Behind the Scenes: Exhibiting Tacita Dean’s 35mm film JG

“My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics, but something deeper—something to do with poetry. . . . Digital is not better than analogue, but different.” —Tacita Dean

JG, 2013. 35mm anamorphic colour and black & white film, 26 1-2 minutes. Film still_10

JG, 2013. 35mm anamorphic colour and black & white film, 26 1/2 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London/Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

By Whitney Tassie | Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

The year 2014 marks a significant change in the motion picture industry, as the major studios make the transition from film media to digital. Tacita Dean, whose 2013 film JG is on view at the UMFA through May 4, has previously worked in 16mm and made her first 35mm film as a commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2011. A portrait of the analogue, photochemical medium of film, FILM was a product of Dean’s original, handcrafted techniques that could not be replicated in a digital format. With JG, Dean continues her investigation of and advocacy for film as a viable artistic medium.

When I learned of JG, I knew we had to show it at the UMFA. Not only is it about Utah’s landscape and the Robert Smithson earthwork Spiral Jetty, but its timely production marks a pivotal moment in art and film history. Opening the exhibition during the Sundance Film Festival, when film buffs and professionals are in town and talking about this major shift, was a strategic decision on our part: the UMFA wanted to be a part of this historic conversation.

Preliminary gallery drawing for 35mm projector

Preliminary gallery drawing for 35mm projection booth.

But—showing 35mm film is no small feat! Because Tacita Dean feels strongly that her films are artworks, and more like portraits or objects than movies, we could not show the film in our auditorium; screening the film required building a viewing room as well as a projection booth. Over nine months, we facilitated intense planning and problem solving among our operations and collections departments, the University’s building department, the artist’s London-based master projectionist, our local master projectionist, and a very busy artist constantly traveling between time zones. All parties had to reach consensus on major issues such as the construction plan but also on the smallest details, like the exact Pantone gray of the walls. Calculating the projection throw, the cineport size, the screen dimensions, and the light block all had to be rectified with security concerns, building code restrictions, environmental standards for our permanent collection, and the artist’s vision. In the end, the entire viewing room and projection booth were built in a little over two weeks, coming together like clockwork.

The gallery under construction.

The gallery under construction.

Early in the planning process, it became clear that we would need expert support to get this film up and running. We partnered with the Salt Lake Film Society, hiring them to locate the equipment and full-time projectionists, and to help design our spaces. Our partnership helped SLFS raise money to convert their Tower and Broadway theaters from 35mm to digital projection systems, allowing them to continue showing the artistic and independent films that our audiences love. Partnering with other cultural organizations raises all of our voices and strengthens our community: I am proud that the UMFA was able to support another local nonprofit art center, and I am proud that we are a museum that can take on big, very challenging projects in order to give artists a platform for their work.

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