Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tacita Dean

Kodak, 2006

I first came across Tacita Dean through her film work at the Tate Britain. One of her 16mm films was being projected in a small space in total darkness. I mean it was so dark that you couldn’t see your own hands, let alone if there was anyone else is the room at the time, which is I guess is all part of the strange surreal experience her work evokes. The work was called Kodak (2006) and was made using an out-dated 16mm camera of a Kodak factory in Chalon sur Saone, a factory which was just about to close down all film production there.

The work is interesting, not only because of the obvious connection between the use of virtually obsolete 16mm camera in documenting the decline of a film production factory, but more so because of it’s strange, haunting beauty. The camera seems to float through the space of the factory like a ghost. It travels through darkened rooms with heavy shadows and occasional bursts of intense colour, such as the striking pink light towards the end in the packaging factory. Whilst watching there’s something very strange about not being able to see your own body and the hypnotic effect of her camera work removes all sense of conventional space.

Later, I came across a series of blackboard drawings entitled The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days without initially realising who the artist responsible for them was, but there was something in their stark beauty that was particularly striking. Each drawing is so full of rich detail it’s hard to believe that they’re all created with chalk on Masonite panels. The subtlety of the sea is spellbinding enough to capture anyone’s attention and you really get an idea of the kind of affinity Dean shares with its turbulent, unknown nature. The Roaring Forties is the name given to a zone in the southern Atlantic between 40 and 50 degrees latitude, which is notorious for its gale-force winds.

Roaring Forties: Seven Boards In Seven Days

The series of drawings has a very vintage black and white film aesthetic about them and Dean has added direction notes to add to that cinematic quality. What really added to the atmosphere and transported you to the scene, wasn’t just their size, the direction notes or the subject matter, but the actual sounds of the gallery. The creaking of the wooden floor began to echo the creaking of the ship as it was caught in high winds and the ropes grew tense under the pressure.

An understated, contemplative atmosphere connects these two works and after exploring more of her video and photography work, I discovered this to be a trend which appears to run through all of it. Centred around this meditative exploration of the unknown is Dean’s fascination with the sea. Perhaps the sea is obvious as a metaphor the mysteries of the human condition, but she avoids all of the obvious pitfalls and somehow rises above such cliché.

Her video work about the sailor Donald Crowhurst, who tried to fake a round the world yacht trip, which ended in his death as he jumped overboard doesn’t choose the obvious starting points, but tries to recreate an atmosphere and hypnotically entrance the viewer into his lonely, isolated and fateful world. In Disappearance at Sea, Dean uses an anamorphic format to record images of the repetitive nature of the revolving light of St Abb’s lighthouse, interspersed with images of the sunset, until it becomes drenched with the tragedy of Crowhurst’s own fatal journey.

Still from Disappearance at Sea, 1996

What makes Dean’s work so rewarding is the personal experience of history and culture that she brings to each of her projects. From the common component of history, you start to get some sense of how she reacts to such a thing, raising questions of identity and the search into the unknown for some meaning. One important aspect of her work is how certain meanings are prescribed in a very individual manner. There is always a striving for something, but all attempts are often futile as witnessed by the tragedy of Crowhurst, the decay of architecture, the transition of outdated technology into obscurity. The end product is not important, but the way in which we get there is and that is the very core of Dean’s work.

Her work is full of mystery, the apocalyptic, human failing and futility, but beyond that there is still a sense of the sublime, of wonder and awe as it deals with the changing nature of beliefs, dreams and goals. It also deals with the ideas of moving on, finding new discoveries and pursuing boundaries which form the very basis of human nature. Because in spite of all this futility, we still endeavour to understand ourselves and strive for things beyond comprehension. Dean’s work is a delight for the imagination and a much-needed relief from the unreasonably angst-driven YBA’s that are dotted around the Tate Britain. It’s just a shame that we live in a world where so many of us won’t have the time or the patience to appreciate the works calm, intelligent beauty and we only end up missing the point.


Before me rose the same factory that I’d seen everyday of my life for thirty years. In the yet to clear mist of the early morning, the structure appeared like a ghost ship at sea. Looking more carefully, I noticed three of the workers outside smoking cigarettes and laughing. Amongst them was Jonah, the loudest of the workers. His hearty laugh could always be heard storming through the dense smoke of kaleidoscope colours inside the factory. They used to be wary of my approach, but nowadays the three men continued their early morning banter without acknowledging my presence.

This morning I decided to stop before the factory door and wait a few moments before going in. This must have made the three of them nervous because they stopped talking with such enthusiasm and fell into barely audible whispers. Then after a while Jonah turned to look at me and smiled. I nodded my cap, our eyes met and I left the group.

Inside the factory’s metallic shell, guided by red lights I made my way to the empty office that awaited my presence to imbue it with life. After years of working in the noisy environment, the sound of the machinery had gradually become nothing more than a haunting drone. Every morning it lifted my spirits to hear the churning, rattling, scraping sounds all around me as if I had become synthesised with my surroundings. Before I entered my solitary cell, I paused to watch the passing workers cast strange shadows and silhouettes against coloured sheets of light. I breathed in the synthetic smell of the chemicals which make up my daily life. Everything in this place existed to capture a past that will only exist in the future. I have always enjoyed this paradox.

Today there was no mist, but my walk to work took longer than usual. The ground was hard against my feet as I strode across the barren landscape. Behind me, my footprints in the papery clay stretched out towards the horizon. In the bare trees, the last of the leaves had fallen and I paused for several moments to reflect upon their quiet beauty. They made me remember my own childhood, growing up in a small Alpine village covered in snow and laughing with friends.

None of the workers were outside today. The temperature had dropped to below zero. In the sky above the frozen factory, the clouds looked like the faded edges of old photographs. Inside the humming of machinery continued to create the film of the future to record the past. I passed through the fractured purple lights that fell like bars upon my face and heard for a brief moment the hearty laughter of one of the workers rise above the drone. I smiled at their enjoyment.

This morning I made the same walk as I do every morning, but no matter which way I turned, I couldn’t quite remember the exact route. It seemed as if someone had changed the layout of the world in the night and I was no longer able to rely upon my own memories to guide me. Eventually I had no choice but to sit down for a few moments on the side of the road and try and picture in my mind where I had come from.

After a while the frozen ground began to chill my legs and feet so I got up and stood there struggling to orientate myself. In the whiteness that spread out before me it was difficult to know which direction I should take so in the end, I headed the way I thought I’d come from and as I set off light snow began to fall all around me. It was a beautiful scene and for several moments, I forgot myself and was nothing more than a ghost in the middle of snowfall.

I woke up today in a sweat, without remembering my dreams. As I rose from my bed, I wondered where so much of my life had gone. My dreams, as I imagine, must contain many small segments of my life which fill some unknown part of my brain like a huge filing cabinet. One day I’d have to have a serious sort out.

This morning as I sat on the balcony of my secluded house, drinking a hot cup of freshly made coffee, I heard the birds sing in the trees for the first time. It was cold in the air and the steam rose like dragon breath and dissolved with tiny pirouettes. The edge of the sun crept in across the valley and suddenly it struck me… I realised that today I had nothing to do.


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