Planned Obsolescence

Relentlessly devoted to the antiquated medium of film, Tacita Dean chronicles misbegotten journeys, elderly relatives, and obscure moments in great artists’ lives

Light reflected off the windows of the Palast der Republic, a landmark of the former East Germany, from the 10 1⁄2 minute film Palast, 2004.


In an office at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, a few days after the opening of her 2009 show, Tacita Dean sits coiled in a shawl, looking frailer than her years. Her handshake is weak and tentative; severe rheumatoid arthritis has affected her joints. Walking and standing are often painful for her.

With large dark eyes, pale skin, and a pile of frizzled hair fastened insecurely at the back of her head, she resembles the actress Helena Bonham Carter playing a wealthy invalid or an exotic breed of English rose. Only when Dean speaks about her art—with the confidence of someone who is sure of her opinions and happy to be out of step with fashion—is her steeliness on display.

As we are preparing to watch a survey of her 16mm films, a gallery assistant arrives to set up the overhead video projector. “Oh no, no, no, no,” Dean cries in a brief flash of temper, irritated that someone at her gallery could so misconstrue her work, which is explicitly designed for a film projector.

Dean is an analog artist in a digital world, and proud to be so. “Obsolesence is at the back of most of my work,” she observes. “Everything is becoming obsolete all the time. Writing is going to be an obsolete activity too.”

Dean’s primary medium over the last 20 years has been 16mm film, the antiquated format being an ideal tool for her to convey a sense of time disappearing in front of our eyes. Watching one of her works unfold, over a few minutes or a couple of hours, often leads to a fuller awareness of the way the recording process itself alters perception and history. The particularity of things she chooses to scrutinize would not have the same physical or temporal qualities if shot on video. The translucent celluloid frame being charged by a flash of light and the clatter of successive pictures unspooling through a set of gates and gears and moving slowly against a wall: these are integral to the work’s presence and the viewer’s experience.

“With film, you have an active relationship with time,” Dean says. “With video, you’re much more passive.” Even when addressing students, as she had done earlier that day at Columbia University, she eschews the toys of new media. “I still show slides,” she says. “I like the trays and the discipline of the 80 slots.”

Dean’s strategy of staying ahead of the pack by lagging behind in the technology race has worked for her. Winner of the Hugo Boss Prize in 2006, she has exhibited all over the United States and Europe. This fall her work will be featured at Tate Modern. Last spring she had a show at MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst) in Vienna, which included photographs, drawings, and four films on artists: Merce Cunningham, Julie Mehretu, Claes Oldenburg, and Cy Twombly. A solo show of her photographs is scheduled for next year at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. She has been asked to exhibit at Documenta 13 next year and is planning a mid-career retrospective for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2015. At Marian Goodman and the Frith Street Gallery in London, her large overpainted photographs and films sell for €60,000 to €120,000.

Dean may be lumped together with the YBAs, but the association is mainly a matter of age. Outrage and self-promotion have never been her style. Born in 1965 in Canterbury, she began as a painter and graduated from the Falmouth School of Art in 1988. The school’s remoteness from buzzy art trends was, she thinks, a blessing.

“It was a fantastic place, really far away, five or six hours from London,” Dean says. “You were so cut off in Cornwall you had to find your own way. Visiting lectures were special occasions.”

She spent a year in Greece, then attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1990 to ’92. But after moving to the media department, she felt like an interloper. She’d been given an 8mm camera as a girl and had gradually come to film by way of animation. Her thesis at Falmouth was on Cy Twombly, and some of her early experiments with Super 8 and 16mm recall the smudgy second-guessing of his canvases: she would film a drawing as she slowly rubbed it away.

Dean first earned widespead critical attention in 2001, when Tate Britain exhibited her series of films and photographs inspired by Donald Crowhurst, the tormented English sailor who in 1968–69 participated in a highly publicized solo race around the world. While he claimed by radio to be progressing smoothly, he and his boat were in fact foundering. Due to madness or shame, he jumped overboard into the Atlantic Ocean.

The tragedy of Crowhurst fascinated many writers and filmmakers. Dean’s interest in his fraud and suicide, which unfolded when she was a child, took form in a 14-minute film she completed in 1996. Disappearance at Sea is the first of a trilogy and delves into the unknowable—why did he lie? why did he kill himself?—by focusing on the lens of a lighthouse. The calm, monotonous rhythms of the flashing signal are not unlike the rhythms of the ocean; and the paradoxical function of the light-emitting machine, which warns sailors to stay away while seeming to keep watch over them, is not unlike the projector that activates the piece.

“Someone recently said to me, ‘All of your work is about disappearance,’” Dean says. “It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it’s true.”

Dean’s films are anamorphic (wide angle)—the 16mm equivalent of 35mm Cinema-Scope—and done with her longtime team from England, led by her cameramen John Adderley and Jamie Cairney and soundmen Steve Felton and James Harrison. The sound is recorded digitally. Back at her studio in Berlin, in a building she shares with Thomas Demand and other artists, Dean cuts the film alone, in the predigital manner of old Hollywood, on a Steenbeck editing table. “That process is at the heart of what I do,” she says.

Since settling in Berlin in 2000 with the artist Matthew Hale (they met in 1997) and their six-year-old son, Rufus, she has found subjects there. In Fernsehturm (2001), a stationary camera from inside the famous East Berlin television tower records the structure’s almost imperceptable rotation, as light from outside the windows goes from bright to shadowy. Palast (2004) is also a study of light, as it is reflected off a grimy set of windows at the Palast der Republik, another landmark of the German Democratic Republic, which has become an unlikely cause for preservationists.

“I’m attracted to relics,” Dean says. “When I moved to Berlin, the East was still the East. You could smell it in the brown coal. The further east you go, the more you get the sense of old Berlin.”

Dean’s affection for the past has its roots in an august family tree. Her son is named for her great-great-uncle, Rufus Isaacs, the son of a Jewish grocer who rose to become lord chief justice of England, viceroy and governor general of India, and the first Marquess of Reading. (He was the judge who sentenced the Irish nationalist Roger Casement to death, as Dean noted in an essay she wrote about the German writer W. G. Sebald.)

One of her few films to examine these autobiographical roots is The Uncles (2004), a 77-minute portrait of two esteemed relatives: the musicologist Winton Dean and the politician and former banker Jonathan Balcon. Dean is a Handel scholar and the son of Basil Dean, cofounder of Ealing Studios, the venerable film and television production company; Balcon is the son of Sir Michael Balcon, another founder of Ealing Studios. (Through Balcon, Tacita is cousin to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)

The film doesn’t dwell on the triumphs or social position of either man. As the artist points out, “It’s undidactic. There are no cutaways. You don’t really find out who they are.” Instead, the somnolence and inertia of aging, the bonhomie of two proud males sitting in comfortable chairs discussing their fathers, provides what traditional drama there is. Silences are as telling as words in Dean’s productions.

“I like things that are flawed,” she says. “That’s why I like old people. They’re intrinsically more interesting.”

Plenty of elderly figures populate the films Dean has made about artists and their work. Numbering nearly a dozen by now, the subjects range from Marcel Broodthaers and Mario Merz to Caspar David Friedrich and Giorgio Morandi. Her approach departs waywardly from conventional art history or biographical documentary. A portrait of the distinguished English poet and translator Michael Hamburger, included in her last show at Marian Goodman, dwells on the octogenarian musing about apples as he strolls through his backyard orchard in Suffolk during the months before his death in 2007. Similarly, her silent film about a Joseph Beuys installation threatened by renovations in Darmstadt, Germany, concentrates on the texture of the jute and other materials Beuys used to patch the walls and floors of the seven rooms.

Dean was not a fan of Beuys when she first conceived the film, but she became one while making it. “I don’t want to know where I’m going when I begin,” she says. One of her earliest artist films, Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997), traces her misbegotten journey in search of Robert Smithson’s classic work. (Guided by someone who had no idea what they were looking for, Dean couldn’t be certain that she had found the risen or submerged jetty.) Her most ambitious film project to date is Craneway Event, a documentary record of three days of rehearsals in 2008 by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company inside a former Ford factory on San Francisco Bay.

Dean shot 17 hours of film. “Dance is unknown territory to me, and I shot way too much, so much that I was at sea,” she says. But it was her unfamiliarity with Cunningham and modern American dance that drew her to him. “I need a level of ignorance about what I’m doing in order to be attracted to a project,” she says.

The film is guided by Dean’s languorous sense of time and her eye for incident. As important as the movements of the 20 or so dancers are the squeaks of their feet on the floor and the views behind their bodies through floor-to-ceiling windows of ships, pelicans, and the rest of the world going on outside the box. The 89-year-old Cunningham sits in the autumn light, sometimes nodding off and then snapping awake to direct the next section.

An artist who wants to deepen our engagement with the world by directing our attention to its passing, Dean is also by extension warning us about the perils of distraction. A Columbia student at her talk who accused her of “nostalgia” received a blast from the artist.

“I’m not mourning the past and wishing for its return,” she scoffed. “I’m making you aware of what you’re missing.”

Yet she has good reason to be worried about the disappearance of suppliers and processors for her work. In Feburary she wrote an article for the Guardian protesting that the last lab in London to print 16mm film was discontinuing the practice. The title of the article called on the U.S. owner, Guggenheim Museum trustee Ronald Perelman, to “Save Celluloid, for Art’s Sake.”

“I could stockpile negative film, but that doesn’t help if there are no labs to process it,” Dean says. In addition to the film material that will no longer be available, she is angry that so much technical expertise is being lost. “This vast body of knowledge is just disappearing,” she says.

One of her most poignant and unsentimental studies on the theme of disappearance is Kodak (2006). A documentary about the final days of a Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, it takes place inside the noisy production facilities. The camera follows the film traveling for miles through wheels and baths as the celluloid is coated, sensitized, and fixed.

Gradually, we begin to feel that we are watching a macabre and chilly horror movie, the equivalent of someone recording his or her own death. The plant will close, jobs will be lost, and the material that allows us to see what we’re seeing will no longer exist.

“The sensory quality of the object will be lost if we no longer have film, and that breaks my heart,” Dean said as she walked slowly with a cane around the rooms at the gallery, where her tribute to Beuys was playing.

“I would never make a work from a digital image,” she said firmly. Then, not so firmly, “Not yet.” If and when she finds she cannot hold at bay the forces of change determined to make her obsolete, she has a backup plan. “When I can’t make films anymore,” she says, “I’m going to go back to painting.”

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

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