also about drawing and collage and, as such, strives to return film to the physical, artisanal medium it was at its origin. Made inside the camera entirely while on location, this process serves to restore the spontaneity and invention that distinguished early cinema in comparison to the relative ease and what Dean calls “the end of risk” afforded by digital postproduction.
Spoken text taken from J G Ballard's 'The Voices of Time' (1960), 'Prisoner of the Coral Deep' (1964), 'Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist' (2000) and his correspondence with Dean, courtesy of the J G Ballard Estate
And from: Robert Smithson’s ‘The Spiral Jetty’, 1972 © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York. Used by permission
JG was originally commissioned and shown by Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glenside, Pennsylvania, and was funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia. Additional funding was provided by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris; Frith Street Gallery, London and the Dietrich Foundation.