This summer we had the pleasure of walking along the River Thames between the Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern, and finding not one, but two, major women artists dominating both spaces. Rebecca Horn and Frida Kahlo were an exciting double first, and this autumn, women will again be major players in the art galleries, with new work by Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing and Tacita Dean, all coming our way.
Four women, and four British women, is good news. British art right now is robust, world-class, and ground breaking. We can be proud of our artists, and perhaps especially pleased that so much of the new energy and direction is coming from women. Anyone who doubts that the girls have got what it takes should go and see for themselves – beginning at Tate St Ives with the strange and haunting filmscapes of Tacita Dean.
‘Everything that excites me no longer functions in its own time. I court anachronism – things that were once futuristic but are now out of date.’
She was born in 1965, the ‘new’ decade of free love, space travel, rock and pop, fitted kitchens, ITV, adverts, drugs, vitamin pills, nuclear bombs, and the Cold War.
In the Communist part of Berlin, in the old GDR, a revolving cafeteria allowed diners who had booked well in advance, and saved up the money, exactly an hour to eat cream buns and drink tea, while watching a 360’ panorama of their city, and out towards the forbidden Berlin of the West. The Fernsehturm looks like a lighthouse or the prow of a ship. It is a relic of a particular regime, a particular time. It is marooned in its own past, and it beams out futuristically across the skyline. Like so much else in the bumpy ride of the changing modern world, what was once a symbol has become a tourist attraction. Anyone can go there now, and significantly, the revolve has been speeded up from one hour to just thirty minutes.
Life has moved on. There is no Wall, no GDR, but though the Fernsehturn can turn faster, it can only be caught at its own pace.
In 2001, a year after she went to live in Berlin, Tacita Dean made the interior of the Fernsehturn into a 44 minute film – and nothing happens. It is important to stress this, because unlike other film and video artists, such as Bill Viola or Billy Innocent, Tacita Dean is the genius of Nothing. Nothing here needs a capital letter, because it is a Sartre Nothing, or a Beckett Nothing.
Her genius, with her slow, steady, held frames, is to allow the viewer to dream the Fernsehturn; to enter it without hurry, without expectation, and to accept, as we do in a dream, a different experience of time, and a different relationship to everyday objects. The glasses, the cutlery, the windows, the light, the shapes of people, the geometry of the tables, ask through the medium of the film, to be noticed, and to be understood. Time slows, then slips its loop altogether, The restaurant revolves, the Earth makes its diurnal round, but we are outside of time – observers in space, with a weightlessness that contrasts to the solidity of what we are asked to observe.
Looking- which none of us really does in normal life, has a way of slowing time down, and a way of altering perception through the intensity of the gaze.
Looking at things – which is what artists do and what we don’t do, both opens the mind to the object, and closes it to unnecessary flotsam. Tacita Dean has a way of making you concentrate – but beware, it is an unsettling experience.
I have watched people watching this film – one of her longest, and of course, some walk away very quickly, some lie down and have a snooze, some will surrender themselves to the intensity of the experience, others watch half of it, then complain bitterly in the café, because they waited and they waited, and nothing happens.
But climbing out of the nothing, like shy creatures, trodden on and overlooked, is the curious life of objects freed from their everyday imprisonment. We understand that when Cezanne paints an apple, or Vermeer leaves us with a milk jug, it as though we had never seen these objects before. It is not that they are brought to life, but that we are able to see the life that is in them.
On film, which has become the medium of action, contemplation is anathema. Yet when film allows a moment to unfold in real time, we realise that a moment is agonisingly long, agonisingly slow, and that our perception of time is both subjective and approximate.
Tacita Dean can draw beautifully, and some of her drawings will be on show at the Tate, but 16mm film is her preferred medium, because she is attracted to its relationship with Time. She likes the beginning, middle and end that film allows, but far from reaching for a conventional narrative, she uses the time-line of the film to release her subject into its timeless state.
One of her new short films – PIE, is eight minutes of magpies in the trees outside her window in Berlin. Their repetitive, restless squawking and hopping gives no sense of time passing, or of any purpose – but their unplanned choreography becomes a dance of life – life which can only be found in the urgency of the moment, but which depends on the illusion that the moment will last forever.
This collision of time and timelessness is unfolded through the courage of Tacita Dean’s held gaze. It is a bluff and a dare to hold any shot for longer than a few seconds. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time, but I am demanding people’s time.’ She says.
In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters, is its ability to stop the rush. We are the ones speeding things up intolerably. Art is not so much slowing us down as bringing us back to a necessary point of contemplation. Art is space. Art is breathing space. Art on film makes us conscience of the time and space we occupy, and give us an insight into the nature of time itself. What Tacita Dean demands, she returns with interest.
Many people will be familiar with her work from her extraordinary Friday/Saturday project for the ill-fated Millennium Dome. She recorded sound over 24 hour periods, Friday through Saturday, at locations round the world determined in relation to the Greenwich Meridian.
The Dome, anachronistic before it had begun, and doomed to obsolesce by the inevitable passing of its purpose, worked well with Dean’s preoccupations. She located her installation in a ventilation hut, but ironically, there was so much noise from the Dome itself, that it was impossible to really concentrate on the work. She re-invented the soundscape in a juke box – a construction half way between the deck of the Starship Enterprise, and an old fashioned radiogram, with light-up dials and knobs to select your latitude – Alaska, Bangladesh, Yemen. Once selected, the juke box will play one of its 192 CD’s.
For Dean, working with sound is as full of potential as working with film. She takes great care with her film soundtracks, but her sound-alone installations open a world where hearing becomes our only radar. She turns us into bats or moles, dependent on just one of our senses, and that sense heightened to a painful acuteness.
There is discomfort in Tacita Dean’s work – and no getting away from it, unless you want to avoid the work altogether, which can be done by refusing it the time or the concentration. She’s not a glance and walk away artist. If you want a quick fix, she will seem superficial, and you can’t, for instance, just pop in and have a look, as you can with Damien’s shark or Tracy’s bed, or the Mona Lisa.
The films and the sound installations need something of surrender to get the best out of them, and the gallery space is ideal for this – though when she projected her Sound Mirrors on the wall of the National Theatre in 1999, it was a spectacular success, perhaps because the theatre itself is a dedicated building, and without any apologies needed, Tactia Dean has a sense of the sacred, the dedicated, about her work.
She is a global traveller, and part of her work follows the peregrinations of others, those like her, who have been on a pilgrimage of sorts. Girl Stowaway (1994) charted the journey of an Australian girl dressed as a boy, who survived 96 days at sea to get from Port Victoria to Falmouth in 1928. Teignmouth Electron (1998), took Dean to the Cayman Islands to find the abandoned catamaran of Donald Crowhurst, the 1968 round the world yachtsman, who went mad on his voyage, and finally drowned himself in the eerie and becalmed Sargasso Sea.
Disappearance at Sea is a film of unbelievable beauty set around Crowhurst and the Berwick lighthouse, and Disappearance at Sea 11, is the mythic story of Tristan, floating alone in a coracle, for seven days and seven nights, until wounded and weary he finds the healing of Isolde.
I first discovered Tacita Dean through her sea and lighthouse films, and they are some of the most moving images I have stored in my memory. I think of them often, and that must be a test of their power.
The sea, time, timelessness, found objects, the unnoticed life of the everyday, the unregarded, the discarded, are all themes of Dean’s work, but what makes these themes into a continuing narrative is her gaze, which turns obsession into engagement, and offers us a chance to see what she sees, heightened and fully aware.
The vividness of her images, and the vibrancy of her soundscapes are a challenge to the de-sensitized, coarse world of normal experience, where bright lights, movement, and noise, cheat us into believing that something is happening. Tacita Dean’s slow nothingness is far more rich and strange.
September 28th 2005