During my trip to Paris I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne where, in a completely black room void of any external light, I watched a projection of Tacita Dean’s film JG (2013). The film features footage of salt lakes in Utah, desert landscapes and expanses of water. In different scenes there are images “collaged” into the film, creating surreal compositions which are in fact rather visually pleasing. Footage showing a digger moving loads of sand and rubble, and a train cutting across the landscape reassures the viewer that this is a place here on earth, not a distant planet. When I watched this film in a tiny black room in the middle of Paris, I felt absorbed by this surreal environment; I wanted to feel the crusty salt and swirl my hand in the water – this film is captivating.
The purpose of JG was to explore the meaning of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) , a work which Dean had discussed with the author JG Ballard (whom the film is named after). Although the Spiral Jetty itself is not in the film, its form regularly haunts different scenes; sometimes created deliberately (see the image where it is superimposed onto a background of water) or present within other things (a curled up armadillo).
To add to the surrealist element of JG, every so often a voiceover cuts through the background noise; announcing the time or making an odd comment (upon research I discovered that these were quotes from works by Smithson and Ballard*). At one point the voice (an English, male accent which sounded very traditional in terms of film/television; I found that it grounded JG in reality, despite the bizarre quotes) repeats “Sun, salt, spiral”*. These three elements, the key aspects of the film, feel primitive and organic. For me, the meaning of the spiral in the film is this idea of it being manmade but simultaneously being something completely natural. The spiral seamlessly fits into the same category as the sun and the salt, at one with its environment.
All images: https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2013/jg/