Interview: Tacita Dean

Twice in the course of a thirty-minute interview with Tacita Dean, her eyes move across the room and narrow-in on the media coordinator, who sits quietly and at a distance, her head bowed towards her phone, her fingers silently moving. The coordinator’s preoccupation with her smart phone (a small blessing for this journalist, who prefers to interview alone) represents the weight of many things, for Dean, an artist whose attention to film and its slowness, its inherent embodiment of, and comment on, time, forms the center of her practice. It’s one that spans 25 years, a Turner Prize nomination, and Dean’s unmoving determination to use a medium that has, in recent years, become increasingly politic.

Still folding her brow at our unwitting subject, Dean considers digital technology’s clamp on our attention, and our resulting inability to daydream, our inability to grow bored. She reflects on her ten-year-old son, who keens at her phone. “My other half, Matthew [Hale], didn’t have a mobile phone until very late and it was incredibly annoying,” she laughs. “Great for him, but hard when you’re parents. I just think that it doesn’t have to be without or within. It would be great if somehow they didn’t make it so tempting to the exclusion of all else,” she says, her gaze still anchored to our preoccupied third party. “We try, but it’s an ongoing struggle.”

Dean’s current Canadian exhibition, a 35 mm “anamorphic film” titled JG (2013), on view at TIFF until August 23 (and free to the public), has brought her to this room, an expansive tumult of empty chairs and long, unpeopled tables. She has a habit of taking pauses between speaking, filling the space with gestural thought, and appearing, at turns, both fatigued and engaged. This film, which was first exhibited two years ago, and potentially bookends a decades-long conversation with her subjects, JG Ballard and Robert Smithson, doesn’t appear to have lost its interest for her. “I don’t think it has aged, really. But I haven’t seen it for a while,” she admits. She is eager to discuss the film’s complexities and vagaries, as though its reel still occupies her cutting table. This entrenchment is a testament to Dean’s continued engagement with, and long study of, subjects shrouded in a timeless aura, inhabiting a canonical status that invites fictive inserts.

Building on a trip she took to find Spiral Jetty, in 1997, which resulted in an audio work describing her Quixotic effort (the landwork was either submerged, or she was in the wrong place, Dean concluded), JG develops further on this mystic, elusive form, twinning a short story by famed science-fiction writer JG Ballard, “The Voices of Time” (1960), and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Dean draws convincing conclusions (partly informed by a friendship she forged with Ballard, before his death in 2009) that Smithson was aware of JG’s somewhat-obscure narrative, and built his iconic land art in response to – however partially – its imagery of a mandala etched into the bottom of a swimming pool.

Advancing the technical constructions that she designed for her 2011 work FILM (presented at the Tate’s Turbine Hall), Dean makes film an elastic medium in JG, employing single-frame double exposure, stenciling, and her innovative aperture-masking. The result is a rumination on geology, time, memory, and perception.

If you read into this film a comment on the infirm status of its very medium, you won’t be wrong, but it’s a hardship for its author.

You’ve been working in film media –


Medium. The film medium.

Yes. I’m not trying to correct you aggressively, but I’m trying to keep that word. It’s a medium, like an artistic medium, rather than media.

Sure. So, you’ve been working in this medium over the course of two decades that have been quite pivotal for film’s trajectory. We’ve watched digital technology encroach on the moving-image arena such that using film feels like a comment, or a politic. How does this reality affect you, or the way you view your practice?

I am sad that it becomes an issue every time I show my work, because for years it wasn’t. It was just the work. Now it’s like making a painting, and everyone talks about the fact that it was made with oils. I hope that this period will pass. But it has been inevitable.

I’ve refused or resisted having my work shown on any other medium than the one I made it on because the medium was related to the work itself. I’ve had to become, increasingly, a spokesperson. But it is sad that it just dominates. What it means, though, is that, more and more, I’m making films more purposefully in ways you couldn’t with digital. To make a point that actually it’s very different, and this work is made from the medium. It’s been hard.

I imagine it’s frustrating, yes.

It’s the finances. It’s all money, rather than artistry. Which is what’s so sad.

Can you talk a bit about how you achieved the particular effects of this film? I don’t have the vernacular for what you do, but it looks like collage, pocking, overlay, and splicing.

It’s actually all inside the picture. There’s no fancy editing techniques. It’s all filmed inside the emulsion, inside the picture frame in the same way as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s just that what I’m doing is dividing the frame up, and exposing bits of it through masking, and then rewinding and exposing different bits of it. There’s no aggressive thing done to it. I could phone the lab and print it; it’s all inside the negative.

Are these techniques a way to hold still a medium that lends itself to, or mandates, forward motion?

Well, no; it still has that temporal movement. But what happens is that I can mix different places and times within one film frame. Which is quite profound, actually.

You’re making this linear thing more elastic.

Especially with Ballard and Smithson who were both, you know, time merchants to a certain extent. So for example with the mask of the spiral, which is based on Smithson’s spiral. I have that mask [in the film], and the Great Salt Lake. But within the mask is the water from Utah, or flies from Southern California, or the sun is the same sunset but filmed a half hour later than the one before, so it becomes a time thing within one film frame. There was no post-production. I didn’t do much of anything other than edit or cut scenes together.

The word “intervention” crops up in my mind, not just in terms of what you’re doing with your medium, but your subjects, too. How do you feel about this word, “intervention”?

If anything, I’ve intervened in Ballard and Smithson’s relationship, rather than something so massive as building a spiral jetty in a lake in Utah. So my intervening isn’t necessarily a physical one, but an artistic intervention. You know, they didn’t know each other but they knew of each other. Smithson made Spiral Jetty in 1970, and “The Voices of Time” was published in 1960. A decade apart, but Smithson, I think, really knew that short story.

The terms that get used in that short story, and in its description – entropy, meditation, the threat of Ballard’s protagonist becoming “a sleeper” – these terms are made manifest in your film, in its slowness, and in the geology it frames. Are you articulating this slowness as a comment on the speed of the contemporary moment? Are you doing this in a more aggressed or urgent way then you might have a couple decades earlier, when you first began to “converse” with these subjects?

This work would never have been made at an earlier time. It’s come out of a cycle of events, including the aperture-gate masking [I produced] because of FILM at the Turbine Hall, which was a work about film.

When I actually made this film, a lot had happened [regarding] JG’s life in the intervening time. If you’ve read any of Smithson’s writing – and he was very engaged with film, but he wasn’t engaged with film in the same way as me, because he didn’t have the urgency of its potential loss … But his Spiral Jetty, the spiral of film, the spiral of the typewriter for Ballard, the spiral and spooling of magnetic tape in Ballard’s writing, they all relate. And of course the spiral present in Smithson’s belief that the Great Salt Lake was an ancient whirlpool; and Ballard’s looking up at the spiral nebulae – the spiral underwrites everything. So suddenly when I find this line in Ballard that says “the spirals are breaking up, and saying goodbye,” it became a very valid entry – at that time, about two years ago – about the end of film, I have to say. I hope there will be no end of film, and I’m more optimistic now than I was then, but it was a valid entry, of course. The spirals breaking up and saying goodbye. Even the end [of the film] with the qwwpt! [makes a quick wrapping-up, cutting-off sound].

It’s interesting to me that you title it JG, especially because there are more citations included in this, larger commentaries …

Well actually that was a working title.

Oh, really?

Yeah. [Smiles] Because when it began … it’s a really old project. I wrote to Ballard many times to see if I could make a film of “The Voices of Time.” And then he said to me, “treat it as a mystery that your film resolves,” speaking of the Spiral Jetty. And then this great thing about, “why the Spiral Jetty?” You know, I think time [doctored] the Spiral Jetty, which I think is just a beautiful idea. Also in relation to the analogue spiral, and time. So it was more about Ballard, always. Because I knew him. And I got very close to Claire [Walsh, Ballard’s long-time partner] and, I don’t know if you’ve seen the book – she wrote a little text in the book. She died as well, last year.

So for me it was JG Ballard, and it became JG, and in the end it stayed, because it’s like calling a spade a spade.

There was an interesting moment in your interview for the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage where you comment on how you realized, after-the-fact, that JG mimics aspects of his short story, with the recurrence of the clock, for instance. You comment on how you hadn’t realized the shared leitmotif between these two works until it was done. Would you have liked more distance between this film and that story, or are you pleased with the (somewhat) illustrative nature of what resulted? 

Well I think I’m quite far from the narrative text, to be honest, because of the nature of it. But the thing is that when I thought about props, or what to bring for the shoot, I thought of Ballard, and I thought of the masks, and his drained swimming pool, and the spiral, with Smithson. Then I thought of planets and time. So I bought a couple clocks in Berlin. And I didn’t know what to do with the clocks. Then we set the Ballard times in the book [through the film], but not with any coherence. I looked at the clocks I’d bought and I thought, “oh god they’re so crass, I’m not going to use them – especially the one with the eye.” [Laughs]

How I make my work, really, is alone and on my cutting table, day-in and day-out, really working with the material. I can’t ever go back and get more so I have to wrestle with what I have. And I suddenly saw a sort of thing that was building up, which was this diminution of time. And then really late on, I thought, “dammit, I wish I had another clock.” I had four [and the story requires five]. Then I thought, “I’m going to have to use the eye.” [Laughs] I’m quite glad I did; I mean it still makes me cringe, but I think in a way that when time speeds up in that book, and he runs out of it – there are five chapters – and so each of the sections gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until then end, and there’s just the lizard. That’s the end.

I wonder how you reflect on the language we use regarding time’s passage, how we illustrate it in the current moment. Everything we do is so tethered to the clock, whether digital, on a screen; our work and conversations are impossible without the presence of time’s passage. I’d be curious to know how you wish we talked about it differently, how we lent it image and import.

[Long pause] Well I’m a social human being as much as anybody. George Perrot talked about how we carry watches, and why don’t we carry compasses? We always want to know the time, but why don’t we want to know north, south, east, west. Even JG comes out of my … You know, earlier films like with Donald Crowhurst, and his time madness when he didn’t know where he was on the surface of the globe. Because he didn’t know where he was in the relationship between time and place.

[Drops her head]. How would we do it differently? You know, it is true, with the digital universe, that everything has sped up to such an extent that we don’t take time anymore, we don’t even take time in cinema, which I regret.

How do you mean that?

That very few films will take quite long to do something. And as soon as they do, they get put into the sidelines, into art cinema or something. Whereas cinema used to take more time, there used to be more time within cinema. That saddens me quite a bit; I feel disenfranchised by digital cinema. I don’t really go to much cinema anymore. Maybe it’s a generational thing, always out of step with the next generation.

I remember analogue. I remember when everything took quite a bit longer. Letters took longer. Faxes were new, and even they took longer. Now we have iPhones and we don’t ever daydream. We don’t – you see? [gesturing to the media coordinator across the room, studying her phone] – we don’t get bored anymore. It’s really hard to sit in an airport and not put your iPhone on.

I ran a workshop in Lake Como last year that was about that. It was about a [Robert] Walser book and it was about Berlin, it was called Berlin and the Artist, and it termed “sluggardizing,” the necessity for artists to just lie under skins, under pelts. It’s what’s perceived as laziness but actually it’s a stasis that can be very creative. I mean this [“sluggardizing”] is the translator’s word, but the German word is like “under felt pelts, under skins, like a slug under animal skins,” or something.

But I love the idea – those times that you do nothing can actually be incredibly creative. And that’s what I would change. There isn’t enough of that anymore. [Dean pauses until the interview is over]





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