Tacita Dean

Royal Institute of British Architects/Frith Street Gallery

One might think of Tacita Dean’s film installation Boots, 2003, as a ghost story: It is set in a sort of haunted house (perhaps explaining the work’s location at RIBA), a vast and immaculate—though entirely empty and unfurnished—Art Deco villa situated amid splendid gardens. One hears strange footsteps (the sound of a dapper gent walking with the aid of two canes) echoing through the vacant halls and corridors. He speaks—languidly, ramblingly—but to whom?

The fiction that the camera is invisible seems to reign here, as in classic cinema. There is no off-camera interlocutor, just an old man reminiscing to himself. He recalls a woman, Blanche, who perhaps once lived here and who is somehow “still here but in another dimension . . .and this whole house is in another dimension.” The memories beguile him—“We did some quite interesting things together which I liked doing . . . Simple sex doesn’t amuse me . . . It didn’t amuse her either . . . [laughs]”—but break off inconclusively. It all seems a kind of accompaniment to the lingering views of the house and the light that expands immensely across all this marble and plaster and wood parquet before gradually fading away.

That’s the English version. In two adjacent rooms, alternate versions of the twenty-minute film were screened, one in French and one in German. This recalls the early days of sound film, when European producers tried to maintain their international markets by making multiple versions of the same film simultaneously—with different casts, perhaps, and in different languages, but using the same story, sets, and crew. Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), for instance, was made in both German and French—and Boots, one feels, could easily have been a character in one of Lang’s films. Here, however, the device creates a sense of slippage, of the only partial graspability of what is remembered or even perceived: In visual texture as well as in speech, different aspects are highlighted, different nuances of mood intimated.

In Mario Merz, 2002, shown at Frith Street Gallery, Dean portrays another old man. Seen shortly before his death, the Italian artist sits outdoors in the shade, speaking in a near-inaudible tones. In contrast to Boots, there is a strong sense that someone else is present, but the communication between Merz and his unseen, unheard interlocutor seems frustrated and ineffectual. One feels that he is already speaking from the other side of time.

Boots and Mario Merz are essentially elegiac works. Surprisingly, so are the two other films that were shown at Frith Street, though both are based on landscape, a genre one might have thought less amenable to such emotional overtones. In Pie, 2003, flocks of magpies gather in some bare treetops at dusk, while Baobab, 2002, depicts the fantastic vegetation and landscape of Madagascar. Whatever the ostensible subject, Dean’s films bypass the obvious to evoke moods and undertones, often uncanny or inexplicably disquieting, that reveal themselves only slowly. Indeed, passing time may well be the real subject uniting all these works—time that reveals itself through the dying of the light.

Barry Schwabsky