Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

On Medium, Narrative, and Great Salt Lake: A Discussion with Matthew Coolidge and Tacita Dean

Shot along the southwest coast of Great Salt Lake, CLUI’s Landscan presents only a fraction of the lake’s landscape, which in its entirety measures approximately 75 miles in length by 25 miles in width. The video, now on exhibit at Utah Museum of Fine Arts, runs 19 minutes and presents approximately 22 miles of land. The video’s focus is on an industrial landscape where sodium chloride and magnesium are continually extracted through evaporation ponds. Beginning with water, the camera proceeds across alkaline soil encrusted with salt. Through the helicopter’s continual forward movement – our vantage through the eye of the camera – we see hues of sage, salmon, sepia, ochre, yellow, and white. Lines lay on the land forming abstract shapes, separating one range of color from the next. The helicopter descends slowly as it reaches U.S. Magnesium Corporation’s facilities. As the barely perceptible drone of the helicopter gets louder, we begin to feel we’re getting a little too close to the complex. Once past the facility the helicopter doesn’t regain altitude, but continues its descent towards an empty field of alkaline shrubbery. Cut: the video is over; the loop begins again.

It is quickly apparent this is not a touristic view of the lake. It is a new view, several centuries removed from Alfred Lambourne’s panoramic scenery, brimming with beautifully rendered clouds, birds, boats, and the occasional human, also currently on exhibit (see last month’s edition).  Despite the differences in medium, vantage points, and intent, Lambourne and CLUI present views of Great Salt Lake we can travel to and see. Maybe not the way they saw them, but these landscapes are part of the makeup of the land with identifiable viewpoints.

Contrast these with Tacita Dean’s film, JG, also on exhibit. Captured in 35mm anamorphic film, Dean’s locations were shot “mostly in Utah, near Wendover, and also in Great Salt Lake…it was filmed in California, in Mono Lake and Death Valley.” (Adrian Searle, “Tacita Dean: JG Ballard, Robert Smithson and me – video preview,” theguardian.com, 13 September 2013). It is not clear from the film if any of the lake scenes we see were shot at Rozel Point, the location of Robert Smithson’s earthwork the Spiral Jetty. Dean takes inspiration from Smithson’s work and from J.G. Ballard’s 1960 short story “The Voices of Time.” On January 24th, Dean gave a public talk at UMFA, describing her artistic history and process, ending with a summation of JG. Her professional relationship with Ballard led her to consider the relationship between earthwork and story, mining the parallels as both were set in saline landscapes where time is marked, in part, through the inclusion of prehistoric creatures. Dean’s comments on the nature of film (she is a great proponent of maintaining 35mm as an artistic medium) rang true, as it is about geologic time, creatural time, and of course, film time as the medium itself is a spiral.

Dean’s film runs 26.5 minutes, presenting a beautifully constructed fictional narrative: circular shaped landscapes appear within landscapes; water gushes atop crystalline mounds of sodium chloride; a drawing of a clock rests on the filmed desert landscape. Though I waited until after seeing JG to read Ballard’s short story, I advise visitors to read it before (UMFA has copies of the short story available to read). The complexities of a world, told in five short chapters, where people move closer and closer towards longer and longer sleep, is filled with imagery Dean captures well (who knew armadillos were so beautiful?) yet make more sense after taking in Ballard’s narrative first.

CLUI (directed by Matthew Coolidge with a dedicated corps of staff and volunteers) trains an objective eye on the land, resulting in photographs, videos, articles, lectures, and regional tours that reflect the myriad ways we use the land. Dean, on the other hand, employs the mediums of painting, drawing, and film to create narrative, fictional interpretations surrounding the idea of landscape. To understand more of each artists’ work, their preferred medium and intents, I had the opportunity to engage Dean and Coolidge in a dialogue (UMFA, January 24th) that took on a life of its own after asking one question:

Hikmet Sidney Loe (HSL): I am interested in the way you both use your creative language to realize very different interpretations of the regional landscape of Great Salt Lake.

Tacita Dean (TD): It’s really important from the onset to use the correct terminology when discussing our various interpretations – I use 35mm film, which is then edited to give the illusion of taking a single shot.

HSL: And, you can do a lot through that editing process?

Matthew Coolidge (MC): A lot, or nothing. In this “landscan” we use digital video to take a single shot of the landscape. The only editing is where and how to begin and end it. And, of course, where to point the camera and where and whether to shoot the thing to begin with. These decisions could be considered “edits” from the physical world, as opposed to the cinematic world. In JG, one thing that struck me is the amount of detail, zooming in on microcosmic processes of movement, information, material, and disintegration that your film features in such detail versus ours, which is a scaled back overview. And how the levels of resolution, meet in a way, the forms are strangely similar even though one is scaled back, the other scaled inward…

TD: …yes, in the circle and the spiral…What we have in common is we’re both attracted to the land. The attraction of the man made intervention in the natural landscape. I don’t know, is yours from an ecological point of view, or is it an aesthetic point of view?

MC: It’s from the helicopter’s point of view…

TD: There’s also an aesthetic relationship. I’m the one who’s imposed a narrative, which makes mine a fiction. And yours is very much the opposite, nonfiction, it’s more objective.

MC: Yes. But it is interesting walking towards the Landscan through those Lambournes, it’s an interesting sort of preamble, one that helps set the stage for something that’s perhaps there, that’s less obvious to some people, including me, a kind of Romanticism,  from an early American landscape portraiture school. The landscan is in a way a kind of a high tech luminous painting – not entirely, but one could see it that way, especially when prefaced with Lambourne’s work.

TD: That’s interesting, because I always think my films are closer to depictions rather than documentary. This one is bit different because it has something else imposed upon it, but it comes from a research base, a sort of dialogue. It’s interesting that you say that as well.

MC: Yeah, it’s all kinds of things, while being its own thing, without being one thing or the other. It’s documentation, it’s Romanticism…maybe it’s Romantic Realism!

TD: I’m not sure I see Romanticism in your work…

MC: It’s the kind of Romanticism you have before you fall off the cliff…it’s suspended, precipatory, liminal plunge….

TC: There is a painter, Peter Lanyon, who started to hang glide in order to change the perspective of his paintings. It was a radical thing; he was killed in a hang gliding accident. Suddenly he did what nobody had done, he removed the proscenium arch and started to paint from the sky so he had the perspective of the bird. I suppose he was like the American painter, Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a flattening to make it a two dimensional work.

MC: Yeah, every time we do one of these landscans, different environments have different textures, different dimensionalities. But because of the nature of the landscape of the lake, it’s more flat than any of the others we’ve done. It’s about flatness; it’s so flat, the division between land and sea is almost indistinct because there’s just this continuous, very shallow change from one elevation to another, so it’s the almost the definition of flatness. The idea the sun is just beaming down on this and is interacting with that marginable shoreline, moving the location of the shoreline of the lake so drastically, because of the gradual, flat landscape, like a redesign on paper, erased and redrawn, a margin that is pressed flat and smeared. The difference of land and sea, terra firma and terra aquatica is smushed-out here more than anywhere else in the United States because it’s the biggest, flattest place around.

TD:  Even just flying to and from Utah, that view from the airplane is the most extraordinary looking scape: from “God’s view,” from the view of the bird that we have now, which never used to be the case.

MC: The pounding sun, eliminating water, attacking it if you will, trying to get rid of the water, the dessication, I think is that something that is in your film, very much as well.  And it’s certainly in Smithson’s language and his reason for being here, it’s that kind of the relentless sun creating a disintegration of existence that causes a salinification of soils. The land of the flats is not arable. Salt causes the landscape to be uninhabitable in a sense, it causes all systems of life to break down, like a disintegrative flux. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not bad it’s just the mechanics of that terrestrial surface.

TD: In the beginning of Ballard’s “The Voices of Time,” he says: “What can I say? Even the sun is growing cooler.” I think that’s just by chance, the character addressed is called Robert.

MC: How long is the Spiral Jetty film, approximately 32 minutes? And yours is 26 and a half minutes? I was looking for structures, overlaps, between the Spiral Jetty film and the way you structured yours with the dinosaurs being animals in the zoo…

TD: The structure that I found in the end, because I didn’t have a presupposed structure for my film, is closer to the five chapters of Ballard’s “The Voices of Time,” where each chapter gets shorter and shorter. The reference of course is to the Spiral Jetty film. The armadillo is connected to Ballard. It’s amazing, like it’s growing armor plating in preparation for the shifting. They were both [Smithson’s work and Ballard’s work] great sources for me and their relationship. There is a character in “The Voices of Time” who is building a mandala in a salt lake. There is an irresistible parallel between the two. I used to write to him often to ask if I could make a film of the relationship and he would always say “no” very nicely, with direct reference to “The Voices of Time”, and in the end he say “don’t attach it to my yarn, make your own film.”

MC: Ballard killed fiction for me. Once I stumbled on his work I had to read everything, just like when I was a kid and I stumbled upon Arthur Conan Doyle, I had to read everything. For me, Ballard made all other fiction seem opaque and all about language, not about the scenarios created. I have read a few narrative novels since then, but not as many as I probably should, and it was his fault. But I think that caused me to get more interested in the depicted environments he created as the endgame. The landscape was where the story was.

TD: Which is coming true, now…

HSL: As in The Drowned World?

TD: Yes. Hello America.

MC: That’s why you can spend all day in a traffic island and find a world there.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *