Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Artist Tacita Dean on Her Correspondence with JG Ballard

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Tacita Dean (photo credit: Connie Tsang for TIFF)

It's no surprise that writers tend to make excellent correspondents. Most of us however are not lucky enough to be on the receiving end of our favourite authors' letters. For acclaimed UK artist Tacita Dean, however, thats exactly what happened when she wrote to iconic British author J. G. Ballard to request permission to make one of his short stories, "The Voices of Time", into a film.

Though she didn't get permission then, she did received a reply that kicked off a long and influential correspondence. Ballard had already been told about Dean's work by a friend, highlighting their shared interest in the work of artist Robert Smithson, whose 1,500 foot long earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty is said by some to be inspired by "The Voices of Time".

When Ballard did grant permission for Dean to engage with his work, Dean created the short film JG, which intersects with both Ballard's and Smithson's work.

JG will play in the HSBC Gallery at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West, Toronto) from June 12 to August 23, 2015. Viewing is free to the public.

Today we speak to Tacita about JG, her experience of Ballard as a friend and artist and how to she first became interested in Spiral Jetty.

Open Book:

Tell us about JG and how it came together for you.

Tacita Dean:

In 1997, I went to try and find Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty as I was at Sundance in Utah. It was a spontaneous idea and I got the directions faxed to me from the Utah Arts Council. It was a much more forgotten artwork then so it really did feel like driving into the wilderness. I never found it, as it was well below the surface of the lake at that point. The place stayed with me, however, and when I returned to London, I made a sound work (a car cassette) called Trying to find the Spiral Jetty (1997). A friend told Ballard about this and he forwarded a text he’d written on Smithson and I began a correspondence with him. Although they never had any contact, both Smithson and Ballard were interested in the other’s work. Smithson had a copy of Ballard’s short story collection called The Voices of Time and the eponymous story in that collection bears considerable resemblance to Smithson’s Jetty. The main character builds a mandala on the bed of a salt lake. I wrote to Ballard many times to ask him if I could make "The Voices of Time" into a film and he always, very charmingly, refused. In one of his last letters, he told me to treat the Jetty "as a mystery my film would resolve." So I made JG.


How would you describe the effect of your correspondence with Ballard, and his work, on your artistic development?


I actually don’t think there has been much overt influence on my work apart from JG. In a way, it is the atmosphere of his books that I’m particularly drawn to rather than the apparent tropes and themes. There are other artists more directly influenced by him. One of my photographs of Donald Crowhurst’s Teignmouth Electron on Cayman Brac is named after him, after he described it to me as reminding him of one of those Japanese planes that were still being found in the jungles of the Pacific. Ballard had an uncanny sense of the future. He was a modern prophet and visionary. His profound intelligence and askance view of the world always affected me.


What is the significance of Spiral Jetty for you, personally and as an artist? Why do you think it has captured your imagination in this way?


The image of Spiral Jetty is totemic. When you first see it, you never forget it. I remember it as a slide in an art school lecture. Then it was about engaging with the reality of art history rather than the fiction of it. I have always loved a pilgrimage. Looking for it that day in 1997 was exhilarating. Not finding it was important as it stayed in the realms of fiction but the place: the lake, the land, the algae and the salinated tumbleweed made a great impression on me. When I returned to New York on my way back to London, I bought Smithson’s Collected Writings and that’s when my interest in Smithson really began. I was young; it was my first trip to the America outside of New York. Everything, past and future felt full of potential and I associate Smithson with this feeling and the actuality of real creative possibility.


Ballard is celebrated for his written work, particularly Crash and Empire of the Sun, but you knew him as an artist and an individual as well as a writer. What would you like people to know about him that isn't widely understood?


Ballard was a very affable man to meet and quite unlike the darker side of his writing. He’d bought up his three kids alone in Shepperton, a suburb of London and I think that gave his fantastical fiction a realism and practicality that makes it so particular. In a way, I didn’t know Ballard as an artist. I know he once made an installation of crashed cars and had huge respect for artists and was a close friend of Eduardo Paolozzi. He liked the idea of being a painter, but I think he would have rejected the idea of being called an artist, although I think he was very influenced by art, particularly Richard Hamilton and Ed Kienholz, and Surrealism.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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