Tacita Dean

ZTRÁTA, Czech for “loss,” is written in white chalk on a blackboard. A young man erases the word with a washcloth that he then throws out the window—a concrete demonstration of the word’s meaning. This scene from Tacita Dean’s film of the same name, shot during the British artist’s 1991 sojourn in Prague and edited in 2002, concentrates the central motifs of her artistic approach: the relationship between signifier and signified; the dialectic of presence and absence; and the visualization of these relationships or the withholding of this visualization, that is, its “loss”—themes that become especially important vis-à-vis questions of memory.

In recent years, Dean has created highly acclaimed films, videos, and drawings that take as their starting point the theme of memory, the layering of different points in time and the bringing to life—and often the slipping away—of past events. Her video From Columbus Ohio to the Partially Buried Woodshed, 1999, records a search for traces of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, which ends prosaically in a parking lot at Kent State University. The film Disappearance at Sea, 1996, is based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst, a sailor who vanished in 1968 when, alone at the mercy of the mighty ocean, he became disoriented—his sense of space and time failed him.

Here in Düsseldorf, Dean’s large-format chalk drawings portray a similar situation: Like a storyboard to a film, the left panel shows a ship fighting the waves on the high seas, while on the right it has begun to sink. A dramatic scene of catastrophe, but, given the brief, direction-like notes strewn throughout, not without wit: The direction cut appears on the right edge of the image, where the story seems to have come to its end. Or has it? The drawings’ title, Chère petite soeur, 2002, refers to another story. Marcel Broodthaers used a found postcard addressed to someone’s little sister as the basis for several works, including his 1972 film of the same title. Dean shares with Broodthaers not just a fascination with the motif of sea voyages—journeys with uncertain outcomes—but also his use of found materials, as in the case of the postcard; his interest in the act of naming; and his interest in the relationships between image and reproduction and between word and image. And so her film Section Cinema, 2002, leads us into the studio in the old district of Düsseldorf where Broodthaers worked between 1970 and 1972 on his fictitious museum, specifically the Section Cinéma. With a stationary camera, in shots that are almost like still photos changing with the movement of a slide carousel, Dean records details of the room, which now serves as a depot for the Stadtmuseum Düsseldorf. The sound track to the film is just the rattling of the film projector, which directly evokes for the viewer the passing of time. Broodthaers’s handwriting, still visible on the walls, comes together with a conglomeration of model ships, tables, and stools into a time capsule in which different layers of time overlap each other; the accumulation of objects, signs, and meanings is accompanied by a certain diminishing of meaning, and thus captures the skepticism, so characteristic of Broodthaers, about the process of signifying. NEPŘÍTOMNOST, “absence,” the young man writes on the blackboard in a later scene of Ztráta, then he wipes away the prefix “ne” and, precisely through this sparing yet pointed removal, creates PŘÍTOMNOST, or “presence.”

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.