View of “Tacita Dean. Analogue: Films, Photographs, Drawings 1991–2006,” Schaulager, Basel, 2006. Photo: Tom Bisig.

View of “Tacita Dean. Analogue: Films, Photographs, Drawings 1991–2006,” Schaulager, Basel, 2006. Photo: Tom Bisig.

Tacita Dean

DESCENDING TO THE BASEMENT of the Schaulager—Herzog & de Meuron’s sand-encrusted bunker with its slashing gash of a window—one was beset by a sound that seemed oddly antique, like that of typewriter keys or rotary phone dials: the whir and clatter of a film projector. It was apparent in that sound, now threatened with obsolescence, that Tacita Dean’s retrospective (organized by Theodora Vischer) was called “Analogue” for both polemical and nostalgic reasons. “Analogue, it seems, is a description,” the artist writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear.” Dean’s fidelity to 16-mm film and its bulky, outmoded apparatus, as digital technology quickly renders them obsolete, defines her art and her outlook; the materiality of the medium seems a bulwark against a fast-advancing future where imagery is insubstantial, endlessly transmutable, there but not there. Dean is no loon or Luddite in her lost-cause allegiance to celluloid. As the poet of imperiled sites, abandoned dwellings, defunct technology, and architectural relics, she is at once an English romantic, an aesthetic descendant of Turner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Michael Powell, and a recalcitrant materialist. She adheres to the concrete and quantifiable even as her artworks often proceed from found objects, chance events, and coincidences, and her films rely on evanescent, unpredictable nature for their mysterious beauty—twilight skies tinted mint, rose, peach, and darkling purple (Boots, 2003; Fernsehturm, 2001); blackbirds gathering to ominous mass in the dusk (Pie, 2003); a triptych of grass, trees, and sky invaded by lowing cows (Baobab, 2002); seascapes roiling and becalmed (Bubble House, 1999; Sound Mirrors, 1999); late afternoon light glowing molten on glass or burnished wood (Fernsehturm; Boots; Palast, 2004).

Nowhere is Dean’s adherence to analogue—a precise and palpable “thisness” in a world increasingly dematerializing in a blizzard of pixels—more marked than in her latest film, Kodak, 2006, which received its premiere in the first of six islands in the Schaulager installation. Dean seems inspired to new heights by the very imminence of her medium’s disappearance. A record of a production cycle for soon-to-be-extinct celluloid film at Kodak Industrie in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, Kodak is a meta-lament, its subject the end of the material on which the film’s being and beauty are dependent. By documenting this demise with exquisite precision, Dean shows us just what we’ll be missing when celluloid has ceded to digital. (In this, Dean echoes Godard’s Éloge de l’amour [2001], the first half of which is shot in dense, sumptuous 35 mm, the second in juddering, swimmy DV.) More rhythmic than many of her films—it relies less on straight cuts, more on associative editing—Kodak at times recalls David Rimmer’s classic Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970) and its transformation of industrial process into abstract, choreographed motion. Shifting from black and white to crisp, saturated color, populated shots to empty ones, intercutting pristine symmetries in medium or long shot with defamiliarizing close-ups, Kodak turns the factory’s gears, shafts, and drums into Moholy-Nagy compositions of fathomless beauty, its fixtures and white-suited employees into a Mondrian boogie-woogie of primary colors. As the celluloid traverses six miles of machinery, Dean’s aestheticizing eye concentrates on texture, color, found design: Flavin-like red lozenges of overhead lighting; a cobalt drum parked next to a copper one; a strip of blue celluloid with a beveled edge crowding three-quarters of the image, a diagonal shaft of white light arranged behind it; a trio of symmetrical metal tubes rolling ribbons of pinkish film; an undulating surface that appears to be aqueous but turns out to be celluloid—accompanied by a mechanical musique concrète of hum and whir. Dean plays with perspective, tricks the eye with initially unintelligible details or strange framings; one shot of a man at a desk, seemingly scrunched into the right-hand third of the frame, suddenly reveals itself to be taken through an oblong aperture in a door.

Dean’s elegiac intent appears in the film’s finale, in which ruination displaces celebration. Unpeopled, drained of color, shot in steely or matte tones, Kodak’s closing images focus on the abandoned and broken—smashed spools, hanging wires, tangles of crumpled film—as if the factory, now bereft of its true function, had turned into Tarkovsky’s entropic Zone. Dean’s shorthand may seem a bit literal, but the finality of the last blackout is moving: It represents for her not merely the end of her film, but of all film, the end of analogue.

Museums and galleries take an increasingly cavalier attitude toward celluloid, displaying films as digital projections for the sake of economics and convenience. This should be a burning issue in the art world, but isn’t. A recent egregious example was the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition “Le Mouvement des images,” which smugly proclaimed that “at the beginning of the 21st century, we are increasingly seeing the moving image abandon the cinema for the gallery,” and then exhibited most of its films in mushy digital transfers that viewers glanced at as though at flickering wallpaper. But Dean has never allowed her films to be displayed as digital projections, and the Schaulager, in keeping with her wishes, presented everything in its analogue original and mostly in spaces designed for isolated viewing. Some films were projected in open space, such as the hypnotic Delft Hydraulics, 1996, and Gellért, 1998, a series of fixed shots of fleshy women, nude but for some abashed body bibs, walking, lolling, showering, or studying one another in Budapest’s sulphurous baths, the amplitude of their bodies playing off the severe architecture of the setting. (Counterpoint of the fixed, gridded, or linear with things round, mercurial, or fleeting is also central to Fernsehturm; Palast; Disappearance at Sea I, 1996; Diamond Ring, 2002; and her 2006 floor piece Chalk Balls.) The golden, gorgeous Palast, its diminutive image of Berlin’s Palace of the Republic projected high on a wall, didn’t have to fight for attention here as it did in last year’s Venice Biennale, but nevertheless again forfeited its important soundscape to the surrounding hubbub. Long empty and slated for demolition, the former Communist palace of culture is an ideal Dean edifice. Poised to disappear, the modernist schloss becomes an emblem of historical amnesia, its precariousness given poetic expression in the light gleaming like beaten brass off its tinted windows, the landscape of surrounding churches, towers, and statuary melting and amorphous in its glinting reflections.

The Schaulager gave the remainder of Dean’s greatest hits a little multiplex, each accorded its own viewing room, minimizing sound bleed but doing little to hold viewers’ attention. Because of their complex structures and often extraordinary duration—it would have taken almost ten hours to watch all twenty-nine films in the retrospective—Dean’s films, which she insists can be shown only in installation settings and not in “real” cinemas, rarely receive the attention they demand. (A group of local teenagers on an art excursion popped in and out of the screening rooms, puzzling over the identity of Mario Merz in Dean’s lovely 2002 portrait of the artist, voicing disgust at the plump, puckered bodies in Gellért, murmuring in bewilderment at the obsessively repeated eclipse in Diamond Ring, which turns a camera mishap into a structuralist trope.) Who but the most patient observer with plenty of time would sit through the glorious hour of Boots, shot in the Art Deco Casa Serralves in Porto, Portugal? A quick glimpse, all that most viewers accorded it in Basel, does little to reveal the film’s exacting triptych structure, in which an old, lame Brit traverses the Casa three times, speaking first in English, then German, then French, inventing the villa’s past as he comes upon its library, its lavish bathroom, its grand stairways. Though its Viscontian narrator, with his distorted features and aristocratic lineage, is unusual in Dean’s cinema, everything else about Boots is echt Dean: the empty, echoing setting, an architectural marvel that is about to be renovated (i.e., its former self will disappear); the golden late afternoon light gathering to dusk (the skyscapes are among the filmmaker’s most delicate); the precise sound track, which mixes birdsong and distant dog barks with the soft, insinuating voice of the narrator and his effortful tread on two canes and orthopedic boot; the anachronism of both locale and character; the repetition of event, seen from different angles, various aspects; themes of memory, nostalgia, the invention of history; and the motif of walking, or knowledge through ambulation. A shame, then, that the film fell victim to that eternally unsolved problem in art installation: duration and viewer patience.

So too did the shorter but more demanding Fernsehturm, in which Dean’s static camera records the revolving of the restaurant atop Berlin’s television tower. The film fools both the eye—the revolution of the tower often makes Dean’s rigorously fixed compositions seem like slow, lateral tracking shots—and one’s sense of temporality, imperceptibly condensing time as the day slides into dusk, then night, over the course of forty-four minutes, the spinning sphere suddenly blazing with light like some spaceship adrift in the dark. (It is one of many such extraterrestrial-seeming objects and settings in Dean’s work.) The lulling sound track, a muffled clatter of cutlery and cups, muted voices, and, finally, cocktail jazz, helps disguise the film’s formalist precision, the way, for instance, the movement of sunlight from window to window, frame to frame, implies a metaphor for the work’s own medium.

Dean’s films were, of course, the focus of this survey, which also included her drawings, photographs, and art objects, some of them handsome and imposing, like the ghostly blackboard drawings, which suggest an affinity with William Kentridge, some of them problematically installed: The horizontal vitrines of Dean’s cloverleaf collection reflected banks of lighting fixtures in the Schaulager’s upper stories, like so much glowing chain mail, while the little carbon mat strewn with chalk balls from Madagascar looked prim and overprotected with its needless perimeter of ropes and stanchions. The triumph of the exhibition was to reveal how Dean’s body of work, despite its multifariousness, retains a majestic coherency, each film and artwork somehow related to everything else, either by tone (melancholy and contemplativeness prevail), subject, or formal approach. Her new large-format photographs of English trees recall the gnarled monkey-bread trees in Baobab, which in turn strangely echo the hulking, almost druidic forms of derelict military listening devices in Sound Mirrors. Her suites of photogravures and drawings suggest the seriality of film storyboards; her white alabaster dry points, the chalky gouache she applies to her recent tree studies. The revolution of the tower in Fernsehturm rhymes with that of the lighthouse beacon in Disappearance at Sea I, both films that chart the movement of day into night. (Like Boots, both films are also shot in the devilishly difficult format of 16-mm anamorphic scope, which gives the image wide-screen plenitude.) The collage drawing of feet, Oedipus, Byron, Bootsy, 1991, looks forward to the ambulatory theme and central character of Boots, while the “windows” cut out of Nazi-era theater and opera programs in the elegant installation Die Regimentstochter, 2005, summon up the theme of amnesia, of the suppression or disregard of German history in both Palast and Fernsehturm.

“I claim, for the image, the humility and the powers of a madeleine,” Chris Marker has said—a claim that Dean, her work as immersed in the spiral of time as Marker’s, might also make. Ever the innovator, Marker has recently turned to digital filmmaking, freed, as the Nouvelle Vague directors once were by portable cameras, by its lightness and ease. As this splendid exhibition repeatedly affirmed, Dean will remain faithful to analogue, happily encumbered by its matériel and machinery, its weight in a world of flux and inconstancy.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinamatheque Ontario in Toronto.