Tacita Dean (The Guardian)

Much ado about nothing
People complain that not much ever happens in Tacita Dean's films. But that's the whole point.
By Jeanette Winterson, The Guardian, 29 September 2005
on Fernsehturm (2001); also mentionned : Girl Stowaway (1994); Disappearance at Sea (1996); Disappearance at Sea II (1997); Teignmouth Electron (1998); Pie (2003).
"This summer we had the pleasure of walking alongside the Thames between the Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern, and finding not one but two major women artists dominating both spaces. Rebecca Horn and Frida Kahlo were an exciting double first and, this autumn, women will again be major players in the art galleries, with new work by Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing and Tacita Dean coming our way.

Four women, and four British women, is good news. British art right now is robust, world-class and ground-breaking. We can be especially pleased that so much of the new energy and direction is coming from women. Anyone who doubts that the girls have got what it takes should go and see for themselves - beginning at Tate St Ives with the strange and haunting filmscapes of Tacita Dean. "Everything that excites me no longer functions in its own time. I court anachronism - things that were once futuristic but are now out of date," she says.

Dean was born in 1965, the "new" decade of free love, space travel, rock and pop, fitted kitchens, ITV, adverts, drugs, vitamin pills, nuclear bombs and the cold war. In the communist part of Berlin, a revolving cafeteria allowed diners exactly an hour to eat cream buns and drink tea while watching a 360-degree panorama of their city, looking out towards the forbidden Berlin of the West. The Fernsehturm resembles a lighthouse or the prow of a ship. It is a relic of a particular regime, a particular time. It is marooned in its own past, and it beams out futuristically across the skyline. Like so much else, what was once a symbol has become a tourist attraction, and, significantly, a full rotation has been sped up from one hour to just 30 minutes.

Life has moved on. There is no wall, no GDR, but though the Fernsehturm can turn faster, it can only be caught at its own pace. In 2001, a year after she went to live in Berlin, Tacita Dean made the interior of the Fernsehturm into a 44-minute film - in which nothing happens. Unlike other film artists, such as Bill Viola or Billy Innocent, Dean is the genius of Nothing. Nothing needs a capital letter, because it is a Sartre Nothing, or a Beckett Nothing.

Her genius, with her slow, steady, held frames, is to allow the viewer to dream the Fernsehturm; to enter it without hurry, without expectation, and to accept, as we do in a dream, a different experience of time, and a different relationship to everyday objects. The glasses, the cutlery, the windows, the light, the shapes of people, the geometry of the tables ask, through the medium of the film, to be noticed, and to be understood. Time slows, then slips its loop altogether. The restaurant revolves, but we are outside of time - observers in space, with a weightlessness that contrasts to the solidity of what we are asked to observe.

I have watched people watching this film - one of her longest - and some walk away quickly, some lie down and have a snooze, some surrender themselves to the intensity of the experience. Others watch half of it, then complain bitterly in the cafe, because they waited and waited, and nothing happened. But climbing out of the nothing, like shy creatures, trodden-on and overlooked, is the curious life of objects freed from their everyday imprisonment. We understand that when Cézanne paints an apple, or Vermeer a milk jug, it is as though we had never seen these objects before.

On film, which has become the medium of action, contemplation is anathema. Yet when film allows a moment to unfold in real time, we realise that a moment is agonisingly long and that our perception of time is both subjective and approximate.

Dean can draw beautifully, and some of her drawings will be on show at the Tate, but 16mm film is her preferred medium because she is attracted to its relationship with time. She likes the beginning, middle and end that film allows, but far from reaching for a conventional narrative, she uses the time-line of the film to release her subject into its timeless state.

One of her new short films, PIE, is eight minutes of magpies in the trees outside her window in Berlin. Their restless squawking and hopping gives no sense of time passing, or of any purpose but their unplanned choreography becomes a dance of life - life that can only be found in the moment, but which depends on the illusion that the moment will last forever.

"I do not think I am slowing down time, but I am demanding people's time," she says. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush. Art on film makes us conscious of the time and space we occupy, and give us an insight into the nature of time itself.

Many people will be familiar with Dean's work from her Friday/ Saturday project for the ill-fated Millennium Dome. She recorded sound over 24-hour periods, Friday through Saturday, at locations round the world determined in relation to the Greenwich Meridian. The Dome, anachronistic before it had begun, worked well with her preoccupations. She located her installation in a ventilation hut but there was so much noise from the Dome itself that she reinvented the soundscape in a jukebox, a construction halfway between the deck of the Starship Enterprise and an old-fashioned radiogram, with light-up dials and knobs to select your latitude: Alaska, Bangladesh, Yemen. Once selected, the jukebox will play one of its 192 CDs.

Dean takes great care with her film soundtracks, but her sound-alone installations open a world where hearing becomes our only radar. She turns us into bats or moles, dependent on just one of our senses, and that sense heightened to a painful acuteness.

There is discomfort in Dean's work - and no getting away from it, except by refusing it the time or the concentration. If you want a quick fix, she will seem superficial; you can't just pop in and have a look, as you can, say, with Damien's shark or Tracey's bed, or the Mona Lisa. The films and the sound installations need something of surrender to get the best out of them, and the gallery space is ideal for this. Although when she projected her Sound Mirrors on the wall of the National Theatre in 1999, it was a spectacular success, perhaps because the theatre is a dedicated building and her work has a sense of the sacred, and the dedictated.

She is a global traveller, and part of her work follows the peregrinations of others who, like her, who have been on a pilgrimage of sorts. Girl Stowaway (1994) charted the journey of an Australian girl dressed as a boy, who survived 96 days at sea to get from Port Victoria to Falmouth in 1928. Teignmouth Electron (1998) took Dean to the Cayman Islands to find the abandoned catamaran of Donald Crowhurst, the round-the-world yachtsman who went mad on his 1968-69 voyage, and drowned himself in the Sargasso Sea.

Disappearance at Sea is a film of unbelievable beauty set around Crowhurst and the Berwick lighthouse, and Disappearance at Sea II is the mythic story of Tristan, floating alone in a coracle for seven days and seven nights until, wounded and weary, he finds the healing of Isolde.

I first discovered Dean through her sea and lighthouse films, and they are some of the most moving images I have stored in my memory. I think of them often, and that must be a test of their power. The sea, time, timelessness, the unregarded, the discarded, are all themes of Dean's work. But what makes these themes into a continuing narrative is her gaze, which turns obsession into engagement, and offers us a chance to see what she sees, heightened and fully aware.

The vividness of her images and the vibrancy of her soundscapes are a challenge to the desensitised, coarse world of normal experience, where bright lights, movement and noise cheat us into believing that something is happening. Tacita Dean's slow nothingness is far more rich and strange."
  1. The Story of Beard, 1992
  2. The Martyrdom of St Agatha (in several parts), 1994
  3. Girl Stowaway, 1994
  4. How to Put a Boat in a Bottle, 1995
  5. A Bag of Air, 1995
  6. Disappearance at Sea, 1996
  7. Delft Hydraulics, 1996
  8. Foley Artist, 1996
  9. Disappearance at Sea II, 1997
  10. The Structure of Ice, 1997
  11. Gellért, 1998
  12. Teignmouth Electron, 1998
  13. Bubble House, 1999
  14. Sound Mirrors, 1999
  15. From Columbus, Ohio, to the Partially Buried Woodshed, 1999
  16. Banewl, 1999
  17. Totality, 2000
  18. Fernsehturm, 2001
  19. The Green Ray, 2001
  20. Baobab, 2002
  21. Ztrata, 2002
  22. Section Cinema (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 2002
  23. Diamond Ring, 2002
  24. Mario Merz, 2002
  25. Boots, 2003
  26. Pie, 2003
  27. Palast, 2004
  28. The Uncles, 2004
  29. Presentation Sisters, 2005
  30. Kodak, 2006
  31. Noir et Blanc, 2006
  32. Human Treasure, 2006
  33. Michael Hamburger, 2007
  34. Darmstädter Werkblock, 2007
  35. Amadeus, 2008
  36. Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008
  37. Prisoner Pair, 2008
  38. Still Life, 2009
  39. Day for Night, 2009
  40. Craneway Event, 2009
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Unknown said…
I would love to see some of her film work. Any longer pieces available anywhere?