New York

Tacita Dean, Fatigues, 2012, chalk on blackboard, 7' 6“ x 18' 3”. From the series “Fatigues,” 2012.

Tacita Dean, Fatigues, 2012, chalk on blackboard, 7' 6“ x 18' 3”. From the series “Fatigues,” 2012.

Tacita Dean

Tacita Dean, Fatigues, 2012, chalk on blackboard, 7' 6“ x 18' 3”. From the series “Fatigues,” 2012.

Though best known as a filmmaker, Tacita Dean works in a variety of media, including chalk drawings executed on blackboards at large scale. Last year, after a ten-year pause in making such drawings, Dean decided to produce a suite of them as her contribution to the Documenta 13 exhibition in Kassel, where they were installed not in the show’s main exhibition halls but in an off-site space, a onetime bank building appropriated by the Documenta team for the occasion. These were the works Dean brought to New York for her recent show: six drawings of the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the storied range that runs through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The project began as an idea for a film, which would make use of footage Dean had commissioned from an Afghan cameraman. Abandoning that idea, however, she instead decided to turn the imagery of the film into these drawings, which she titled “Fatigues.” All are extremely grand, partly an effect of scale—the largest is over thirty-six feet wide—and partly an effect of palette, particularly when the mountains stand out luminously in shadowed whites against the boards’ large expanses of almost interstellar black. In some drawings, too, the view is panoramically wide, covering miles both horizontally and vertically, a dwarfing of human scale reinforced by the works’ size. These are unpeopled landscapes of dark valleys and starlit peaks, of rock and ice and dramatic effects of light.

The images follow a gradually falling sequence, beginning in the high mountains where the Kabul River has its source and ending in the river’s floodplain, and indeed with the river flooding. In Kassel, this sequence was supported by the architecture, with the drawings installed on two floors around the old bank’s decoratively balustered staircase, the mountains upstairs and the plains below. That must have been an appealing installation scheme, but the open white-box space of this gallery exhibition might well have shown the drawings to better effect. Here, the gallery’s first room held the scenes of the high mountains; the visitor then walked down the gallery’s long corridor to its second space (passing on the way a room showing one of Dean’s films, Friar’s Doodle, 2010) and to the drawings of the river in flood. If the opening installation had a kind of stunning clarity in the vast areas it laid open to view and in its brilliant contrasts of black and white, the three drawings in the second room were muddier and murkier. Here, too, the sense of a view from a great distance gave way to closer and more confused perspectives that made the perch from which the floodwaters were seen a good deal more precarious and insecure.

One thing the bank building may have done, though, as the remnant of a financial institution, was hint at a subtext of the work: the relationship between the Afghanistan region and the West. It is surely no accident that Dean chose these particular mountains as the subject of her drawings, or that she titled them “Fatigues,” a military reference. She has said that the idea for a piece on Afghanistan was sparked by a Rudyard Kipling poem about an incident during a British campaign there in the 1870s, when more than forty soldiers drowned trying to cross the Kabul River at night. And though I wouldn’t work the metaphor too tightly, the drawings’ progression from cold, imperturbable space to the proximate threat of the floodplain may in some way echo the relation between the abstract calculations of Western politics and capital and the terror of their consequences on the ground.

The drawings engage in a vocabulary of the sublime, of awe, and, in some way, of fear. None of the places Dean shows are hospitable to the body’s comfort. But she seems to have felt a need to puncture that mode a little, writing occasional brief comments within the drawings, sometimes descriptive of what they show (WEATHER COMING IN, GLACIAL ATTRITION), sometimes cinematic (PAN). As modest responses to scenes that seem almost unearthly, these handwritten remarks are the images’ most explicit human trace, and as such they are touching, their technical tone notwithstanding.

David Frankel