The first week of the new year is as good a time as any to mull the passing of time so I went to see JG, the Tacita Dean film on view at the Hammer through January 26. Almost half an hour in length, with no narrative structure, it is strangely riveting. It embraces twinned topics: Robert Smithson's 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot long spiral of black basalt piled in the shallows of the Great Salt Lake in Utah; and J.G. Ballard, the English writer of dystopian fiction (Empire of the Sun, Crash) who thought Smithson to be the most interesting artist of his time. So much so that he wrote an essay on Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Smithson likely had read Ballard's 1960 Voices of Time and may have been inspired by the author's description of a giant cement mandala in the dried bed of a salt lake, a "cosmic clock."
Dean, British now living in Berlin, attempted to visit Spiral Jetty in 1997 but could not see it. It has since become more visible due to the evaporation of water from the lake. Still it remained of interest to her. in 2011, she created Film, an installation for the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, which demonstrated her own method of aperture gate masking film to seemingly layer imagery without relying on digital cameras or computer-aided post-production.
Dean used the same technique while composing JG. She was quite literally going back in time to an analog era yet, through her art, bringing new life to Smithson's sculpture and Ballard's writing. Smithson died young, in 1973, and remains an legendary figure for younger artists and curators. His work was central to MOCA's Land Art exhibition in 2012 and is featured in this year's clever novel by Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. Ballard, who died in 2009, maintains a similar position as a voice from decades past whose themes are increasingly relevant.
For the most part, Dean's film is refreshingly quiet from ambient sound and the voice of Jim Broadbent occasionally reading short passages of Ballard's writing. "If anyone could unwind the Spiral Jetty it would play back for us pictures of all it has ever seen. It literally sees time."
What I saw in JG: Great Salt Lake, sunsets and moonscapes, sculpted desert dunes and mountains, a clock hanging in the sky in the position of sun or moon, a film strip with sprocket holes along the top and bottom that repeats with three different frames, images taken at extreme close-up or great distance. A 35 mm SLR camera that had belonged to Ballard and was given to Dean has a bit in the film. Dean shot Spiral Jetty as it exists now, partially covered with water, the basalt whitened with salt crystals, sharing the desert with armadillos and lizards as well as distant freight trains and a glittering city.
There has been much written about the technical aspects of Dean's work, her use of anamorphic film, the ways she uses masking to create effects reminiscent of early 20th century experimental film. This decision too refers to the legacy of Smithson and Ballard. Smithson wrote, "A film is a spiral made up of frames." Dean explains, "JG needed to be made now because its medium and its form is the analog of the underlying equation of our universe, and it is breaking up and saying goodbye."
JG seems to me most memorable as an elegy on the passing of time, of monumental artists, their work, even the medium of film. And there is a sort of genius in that. Dean will be talking about her films on Wednesday, January 22 at 7:30pm at the Hammer.
And should you be on the East Coast, you can learn more about Smithson at the Montclair Art Museum in a show organized by Phyllis Tuchman, Robert Smithson's New Jersey, opening February 21.
For more information, go to Hammer.arts.edu.
All images: Tacita Dean. JG, 2013. Anamorphic 35mm film, color and black and white, optical sound. 26 ½ min. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris, and Frith Street Gallery, London. Spoken text taken from J. G. Ballard’s The Voices of Time (1960), Prisoner of the Coral Deep (1964) and Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist (2000) and from 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.