Tacita Dean is an artist who needs little introduction. Perhaps best known for her film work, Dean often employs long-static shots that allow for visual poetry to unfold within the frame’s interior space. Recently, Dean’s exploration of the medium has taken a turn to using a technique that enables her to manipulate the negative – to compress time and space in a way that is only possible in an analogue world. For all you Londeners out there, this process was shown for the first time in Dean’s fantastic monolithic film, Film at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2011 and has been used again for the film JG, which opens on 7th February at Arcadia University. In fact, the UK born and Berlin-based, Dean is currently in New York for the opening of Fatigues at Marian Goodman Gallery.
It was at Marian Goodman Gallery that we Skyped with Dean, who was about to put the finishing touches on the six panel chalk board drawings previously shown at dOCUMENTA (13), which are now on view at the Manhattan gallery. As we talked (at the mercy of our internet connections), Dean explained that digital and analogue are not a replacement for the other, but rather have a place side by side – making it all the more ironic that we were chatting via a digital interface to an artist working with film.
Art Wednesday: We’re interested in how Fatigues came about? We know these drawings were actually an alternative to original footage filmed in Kabul. Can you tell us about the evolution from film to a rendered drawing?
Tacita Dean: Well I didn’t really want to go to Kabul – so I made a blind film. I put a 16mm camera and film stock in a diplomatic bag and sent it to the embassy in Afghanistan. I found a camera man and gave him clear directions as to what I wanted – I wanted to use parallax – so what you see through the view finder is not what you’re actually seeing – you have to make an adjustment, which he didn’t do. Instead all the footage had the zoom lens in it; a big semi circle with out of focus shapes coming into the frame. It was bad, but he did film a flash flood in Kabul, which was the most interesting bit of his footage.
AW: So what did you do?
TD: Immediately, in a sort of panic way, I bought albums of photos from the 1870′s Anglo-Afghan war. I started to research into the war and the occupation of the British in the 19th century, and I came across a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I looked at the photos and at a certain point I realised I had to draw myself out of my problem. I hadn’t done any blackboard drawings for ten years, but something about this space called for it.
AW: Where does the title “Fatigues” come from?
TD: I was exhausted from my work at the Tate’s Turbine Hall, so it plays on my own state and, of course, the uniform – there is a double meaning. Also, the film that I was supposed to make, was called Blind Film - and in the end the drawings are, in fact, blind films.
I wanted to do something about the melting of the ice, relating it to what I thought at that moment in regards to the Anglo-Afghan war. In the end, I didn’t use that directly, but it is very submerged inside of it and I wrote geographical places onto the boards, although these are fiction. These mountains don’t exist. They are mostly from my head. And it just sort of grew from that. I used the gravity of the space – it’s like cinema. You have the establishing shot of the mountains, then you have the glacier, and then it curls down to the beginning of the arrival of the water.
AW: Your work retains an ephemeral quality that is present in both the subject matter and in the mediums you use, seen especially in the chalk drawings. How did this process come about and what attracts you to it?
TD: I developed the black board drawing whilst I was a postgraduate student at the Slade, years ago. The walls were covered in hessian material and I put up hard boards to be able to work with paper on these walls. And then one day, I painted them with black and started to work with the negative – with chalk on black rather than black on white – and as I worked with them, they at some point took on a relationship to the sea, because they were all about erasure. They were all about flux and they had this incredible relationship with the movement of the sea. And then when I moved to Berlin it was an end point in a way because I was land-locked and I was no longer working with the sea and I could never think of anything that could work with the blackboard in this way, until now.
AW: Could you tell us a bit more about the technical side of that project? We know its creation required a very heavy-handed intervention and manipulation of the negative.
TD: Well it was made using the aperture gate-masking technique. I make masks that fit into the aperture gate, which means it’s like a stencil. So I could rewind the film and then stencil the negative space, and so build up an image on the frame, by putting the film through the camera many times.
Only when it’s been through the camera a few times, does it get exposed. So there is a hell of a risk, because you don’t know what’s there and what’s not. But with JG – which comes from J.G. Ballard – I was using it in anamorphic (the technique of shooting a widescreen picture on standard 35 mm film) – so double width – and what it enabled me to do was mix time and mix landscape. The project is based on, or related to, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and J.G. Ballard’s short story, The Voices of Time, where the character builds a sort of mandala in a salt flat which, of course, is very similar to the spiral jetty. Smithson had a copy of The Voices of Time in the library so it’s making a connection between these two people. The process enables me to have the salt flats of Death Valley on the exterior, and on the inside, the turquoise water of the Potash Mine in Utah.
AW: And you created this technique?
TD: Yes, we’ve actually patented it, and it’s a shame that nobody wants it because of digital – it is such a beautiful process. There’s an artisan side to it and it relates to drawing as well. You sometimes see the black line of where the two masks meet. And it’s all about running out of time. You see, I had a correspondence with JG Ballard over many years about this and he sent me a sort of riddle and I’m trying to answer it.
AW: What was the riddle?
TD: Well is was a proposal, in a way, something along the lines of: “Try and solve the Spiral Jetty with your film.” Its a very old desire, this film. It started in ’97. So it’s nice to actually realise it all these years later.
AW: Is JG a silent film?
TD: No, not at all. I have a voice over for the first time since ’98 and it’s the first time that it’s not me. It’s Jim Broadbent the actor, which was brilliant… but that’s another story. It’s very minimal, little bits of spoken text taken from either Ballard or Smithson.
AW: In 2011 you had a much-publicised article published in the Guardian about the decline of film. What changes have you seen since in the cultural landscape for film preservation?
TD: It’s gotten way worse. I mean its really nearly gone now. Even the most pessimistic people seem optimistic in terms of the speed with which this has been destroyed. Unfortunately, its the cinema industry. They are sort of blind to it. Particularly the distributers. The art world understands it.
AW: So where do you get your film processed now?
TD: ARRI, in Munich. And I’m trying to persuade them to keep going, but even they don’t know if they can last much longer.
AW: Are there any contemporary artists working critically with digital, whom you admire?
TD: Paul Pfiffer. There are amazing things you can do with digital. With artists it is not a problem. I think they will go ahead and push the medium, use it for what it is. But cinema, I think, is incredibly turgid – I look at contemporary cinema and a struggle to find things I want to see.
You know, my sound is digital. I use digital, I have to. The masks are made digitally. But for me it is two different things. I love the rigour and discipline of film and, of course, the aesthetics of it. For me it’s a no brainer, who would want to get rid of this amazing medium? Because [the film industry] thinks that digital is just a continuum of film, but it absolutely isn’t. They are being so absolutists about it. I remember when digital first happened and you got great projects like Festen, or the Danish or Iranian cinema, they have great digital cinema. It’s just the American cinema that’s appalling. They don’t get the difference.
Fatigues is on at Marian Goodman Gallery until 9 March. For more info [click here]
Words by Devon Caranicas.