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Interviews / June 10, 2015

Tacita Dean Talks Spiral Jetty and Celluloid’s Enduring Appeal

British artist Tacita Dean discusses her interest in land artist Robert Smithson and science-fiction author JG Ballard, and her commitment to celluloid.


British artist Tacita Dean is widely regarded as a master of film works that evolve subtly, even hypnotically, toward the sublime. Her critically acclaimed works are dense with richly abstract moving images driven along a narrative course that, as she writes, deals “in time, cosmic and human, future and past, as well as the analogue spooling of the now.” She’s also a hardcore advocate of the hands-on practice of filmmaking and the enduring value of 16-mm and 35-mm film. Beginning on June 12, Dean’s 2013 film JG—an ode to the work of science fiction writer JG Ballard and artist Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty—makes its Canadian debut at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Earlier this week, Bryne McLaughlin caught up with Dean by telephone from Los Angeles, where she is currently artist-in-residence at the Getty Center, to unravel the peripheral connections between Ballard and Smithson, Dean’s own decades-long history with Spiral Jetty and how chance, coincidence and contingency brought it all together.

Bryne McLaughlin: Your film is titled JG after the writer JG Ballard. It’s also very much a work about the artist Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. You’ve written elsewhere about the fascinating backstory that, in somewhat tangential ways, connects these two key figures. Can you briefly sketch out those connections between Ballard and Smithson, and then how you came to be a kind of third party in that conversation?

Tacita Dean: Right. It’s quite a long story but, yes, there were connections between them. It’s funny, because Smithson was a big fan of Ballard. He quoted him often and there are records that he actually had various books by Ballard in his library collection. One of those books is a collection of his very earliest short stories called The Voices of Time. It’s quite difficult to say what it’s about. It’s about a science laboratory and scientists who are running out of human time in a way, they have a sort of sleeping disease. And it’s related to the activities of the sun and the cosmic world. But it’s a story that is impossible to get a total hold of, which is what makes it such a great one. It ends with the character, whose name coincidentally is Robert, going to the salt flats to build a sort of mandala. The mandala is a way to communicate with the universe with the cosmos as he runs out of time.

At any rate, Smithson had a copy of the book and there are these huge parallels between the two, about Smithson and his mandala in the Great Salt Lake. I knew Ballard, a bit. I first in fact got to know him when a friend, Jeremy Miller, sent him a program about my Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty. He’d written an essay about Smithson for a catalogue. So he knew about Smithson, and Smithson knew about him, but of course they never met. They were from different universes in a way.

This was a very, very long time ago, but I wanted to make this film of The Voices of Time. Ballard would always very politely say I couldn’t, but one day he wrote me a letter giving me advice about what to do—you know, treat it as a mystery that your film will solve—and then he wrote this thing about what is the Spiral Jetty, what is this very strange jetty for, what would have landed there? He said what landed at the Spiral Jetty was time, and that Smithson brought time to this Utah desert. It’s a great letter. Then Ballard died and I carried this project around with me until I got a grant to go and do something with the American landscape. I suddenly thought well maybe this is the perfect project for that.

That was in 2008, and I went to Utah, Nevada and Southern California. Then the whole Turbine Hall project, FILM, intervened, which was great because it gave me this aperture-gate marking technique. That meant that I could suddenly go back to JG and do something with it that I wouldn’t have done before the Turbine Hall, which was to start printing, even exposing on the emulsion, various places on the film frame. I could start playing with time and location and place myself. It meant that I could use masking to mix Utah with the Spiral Jetty. On the first visit we ended up finding this potash field, which was this stunningly beautiful place, but also highly toxic. Which is very Ballardian in a way.

Of course there’s a huge relationship between spirals and time. It also relates to the typewriter ribbon and the quarter-inch tape that figures in The Voices of Time quite a lot. Even to the spiral nebula and the universe’s relation to spirals. So I started to just make a film that really just plays on all of those things. In the end it became also about the breaking up of the spiral and the breaking up of film and the breaking up of our analog world.

BM: It followed, as you said before, on another project you’d done earlier where you’d gone to try and find the Spiral Jetty and it was submerged, or you weren’t sure if your were looking in the right place…

TD: Yes, I never found it the first time I went, which was in 1997. Now you can’t miss it because there are, unfortunately, signs saying “Spiral Jetty.” When I went in 1997 it was a true pilgrimage. Nobody was really thinking about it at the time. My memory of it was from some sort of article, a black-and-white image. That’s all changed. But what I did get at the time was this incredible feeling of the place, and it introduced me to Smithson more profoundly than just someone I had learned about in art school. I have very, very strong memories of that day. I still do.

BM: I guess there’s a certain resilience to Spiral Jetty that has much to do with it being a kind of cipher or ephemeral register for our impressions of time, from the image in an art textbook to the disappearance of it under water to its re-emergence with time.

TD: The lake is rising and falling all of the time, and Smithson wasn’t really interested in his work disappearing. For Smithson, Spiral Jetty was very much about relating to some sort of hidden place beneath Great Salt Lake, the universal core, whereas with Ballard it very much goes off into the cosmos. I see the surface of Utah as the sort of midpoint between the two.

BM: Another of your well-known projects, Disappearance at Sea, centres on the false mystery surrounding British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. Is there a common trait that draws you to these monumental figures?

TD: Crowhurst wasn’t really a monumental figure, he was sort of the opposite. He was very flawed. The funny thing is that I actually wrote to Ballard about Crowhurst. I even thought that the name Crowhurst sounded like one of Ballard’s characters. There’s this photograph of Crowhurst’s boat surrounded by jungle and I sent it to Ballard and asked him, what did you think of Crowhurst? He said he thought Crowhurst was a fool, actually. But he liked the picture. It reminded him of these Second World War planes that are still being found in the South Pacific. He was very much into the decontextualization of things.

So they’ve all been very different projects, but they’ve all had some interconnections. The Crowhurst film was my early art life for a while, in 1997 I went to find Spiral Jetty by default because I was at Sundance. I don’t know, they just take on a significance based on the situation I was in at the time. It’s not like I’m pursuing old men, you know. Virtually every single one of those projects come about from a different reason. I don’t really want to know where I’m going next.

BM: You’ve long been a champion of celluloid and you’ve said the qualities of analog filmmaking has “something to do with poetry.” That runs against the dominant trend towards digital cameras and production. Why do you choose to work with 16-mm and 35-mm film as opposed to digital?

TD: It’s a long story. There are many reasons why I use film. It used to be just because that was the moving image that you used when I was in art school in the 1980s, but now it’s more difficult…with the co-existence of digital I had to develop a more strategic argument for analog film, which is: it’s just my medium. You wouldn’t spend a long time asking Cy Twomby why he used oil paints, if you know what I mean. Each film frame is organically different; no two frames are the same. If that’s the case, you are already dealing with a language that has enormous, innate beauty. You aren’t just replicating the same thing over and over again. It’s a very organic and living thing. It breathes, it moves, it has this internal structure in the way it reacts to light. It’s much more related to things I would like, like alchemy and chemistry and photography, light and time—these are the things that interest me and what my work is made of and about.

On a very practical level, I love the mistakes of film, I love everything that film gives me that digital would not, everything that I do not know yet. Especially in a project like JG, where I’m exposing the emulsion on a third of a film frame, and then hiding it and then exposing it in the middle and then hiding it. Or filming things like armadillos and lizards; I don’t know what I’m going to get, it’s so up in the air. So that takes away something of my intention. I’m the sort of person that doesn’t believe that all artists’ intentions are good intentions. And I know as an artist that a large part of what you do is not deliberate. A lot of it is found through other things, like chance and coincidence and contingency. These things are things that I really value.

Digital is a much more deliberate medium. Sometimes it’s nice when the medium takes over, which is what it does with anything else. For example, I’ve just done these big chalk drawings. At some point, the drawing and the chalk do something else that I’m not intending, but I adapt. I think this is fundamental of the history of art, and I think film still gives that to an artist. It has that blindness. Of course, digital is a very elastic and useful and functional thing. It’s incredibly important for a different sort of artist than me. But the artist that I am, I need to use film. I don’t want to have the lights on all of the time. I need to have some darkness, darkness within my process, literal darkness. Digital is about seeing what you’re doing all of the time. I can’t do that. I need the medium to interfere, to intervene.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.