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PRINT March 1999

CINÉ QUA NON: THE ART OF TACITA DEAN

We speak of video artists but of film makers. Why? Video emerged within the milieu of art and is accorded unrestricted privileges there; whereas the origins of cinema lie in the theater of popular spectacle. So when I first saw a group of Tacita Dean’s chalkboard drawings at the Drawing Room in New York in 1997 and was told they were the work of a young English filmmaker, I just assumed her real work was narrative features—“art films,” perhaps, but not artworks. Bad assumption. Trained as a painter, Dean operates within the art world rather than the film industry, yet her use of film as a primary medium puts her at an equal remove from the conventions of art and film—a distance that allows her to reflect critically and nostalgically, but above all curiously, on both.

Not that Dean is alone in this. Steve McQueen, Liisa Roberts, and Marijke van Warmerdam, among others, have significantly worked the boundary between art and cinema. But as shown by a recent survey at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (traveling to the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin in March), Dean’s work is unusually lucid and self-questioning, as well as quietly eccentric. While she was one of the nominees for last year’s Turner Prize, her work seems infinitely distant from YBA clamor, and one can hardly imagine it being included in exhibitions with names like “Sensation”—although her art is certainly a profound investigation of sensations, lower case and plural: visual, aural, and underlying both, sensations of time and its rhythms. In fact, Dean cites precisely the difference between what she sees as the “mechanical” handling of units of time in film and their more “abstract” handling in video as a primary reason she prefers the older medium: “With film, it’s very physical. You cut out pieces of time.”

The approach to sound, in particular, as a phenomenon occurring in the form of discrete material bits manifests itself in even the simplest works on view in Philadelphia, a pair of framed, drawing-like pieces consisting of segments of magnetic sound tape inscribed with china markers. The bits of tape making up Seabirds (Magnetic), 1997, are each marked with the name of a bird. The length of each presumably corresponds to the temporal length of the particular bird’s call, as taped. Mosquito (Magnetic), 1997, by contrast, consists of just a single, very long piece of tape—a mosquito’s buzz can last a while. The construction of a film out of temporal units is also the subject of Foley Artist, 1996, the most elaborate of Dean’s installations—an homage to the behind-the-scenes craft of making sound effects for film, a paean to the apparatus of cinematic hocus-pocus that slyly presents itself in a guise of deadpan analytic sobriety.

Many of Dean’s earliest films are allegories of the art object. (These works, some of them student efforts, were not shown in Philadelphia.) The most consummated is probably the simplest, A Bag of Air, 1995. Fewer than three minutes long, it is a sort of instructional film based on the conceit announced in a voice-over that, rising in a balloon at dawn in March, “you can catch a bag of air. . . intoxicated with the essence of Spring”—that is, the rising dew that is “both celestial and terrestrial”—and that after patient gathering and distillation, ”they say you will have transformed your bag of air into a golden elixir . . . capable of treating all disharmonies in the body and soul." The film’s imagery includes the launch of a hot air balloon and a shot of the balloon’s shadow coursing the landscape, but mostly what we see is a pair of hands holding out a plastic bag in the air high above the ground. Of course, the idea that the art object need not be made of intrinsically noble materials but can be the most ordinary thing in the world, as long as it has been transformed by some inspired aesthetic intention, is a mainstay of modern art. Wittily yet lyrically, Dean’s film satirizes this commonplace-—sends it up, so to speak—while the dreamily soft yet precise black-and-white photography and succession of beautifully framed shots fulfills it.

By contrast, The Story of Beard, 1992, and The Martyrdom of St. Agatha (in several parts), 1994, imagine the aesthetic object as a relic of sorts (with a peculiarly sexual slant) as well as an item of commerce. The central scene of The Martyrdom shows a group of nuns sitting around a table preparing plaster breasts for packaging and sale (Agatha was martyred by having her breasts cut off); The Story of Beard, which concerns a (female) shopkeeper who deals in disembodied beards, ends as the film suddenly switches from black-and-white to color for a takeoff on Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe with both women sporting beards. The finale might well be an incongruously lighthearted gloss on something out of an old copy of Screen. In a broader sense, though, what counts is the idea of the object of fantasy and desire, something fabulously elusive and alluring—the unobtainable beard, the mystifyingly peripatetic severed breast. If anything unites Dean’s early films, in fact, it is their giddy, playful atmosphere—“intoxicated with the essence of Spring,” indeed.

Dean’s more recent works are not necessarily darker, but they are certainly characterized by a greater restraint and sobriety. They are less fantastic and more factual, more intensely focused and less playful. Perhaps their beginning lies in another film of 1994, Girl Stowaway, an even simpler work than A Bag of Air, since the framing narrative has been banished altogether and we are left with a bare sequence of silent film–style shots of an androgynous youth on a sailing ship. Only the title gives us a clue as to how to account for this fascinating figure—fascinating for the camera trained on (presumably) her, but also for the viewer who waits for something to be revealed, for the stowaway to unveil her true identity, and whose fascination is stoked precisely by the nonappearance of that revelation. But can this figure really be the stowaway, the illegitimate presence of the title? She hardly seems to be hiding, unless she is hiding in plain sight like Poe's purloined letter. In fact, amid all the business of the ship, the girl seems at liberty to do absolutely nothing.

In Dean’s films of 1996 there is, in a sense, no object. Disappearance at Sea (Cinemascope), like Girl Stowaway, uses the device of alluding to a narrative that never actually enters the film. The title, along with some supplementary works and texts, connects the film to the story of an amateur sailor named Donald Crowhurst who in 1968 set out amid great clamor to sail solo around the world but whose boat was later found abandoned about five hundred miles from England. All we see is the relentless turning of the lens of a lighthouse, “a choreography of geometry,” as ICA curator Patrick Murphy calls it in his essay for the catalogue to the Philadelphia exhibition—the hypnotically eddying curves of the lens’s structure of concentric circles as they rotate around the bright bulb. What the film presents is less a disappearance than a nonappearance. Crowhurst’s tale exists primarily to set up a background of expectation—the light projected by the lighthouse, we feel we have every right to expect, will reveal a clue, a trace, some sign of the eponymous disappearance, like the distant yet after all discernible crash of Icarus into the sea in the Breughel painting that inspired Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters . . . . ”).

Dean’s earlier films enacted allegories of the object. Disappearance at Sea (Cinemascope), by eliminating the object along with its narrative, enacts an allegory of the cinematic framework itself. Its subject is, after all, the phenomenon of projection. Light—a beam of light being transmitted through a lens—is almost the sole content of this film, as it is the film’s means of presentation. Even the sound track, which at first consists of the rasp of the lamp’s rotor, mimics the buzzing sound of the film loop as it spools through the projector. The work’s 1997 companion piece, Disappearance at Sea (Voyage de Guérison), turns the reflexive content on its head: The film involves the lighthouse at Berwick-upon-Tweed, in northeastern England, but now, instead of a stationary camera focused on the lighthouse lamp, the camera, positioned on the lamp’s rotating lens, surveys the surrounding terrain. Here, if anything, it is the movement of one’s own restlessly searching eye that is, obliquely, reflected back.

Foley Artist is Dean’s most complex film so far—a tongue-in-cheek try at making, in a distanced, Nabokovian way, something like a conventional narrative movie, and not quite a movie at all, since the work, shot in 16 mm, is shown in the form of a video laser disc as the central element in a rather theatrically staged installation. What you first notice on entering the room it occupies is a sequence of sounds. Only afterward do you see the film/video imagery corresponding to those sounds—but corresponding in a different way than would normally be expected: You see not the fictional narrative the sounds are supposed to help convey but rather the actions of a pair of middle-age “Foley artists,” sound-effects specialists, in a recording studio.

This is no puritanical “deconstruction” of film’s illusionism; it’s closer to François Truffaut’s rapt tribute to filmmaking in Day for Night. Dean’s camera dwells with fascination on the doings of this pair as their normally unseen performance of, say, a couple’s footsteps in the rain takes on the formal precision of an Astaire and Rogers dance routine. Their deadpan faces as they perform a sequence of actions that would seem utterly ridiculous if we didn’t know the reason behind them—sloshing water around with brooms (cars on a wet road). on the wrists—gives them a sort of Keatonesque humor. But as relevant as these cinematic references may be, the vaguely absurd behaviors also recall, as English critic Melissa Feldman has written, the pointless tasks of so much early performance and video art.

On the wall, we see a chart setting out the contents of the bit of imaginary film being tangentially represented by the real one we’ve been watching—something to do with a theater usherette who sneaks out of a performance of Shakespeare for a quick drink at a pub, interspersed with seemingly unrelated scenes (a flashback, perhaps, or simply a separate narrative line whose connection would have been clarified later on in the story) about a couple on a beach, first struggling, then kissing. The chart gives this information in the form of one level of action cues, one level of footage, and eight tracks of sound—by my rough count, some 50 pieces of action in 250 shots and 200 pieces of sound (of which about 60 are performed by the two Foley artists we’ve been watching).

Also part of the installation is a large professional reel-to-reel tape player, the kind that presumably would have been used in the studio to record the Foley artists’ work. When Foley Artist was first shown in London, the machine was in operation, but silently, giving the illusion that the sounds one heard were coming from it rather than from the digital sound track of the video disc. In Philadelphia, by contrast, it was manifestly inoperative, a mute totem of analogue technology. In either case, the machine provides the caveat that Dean’s dismantling of cinematic illusion is not necessarily in the service of some stable truth. She doesn’t so much dismantle fiction as relocate it. In fact, her document of the Foley artists’ work is less accurate than it might seem. As Dean herself pointed out to me, the sound-effects artists would normally work by watching the film as they go—using sight to coordinate sound with action. But in this case since there was no film to coordinate with, just the chart for one, they were essentially working in a vacuum.

Once you notice Dean’s fascination with the fictions underlying truth, whether through its rigorous development in Foley Artist or its more glancing appearance in The Martyrdom of St. Agatha, it becomes hard not to see it everywhere. It can make you a bit paranoid. I started wondering about those magnetic tape montages—what would have been the point of their actually carrying the sounds that they are represented as carrying, that buzzing mosquito and all those seabirds? The important thing may be that we think the lengths of tape represent the lengths of sounds, and that representational function is independent of the indexical one that cannot, after all, be checked, now that the tapes have been affixed to their backing and become mere graphs of their ostensible contents.

Dean’s early films were about the art object, while later ones like the two Disappearance films are about cinema as an art without objects, a quasi-musical art of movement through time. In Foley Artist something that is no longer film is still about cinema, in the guise of a film that is in turn about, not cinema, but performance art. In her work’s reflexiveness, not to mention its formal restraint—a sobriety held to rigorously enough to become hypnotic—Dean shows herself to be something of a belated modernist. But cutting across the modernist urge toward the distillation of a given medium’s qualities is her intuitive understanding that the subject of a work in any medium may well be a condition of being typical of some other medium. True, her works are profoundly distilled experiences, but like the bag held open to the dew in transit between terrestrial and celestial realms, they gather elusive sensations whose uncanny otherness is perhaps itself only allegorized by reference, at times, to another medium. What’s a medium for, anyway, if not to communicate with the spirits of the ether?

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.