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Tacita Dean takes on Spiral Jetty—again

The late novelist J.G. Ballard challenged the artist to “solve the mystery” of the famous land art work through her film

Tacita Dean, JG, 2013

“It is ambitious in every sense,” says the Berlin-based artist Tacita Dean of her new film project, JG, which goes on view at Arcadia University Art Gallery in greater Philadelphia next week (7 February-21 April). The piece, a looped 35mm work shot on location in the salt-encrusted landscapes of Utah and southern California, explores the parallels between Robert Smithson’s land art work and film Spiral Jetty, both 1970, and “The Voices of Time”, 1960, a short story by the British novelist J.G. Ballard.

Dean explains that the writer Jeremy Millar brought the artist and the late author together. “Millar sent Ballard a text about my 1997 work on the Spiral Jetty,” Dean says (in her early sound piece, Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty, she failed to find Smithson’s vast creation after following a set of instructions faxed by the Utah Arts Council). The work, made of mud, salt crystal and rock, forming a 15ft-wide and 1,500ft-long coil in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, is one of the earliest and most recognisable examples of “land art”.

Dean and Ballard subsequently began to correspond about Spiral Jetty. This discussion culminated in Ballard throwing down the gauntlet to Dean shortly before his death, declaring that the artist should “treat the Spiral Jetty as a mystery her film would solve”. Meanwhile, Dean and Millar had always linked “The Voices of Time” to Smithson’s piece, even to the point where the main character of the short story is called Robert.

JG is also important from a technical point of view as it furthers Dean’s invention of aperture gate masking, which she developed for FILM, her 2011 project for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. This technique involves exposing a variety of forms within a single frame.

“Exposing light through the aperture gate is what makes the frame on film which, of course, is otherwise blank. So by masking inside the aperture, you can make different shapes, almost like stencilling,” Dean says. “You can mix landscape and time in the same frame.”

One of the “masks” resembles the sprocket holes of a strip of 35mm Ektachrome slide film, a symbol of Ballard’s 35mm camera, which was donated to Dean by Claire Walsh, the author’s longtime partner. Dean also used the camera to take photographs on location; the works are due to be published in an artist’s book along with facsimiles of a manuscript by the British writer Will Self produced on Ballard’s typewriter.

JG, which includes a voiceover by the actor Jim Broadbent, is due to go on show at Frith Street Gallery in London this autumn.

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9 Jan 14
0:56 CET


"JG" is currently on view in January at the Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California. I am the 35mm projectionist. Interesting how the film itself is wound on a reel in a spiral

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