Tacita Dean, Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac, 1999, color photograph, 26 3/4 x 27 1/8".

Tacita Dean, Teignmouth Electron, Cayman Brac, 1999, color photograph, 26 3/4 x 27 1/8".

Tacita Dean

MUSEUM TECHNICAL STAFF REPAIRING ONE OF NINE 16-mm PROJECTORS . . . Two visits, a short time apart, to the MACBA survey of Tacita Dean’s work give the impression that this conceit might in fact be part of the show. The gimpy, not exactly factory-new equipment the artist uses for her film installations does in fact require extensive care and maintenance. Defects come with the territory. The technological prerequisites of this art are characterized by a moment of decay, a sliding toward obsolescence.

One need not worry about the work’s institutional stability, however. What other artist in her mid-thirties can point to two near-simultaneous surveys at significant European venues (the second show was held at Tate Britain), featuring “central” work from 1995–2001? While neither constituted a complete retrospective, each show had its high points. Although the forty-four-minute film Fernsehturm, 2001, shot from the revolving restaurant at the top of Berlin’s television tower, was exhibited in London only—where it was christened a “masterpiece” by The Guardian’s Adrian Searle—the Barcelona survey shone with Jukebox 2, 2001. In a conversation with the curator, Roland Groenenboom, Dean characterized the latter work’s massive retro-futuristic console as “a completely weird prototype . . . a monster really.” This hybrid construction houses 192 CDs containing 192 hours of audio, a concept dating back to a sound installation Dean developed as part of a Millennium Dome project. In Aden; Dhaka; Akashi, Japan; Fiji; Hoonah, Alaska; New Orleans; Ubatuba, Brazil; and Greenwich, England, each site separated from the next by forty-five degrees of longitude, she recorded the ambient sounds in the span of a single day (Friday midday to Saturday midday).

Jukebox 2 affords those who use this faux-sci-fi smorgasbord of geo-aesthetic soundscaping oceanic expanses of time and space, and it brings together a series of themes and motifs found throughout Dean’s work: The console resembles the bridge of a (space) ship, and this maritime aspect is underscored by her selection of seaside sites. These references accumulate to create an acoustic space for imagination that inevitably overflows with images of faraway harbors on faraway coasts.

The ocean, sea travel, coastal landscapes, strange stories about stowaways and sailors lost on the Atlantic: All are deeply woven into Dean’s work. The artist reconstructed the 1928 trip of a female fare-beater on a four-master (Girl Stowaway, 1994, not included in the MACBA show) and researched the fate of sportsman Donald Crowhurst, who ran into trouble during the 1968 round-the-world Golden Globe Race and began fictionalizing his hopeless situation via radio and in his logbook before hurling himself into the sea. But the decisive reference here is Bas Jan Ader. In 1975, as a component of his three-part work In Search of the Miraculous, the Dutch Conceptual artist set off from the East Coast of the United States in his small, thirteen-foot sailboat, headed for England. After three weeks, all contact was lost.

However close Dean’s “refictionalizations” of histories (and stories) may be on the surface to Ader’s “auto-fictionalizations,” her position as archivist, detective, narrator, and filmmaker of tragic fates and ruinous moments differentiates her aesthetic from that of the daredevil Dutch existentialist. The myth “Bas Jan Ader” is integrated into the time machine of her art, as is that of another artist of the ’70s who died early, Robert Smithson. Dean not only addresses the field of Smithson paraphrases in contemporary art (from Reneé Green to Sam Durant); she inserts herself—as in the case of Ader—into a historical, romanticized, and even overly heroicized male artistic narrative. Two works in the MACBA exhibition are dedicated to Smithson: Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty, 1997 (an audio-documentation of conversations during a fruitless search for Smithson’s signature piece in the salt desert of Utah), and From Columbus, Ohio to the Partially Buried Woodshed, 1999 (a video of an expedition to the alleged remains of a Smithson earthwork at Kent State University).

On another level, too, Dean plays with obsolescence in both symbolic and material terms. The fragile 16-mm projectors and the reinvented jukebox (she knows, of course, that she could have simply recorded the 192 hours of sounds on a few hard drives) tend to cultivate the specialized appeal of yesterday’s technologies and ideas. Unlike Walter Benjamin and his followers, who theorized the outdated to counter the growing immaterialization of aesthetic communication, Dean is indebted to the auratic qualities and sublime moments that can be won from the obsolete.

Michael Snow once claimed that sound would finally transform the projector into a “‘personality’ as a unique Thing-in-the-world.” The interaction between the sound-rich projector-“personalities” and the filmic images (and sounds) of the abandoned architectures of a defunct modernism (as in Bubble House and Sound Mirrors, both 1999) is a highly efficient way to sculpt “mood.” The longer one lingered in the MACBA exhibition, the more one wondered what chance the viewer has in the face of such a sensitively woven opto-historical “world.” The contingency of Dean’s choices of motif and theme, the decision in favor of specific forms of presentation and methods of narrativization, the arbitrariness of what the artist “likes,” what she’s “interested in,” what she remembers/recalls (e.g., “It feels very like Kent, late summer”)—all this wells up into an impressive (and sometimes oppressive) inevitability.

Thus opens an abyss of explanation-seeking into which one falls when wrestling with the fascination that this elegiac mise-en-scène provokes. To go to ruin on what is already a ruin: Despite all its exertion of control, its erudition and conceptuality, a tendency toward the self-indulgently moribund lurks through the highly elaborated texture of allegory and decay. Entropy at its most beautiful? Yes. At the end of a long afternoon, it did feel a bit as if one’s own thoughts had taken on a crisp neo-Proustian patina. Interestingly strange.

Tom Holert is a writer and critic based in Cologne.
Translated from German by Sara Ogger.