We’ve been watching JG by TACITA DEAN

6 Nov

Georgina Voss wanders in ever-decreasing circles round an empty swimming pool.

“I’m sorry, Robert. What can I say – ‘Even the sun is growing cooler’-?”
J G Ballard, “The Voices of Time”

Shortly before he died in 2009, British author J G Ballard wrote to the artist Tacita Dean with a challenge. Could she solve the mysteries of Robert Smithson’s film and earthwork piece, Spiral Jetty (1970)? JG is Dean’s response: a 26.5-minute 35mm anamorphic film that brings Ballard’s fictions face to face with Smithson.

Smithson had been interested in Ballard’s work around entropy, the environment and altered states of consciousness, and Spiral Jetty reflected those concerns, exploring disruptions in time and reality, and illusions around categories and identities.

In the bare and near empty-landscapes of California and Utah, Dean’s JG brings the Spiral Jetty head-to-head with Ballard’s short story “The Voices of Time” (1960), which culminates with a scientist carving a mandala – a spiral – into an empty swimming pool before committing suicide, being convinced that evolution has peaked and life (and humans) will now become much simpler.

The two works both poke at the human experience of time and matter, not least through the icon of the mandala itself which, in both pieces, is carved into a ‘dried saline landscape’ of the empty pool (Ballard) and the Great Salt Lake (Robinson).

The mandala looms large throughout JG. Dean writes that, whilst Smithson’s jetty spirals down into the origins of time, Ballard’s mandala circles upwards into the tail end of time itself. The spiral acts as a keystone, opening the film as the glowing red iris of an eye set into a black background, then sitting face-on on the surface of water as an almost-unreal paper cutout, then at an angle to become the Jetty itself. These effects come about through Dean’s system of aperture gate masking, which allows portions of each frame to be exposed as film is run through the camera multiple times. Different moments, captured on a single frame, push at Ballard and Richardson’s questions about where time actually is.

These multiplicities are particularly striking in a sequence that resembles three Ektachrome slide films run up against each other. Each frame of the triad shows a different picture and point of perspective. In one set we see an excavator digging to the left; the excavator’s bucket, up close in the centre; and to the right, what appears to be a leather baseball glove quivering in the dust – before it unfolds into an armadillo. The bright white light shearing through the sprocket holes of the “slides” creates its own jarring effect, jolting you out of the film’s still and soothing landscape, back into a recognition that this is a film, and you are bodily watching it. The occasional appearance of a clock – a crude, skeuomorphic 3D face that tells the “time” (which time?) – operates to much the same effect..

Stillness and flow fill JG. There are no hurtling changes in these blue, white and ochre landscapes – but they are not frozen. An almost hypnotic flow loops through the piece: the excavator digging, ripples across water, the tide coming in on an empty beach. Dean’s many near-shots counteract the crispness of her aperture-gate stencils, transforming the natural landscape into something unplaceable. Scale and context are stripped away from the shot of white water rushing over uneven lumps of discoloured and melting ice, mirroring the visual disorientation found in Smithson’s film sequence of his Jetty.

Where then are humans in this landscape? Beyond the occasional quote from Ballard and Smithson (read by Jim Broadbent), they appear to be mostly absent. Yet their endeavours remain. The excavator continues to run, its backhoe and ‘wrist’ echoing its absent human operator as they languidly dig into the earth. Trains run in the distance, made visible only by their own smoke. The only fauna visible are those who seem to have stepped out of time: a tiny spider balancing on ice-crystals; a lizard, flopping over rocks; and the armored armadillo, hunkered down into its shell as time and the landscape move on and around it.


Coming soon in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1, 22 January 2014): Claire Dean meets the artists bent on making J G Ballard’s Crystal World a reality.

Also on the blog: Georgina Voss finds the future of food sticking in her craw.

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