New York

Tacita Dean

Peter Blum Gallery

Flea markets are famously fecund places. Treasure troves of detritus, they offer a rich archaeology of abandoned objects, each with its own mute, often melancholy history. For Tacita Dean, an artist deeply engaged with time’s ravages and lost or imagined narratives, the flea market has become a hunting ground for source material of all kinds. Here, in her debut as a printmaker, Dean showed three portfolios from 2001, two of which consist exclusively of images she found in flea-market photo bins.

An artist’s book is the main work of a two-part piece titled Floh (German for “flea”; Dean, a Briton, recently settled in Berlin). Printed in a copiously democratic edition of four thousand signed copies, it offers a glimpse into wonderfully diverse lost histories, filtered through Dean’s astute visual sensibility. Knitting disparate scenes of intimacy and leisure into a single “story,” she has adopted these anonymous figures and fashioned a touching portrait of humanity with a studied kindness. For the project’s secondary incarnation, Dean digitally enlarged and printed selected images and presented them as autonomous works. These ink-jet prints lack the charm of the book, in which the prescribed linear sequence and intimate scale explicitly highlight the strength of Dean’s formal logic and stay closer to the feel of the original photographs.

Dean’s second project involving found photos is decidedly more complex and stems organically from her engagement with her usual medium, film. Explosions, shipwrecks, and funerals make up the melancholic iconography of “The Russian Ending,” a suite of photogravure etchings that takes as its point of departure a procedure common in the early decades of the 1900s, in which filmmakers in Denmark (a principal exporter of films before World War I) would prepare different endings for different audiences. Typically, a film distributed in America would have the requisite happy ending, while the Russian version of the same film would end in calamity. An artist whose filmic interests lie primarily in narrative, Dean is naturally drawn to this curious historical practice, and here she resuscitates the form, albeit virtually. The twenty images in “The Russian Ending” reproduce a decidedly older and more tragic lot of found photos than those in Floh. Annotated with hand-written “stage directions,” prints with titles like Ship of Death and So They Sank Her! are here imagined as storyboards for disastrous hales of fictional films. “The Russian Ending” not only evokes films never made but also points to an audience now long gone, and the wordplay of the title refers both to the vanishing of a certain historical Russia and to the failure of the Soviet project as a whole.

This nostalgia for an Eastern Bloc aesthetic also runs through the final group of photogravures. The six images in Fernsehturm are stills from Dean’s film of the same name. Shot in the notorious television tower that once stood testament to East Berlin’s (relative) technological sophistication, Fernsehturm ironically embodies the true “Russian ending.” Here the crown jewel of the East's ambition to compete with the West has itself been transformed into a kind of flea-market relic, a place where bourgeois tourists sip coffee and panoramically survey the expanse of capitalist dominion. For many twenty-first-century “audiences,” this ending is more tragic than any cinematic shipwreck and does not fade away when the house lights come up.

Jordan Kantor