Tacita Dean describes her latest film JG as an attempt to solve the mystery of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a challenge posed by J. G. Ballard in a letter he sent her not long before his death. Having watched it today I can report that the mystery remains and the film deepens it. As a work of landscape art it is rewarding enough: turquoise pools, salt encrusted shorelines, shifts in scale from a beetle on the sand to a distant train passing into the grey hills. But the film's originality and its blurring of any specific sense of time and space are achieved through the application of Dean's 'aperture gate masking process'. This is described at the Frith Street Gallery site as analogous to a form of stenciling, allowing 'her to use different shaped masks to expose and re-expose the negative within a single film frame. This requires running the unexposed film through the camera multiple times, giving each frame the capacity to traverse time and location in ways that parallel the effects of Ballard’s fiction and Smithson’s earthwork and film. Among the masks used in JG is one that references the template and sprocket holes of a strip of 35mm Ektachrome slide film. The accidental black of the unexposed outlines of the other masks—a range of abstract and organic forms that suggest mountain horizons, planets, pools, and Smithson’s Jetty, appear to be traced by hand' (Frith Street Gallery).
Anyone who felt slightly underwhelmed by Tacita Dean's installation at Tate Modern in 2011 (Film), which explored some of these techniques, will, I think, be much more impressed with how they have been used in JG. In a short Guardian interview with Adrian Searle you can see, for example, at 1 min 44, one of the semi-abstract compositions created through this process: a panoramic saltscape overlayed with three circular images that may be close-ups of rock particles (it is hard to judge). There is an indefinable strangeness to some of these sequences, as if a view is being overwritten with the after-image of some other place. Sound is used to telling effect throughout the film, as you would expect from Tacita Dean's previous work. Back in 1997 she approached Robert Smithson's submerged land art through a soundwork, Trying to find the Spiral Jetty (not so hard these days, as she says in that interview, now that there is a road sign pointing to it). In JG you hear lapping water, buzzing flies and slide projector clicks, occasionally interrupted by words: "If only one could rewind this spiral it would play back to us a picture of all the landscapes it has ever seen."
The film's deserts, lakes and salt formations evoke the parched, drowned and crystalline worlds of Ballards fiction. There are explicit references to 'The Voices of Time' (which Robert Smithson had read), in which a character constructs a giant mandala in the landscape. Re-reading this story just now, the correspondences with Spiral Jetty are obvious: 'He turned the car off the road along the track leading towards the
target range. On either side of the culvert the cliff faces boomed and
echoed with vast impenetrable time fields, like enormous magnets. As he
finally emerged between them on to the flat surface of the lake it
seemed to Powers that he could feel the separate identity of each
sand-grain and salt crystal calling to him from the surrounding hills.
He parked his car beside the mandala and walked slowly towards the
concrete rim curving away into the shadows. Above him he could see the
stars, a million cosmic voices that crowded the sky from one horizon to
the next, a true canopy of time...'
Tacita Dean has written at the Pew Centre for Arts & Heritage that both Spiral Jetty and 'The
Voices of Time' 'have an analog
heart, not just because they were made or written when spooling and
reeling were the means to record and transmit images and sound, but
because their spiraling is analogous to time itself. Ballard proposed
that it was a clock that berthed at Smithson’s Spiral Jetty,
which, he imagined, would have brought the gift of time to the Utah
desert, whereas time is counting down inside the laboratories of his own
fictional world. While Smithson’s jetty spiraled downward in the artist’s imagination
through layers of sedimentation and prehistory, in ancient repetition of
a mythical whirlpool, coiling beneath the surface of the lake to the
origins of time in the core of the earth below, the mandala in 'The
Voices of Time' is its virtual mirror, kaleidoscoping upwards into
cosmic integration and the tail end of time.'