Published in The Independent
As a metaphor for the unconscious the sea is hardly an original one but in Tacita Dean’s hands it becomes revitalised and transformed into a newly potent image. At art school in Falmouth its tides and rhythms entered her soul. It became, for her, a symbol of the edge, the place where inside and outside, wilderness and culture, fixity and movement meet. Her work is concerned with mapping both the actual physical wilderness and the internal space of unconscious desires. Her journeys, both inner and outer, are a quest for some sort of unnameable and, by definition in this fractured modern world, unobtainable Grail. Her work reaches towards the sublime and, indeed, is full of Caspar David Friedrich sunsets, of lighthouses blinking against dappled roseate skies, of endless expanses of blue sea. It also might be said, particularly in Banwel 1999, shown on an anamorphic (film-format) screen, which frames a herd of gently munching Holsteins as the sky blackens above a Cornish field during the recent eclipse, that Dean is making reference to Constable and Turner and the whole tradition of English landscape painting. Yet other of her pieces highlight obsolescence, decay and dereliction. Objects – often architectural - and places are charged with the tristesse of a failed and abandoned vision. Her work is not in any usual sense ‘post-modern’ – lacking the brittle irony that has now become its hallmark- but its melancholia mirrors the unrealised hopes of the utopian modernist enterprise, reveals the actual and emotional detritus that those ideologies and dreams have left behind.
Dean first came to public prominence when, in 1998, she was short-listed for The Turner Prize. Trained as a painter, she now works in a variety of media, including drawing, photography and sound, but is probably best known for her seductive, meditative 16 mm films. That she should choose to work in film, whilst so many of her contemporaries work in video, is no accident. For Dean is obsessed by the nature of time – “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past”, as Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton – and the linearity of film allows for an exploration of its historic and poetic properties. She has differentiated the use of digital video by describing it as a form of ‘looking’ and the use of film as ‘seeing’.
Her pilgrimages have taken her as far a field as Rozel Point in a search for the lost site of Robert Smithson’s seminal, but now submerged Earth Work, Spiral Jetty 1970, to the Caribbean, to a television tower in Berlin and to the Cornish coast. Her fascination with the sea has led to an abiding preoccupation with the story of the lone sailor, Donald Crowhurst, who disappeared in his fragile trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, during the Golden Globe Race in 1968. A chancer, desperate to reinvent himself and create a distance from the events of his past life, Crowhurst soon ran into difficulties in his untested vessel. Unable to face failure and withdraw from the race, he faked his navigational records, finally throwing himself overboard with the ship’s chronometer, as if he had run out of metaphysical as well as actual time. Whilst afloat, Crowhurst retreated into a private world where conventional notions of time and space became blurred. In this liminal state a sort of madness set in. It was as if he had become pure Id, lost in an amniotic ocean of fantasy and desire. The Crowhurst story has proved the genesis for a number of Dean’s works including Teingmouth Electron 1999, a photograph of Cayman Brac in the Caribbean, showing what is believed to be Crowhurst’s abandoned trimaran beached amid tropical vegetation next to the abandoned shell of a 1970s ‘bubble-house’; a failed futuristic structure that was supposed to withstand hurricanes. It also inspired Disappearance at Sea 1996 and Disappearance at Sea II (Voyage de Guérison) 1997. Filmed at two light houses on St Abbs Head and Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, the beams of the lonely beacons – flashing a fixed number of times each minute - act as sirens calling lost sailors home across the empty reaches of the sea. Archetypal journeys such as those of Jason and the Argonauts or Tristan and Isolde are invoked. In fact, the subtitle Voyage de Guérison (journey of healing) refers to the near mortal wounding of Tristan, who relinquishing himself to the forces of the sea, was washed up on a magical island where supernatural forces healed him.
In Sound Mirrors 1999 the sense of being on the edge has a particular resonance. The film is haunted by the presence of great concrete dishes that during the 20s and 30s formed part of our costal defence system. An acoustic early warning system, their inaccuracy soon led to them being supplanted by radar. Left to crack and crumble on the mudflats of the Kent coastline, these lumbering architectural relics, their angles caught against the fading light in Dean’s grainy grey film, look like sculptural monoliths. Part Brancussi, part Easter Island heads, they slowly erode and decay, subjected to times remorseless melt, as they are absorbed back into the landscape rather like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The desolation of shingle and shale is interrupted only by the traces of human existence, the barely audible sound of a train, a light aircraft taking off from nearby Lydd airport. Timeless and anachronistic, the film might have been discovered among the archives of Mass Observation.
Dean’s most recent work Fernsehturm (Television Tower) was made in Berlin in October, 2000. Having spent time in the city as a student she remembered the tower on her return as a guest artist of the Berlin Artist’s art programme. Built at the height of the Cold War in 1969, the Fernsehturm has dominated the skyline above Alexanderplatz, achieving notoriety through Alfred Doblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Dean was attracted by the modernist architecture that seemed to encapsulate a lost historic vision and an optimistic belief in a now defunct social system. She was drawn particularly to the tower’s restaurant poised on a circular revolving platform that turned 360 degrees every half hour, allowing the diners a panoramic view of the city during a full rotation. Using a static camera she filmed the interior, recording the comings and goings throughout the day. Bathed in daylight the restaurant gradually metamorphosises into a claustrophobic womb-like space as the evening draws in and the electric lights are switched on. The tower takes on a mythic quality, the divisions between the windows resembling, in silhouette, the columns of a Greek temple. Light has traditionally played a huge part in painting from Turner to the Impressionists, as, indeed, it does in photography and film. Here the changing light both emphasises the specificity of each moment – for on any other day the experience would be different – whilst also implying historic change. For this building, once enclosed in East Berlin, now finds itself in a newly democratic world looking both back to the past and forward to the future.
So much contemporary art is about art that ‘life’ seldom gets a look in. What Tacita Dean does is to restore us to the world, both natural and manmade, to the experiences of looking and being, reconnecting us to our deepest emotions of longing and desire.
© Sue Hubbard