“Can everyone keep quiet for a minute?”
And so the soft-spoken artist, Tacita Dean, shushed a roomful of men installing projectors and screens at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Then, one by one, they turned on six 16-mm film projectors.
Images of an aging Merce Cunningham emerged — the choreographer sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of a room in Manhattan, six different ways. The sound of New York City traffic, circa 2007, could be heard on speakers competing with the sound of rattling sprockets advancing celluloid across the projector gates.
Although he is not moving, Cunningham — perhaps for the last time before his death in 2009 — was dancing to John Cage’s famous silent work, 4’33”. The piece is called “Stillness,” and it’s presented as the last gasp of Philadelphia’s centenary festival of John Cage.
“This one is all about Cage’s view of silence, which is, of course, noise,” said Dean. “Silence is noise. There is no such thing as silence.”
Dean, who is often identified with the Young British Artists movement of the 1980s, is primarily a film artist. Specifically, a 16-mm film artist. She rallies against the death of her chosen medium, which she blames on the corporate decisions of Fuji and Kodak.
For the time being
“The reason I love film is its relationship with time,” said Dean. “You cannot make a film without a strong sense of time. Even on a practical basis, it’s always finite. It’s 10 minutes [on a reel]. You have 10 minutes. That’s it. Then you have to change.”
Time, the way it can be bent or stopped cold, is one of the themes of Dean’s newest project, “JG,” premiering at Arcadia University Art Gallery in Glenside. The university funded the completion of the film with a grant from the Pew Exhibition Initiative.
The film is a technical sequel of Dean’s previous film, called “Film,” which was made in 2011 for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. With that project, she developed a sophisticated analog technique to impose different images in multiple places on a single film frame. Using tiny stencils installed in the gate of the film camera — right at the plane of the celluloid — she can mask specific parts of the film frame during exposure, then roll the film through the camera again and expose other parts of the frame.
What would be child’s play for any digital editing software becomes a complex and highly precise practice of editing in-camera.
“You have to be highly rigorous to know what part of the film frame you are exposing, and it’s blind. You don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Dean. “Some things are magical and some things are tragic.”
Dean further developed the technique in “JG,” a loose and nonlinear meditation on both the Spiral Jetty, a massive landscape sculpture in Utah created by Robert Smithson in 1970, and “The Voices of Time,” a short story by the science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard.
Dean first visited the Spiral Jetty in 1997. Or, she tried to. The Jetty is vulnerable to the rise and fall of the Great Salt Lake; it can disappear below the surface. She never found the Jetty on that trip, but has since returned several times to shoot “JG.”
“It’s filmed in a potash plain, which is miles and miles and miles of white saline landscape,” said Dean. “Very Ballardian. It looks like paradise, but of course it’s completely toxic.”
A problem and the possibilities
Dean had an ongoing personal correspondence with Ballard in the last years of his life. She had wanted to make a film of “The Voices of Time,” a largely plot-less tale about the constraints of life versus the infinity of time. The central character makes a massive mandala out of concrete, not unlike the Spiral Jetty.
Ballard challenged her to make a film that solves the problem of the Spiral Jetty, instead of his story.
“It’s a charming brush-off. I’m not stupid. He was a charming man, very affable, but he didn’t want me to go near his story,” said Dean. “Of course you can’t solve the Spiral Jetty, but in a catalog essay he wrote for Smithson, it begins with what sort of cargo would have docked at the Spiral Jetty. The thing about Ballard and Smithson: there’s something enigmatic, and connected to time, that you can’t quite articulate.”
Dean, who lives in Berlin, is this week splitting her time between New York City — where she currently has an exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery — and Philadelphia, where, in addition to exhibiting at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and Arcadia University, she has programmed a series of film screenings at the International House in University City. The movies were favorites of J.G. Ballard.