“It is all about the celluloid, really!” That was the remark that Tacita Dean made right after the press screening of her film, JG. We chatted very briefly about time and memory as she was making her way to the stage. JG has been buzzing in my head ever since. It is 26 ½ minute long work that raises questions about time, memory, spatial coordinates of our environment, textures, colors and grains of things of the elements. Above all, it is about the celluloid, indeed. If you haven’t seen it, you ought to. If you missed her talk on Thursday, read up the intro on the Art Gallery web site. Then go to my blog and read the links on annotated bibliography compiled by Sammy Nickalls. Start with “FILM at Tate Modern, 2012, Reviews” section first, particularly the pieces by John Bailey and Emily Eakin, followed by a listen to Rosalind Krauss’s audio lecture at Tate Modern. There is a lot more to read here before you go to my write up on the “materiality of the signifier.”
It is essential to keep in mind that JG is a film; it isn’t video. The very experience of watching a 35mm film projected on screen in our Art Gallery is a rare one. You are not likely to go through it again, not in most theaters and certainly not at home. Each frame on that film was exposed to light, processed in the lab and edited by Dean with an eye of the artist, as a poet who sees images for their depth and their capabilities. If we are used to watching images because they refer to reality of some sorts-places, people, objects, etc.,-Dean’s film is about the image itself. It speaks to the incredible ability of the photochemical film which imprints the grain, the textures and the shapes of objects so light passes through them onto the screen. Each image contains a residue of the event, the moment when the image was recorded and holds it for us to see. On some images of JG, on sprocket-hole masks surrounding them, you see three frames. Each frame records a moment different from the next, creating a tapestry of moments. Each moment competes with the other; each records a different time and asks us to see the juxtaposition as some sort of philosophical puzzle.
In a world filled with images that have little or no relation to reality and where images are born out of nothing, there is no hint of recording a live moment. We encounter images, for the most part, as free floating entities by themselves. They are simulacra without ground in reality. With a three-pronged image on the screen, Dean gives us multiple dimensions of lived memory of things. This is rare in our world. We are fast losing connection to real events, to “lived” moments. Dean takes us to the saltine landscapes of Utah and the harsh terrain of the Death Valley because that is where specific memory lives. For her, this is about J. G. Ballard and his dystopian vision of the planet. We live in a world that is masked with comfort; where environment and elements are mere backdrops to our desires. The dimension of time woven through image in JG has multiple layers. Some of it is about still moments of photography that attempt to stretch their existence. Some of it is about moving images which attempt to capture time as a fraction of its larger dimension, linear as a denotation and profoundly complex on its connotative level. Some of it addresses J. G. Ballard’s own questions about the Spiral Jetty in Utah desert as a diagram that could un-spool our memory. Jim Broadbent’s voice wonders if the unspooling of the Jetty would unlock our memories. Some of it also speaks to the treasure of cinema, from its early techniques of masking and matting that unleashed a visual labyrinth which over a hundred years of narratives could not contain. Some of the dimension of time in JG is uncased in its incessant questioning of time, where memory, like celluloid film, is about to vanish in barren landscapes and infinite spirals buried beneath the earth.
Could we not watch all this on digital media some day? Could digital media not raise similar, challenging questions? Not likely! The digital is born in a painless disconnect from reality. It is synthetic; it is born in 0’s and 1’s. It is not rooted in experience. Because it is not grounded in lived moments, it is timeless. When it attempts to capture lived experience, it comes away with pretenses. The celluloid walks away bearing a scar of the experience. JG is about the celluloid. It is not about objects but an insistent questioning of them. It is a testament to itself. When you watch JG, be prepared to absorb images for their materiality. JG is poetry in images. Once we understand that, it is also about other questions of time, space, dystopia and about our planetary connections. It isn’t about a narrative that fits our familiar frame.
As she was describing her Turbine Hall project at Tate Modern, Dean said that the experience of light passing through celluloid was “magic.” From Vittorio Storaro to Vilmos Zsigmond, cinematographers have extolled the ecstasy of filming, of painting with light. Dean is an advocate for the celluloid. She wants to preserve it without opposing the digital form. A whole generation of artists and cinematographers are with her on this. They don’t want the magic to disappear. I had a chance to talk to Dean about the other magic of the celluloid film. The magical experience of going into a theater, full of anticipation of what is about to be seen, getting ready for the space to go dark and then watching with undivided attention the romance of light on the screen; it is disappearing if not already gone. It is one of the major transitions in our lives. In Intro to Film class this semester, we are trying to re-live that magic through films about watching films. From Rear Window (1954) and Peeping Tom (1960) to Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Chacun son cinéma (2007), we will watch a world that is about to disappear.