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Tacita Dean / MATRIX 189


November 29, 2000 - January 28, 2001

Tacita Dean: Banewl, 1999, film still. Photo courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) .

"It is beyond rational explanation, but for some short time after that day (of the solar eclipse), I really felt like I would never recognize the sun again. The eclipse was about waiting for darkness to happen and then equally for the return of a normal sun. The clouds allowed us to experience this coincidence of cosmic time and scale on our terms and in our own human time. "—Tacita Dean1

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) to view an in-depth essay, a biography and bibliography on the artist, and images of works in the exhibition.

Concealment, serendipity, story telling, duration, and process are all recurring concerns in British conceptual artist Tacita Dean's work.2 Films are an important element of her art; lasting several minutes, they are shown on a continuous loop, and are always accompanied by a text crafted by the artist. But in contrast to the video installation format employed by many of her peers, Dean's films are shown in a traditional environment with viewers seated in a darkened space facing a screen, and are intended to be watched as films. Dean can also be distinguished from other Young British Artists in her formal, straightforward use of media and the simple, unsensational content of her work. In addition to her 16mm films, Dean has created large–scale blackboard drawings, photographs, and acoustic works.

Thus, she must be considered as a filmmaker, a writer, an object maker, a drafts–person, an installation artist, a photographer, and a radio producer. Dean's subjects range from beards, breasts, and saints to boats, lighthouses, and cows. There is an underlying obsessive quality to her art, a strange but mes–merizing amalgam of thoughts and occurrences, the essence of which may be an attempt to reveal connections between seeming opposites. As art historian Patrick Murphy has noted, her works can be seen as investigations, a series of corollaries between truth and fiction, video and film, subject and medium, drawing and idea, science and art.

At sixty–three minutes, Banewl (1999), the film that comprises Dean's MATRIX installation, is of unusual length for the artist. The 16mm anamorphic film was shot in Cornwall, England, during last year's total eclipse of the sun. Using four cameras, the piece slowly moves through the event from the overcast morning to the appearance of the partially eclipsed sun later in the day. Dean explains that, while the film was initially intended to be about the event, the resulting work is about the place in which it occurred. Banewl begins with several establishing shots: the sky, a tree and meadow, the barn and stable of a farm, and an old stone farmhouse. The sound track is constant: the ocean, chirping birds, squawking gulls, buzzing insects, a helicopter, and cows alternately mooing and chewing. The formal qualities of the film are forefronted: Dean uses a limited palette, a slow and steady pace, a static camera position, and very long shots. Action shots, in which cows walk around and eat, are interspersed with static shots of the monochromatic sky. Due to the use of an anamorphic lens, the projection is strikingly horizontal, thereby emphasizing the reference to historical landscape painting. Banewl recalls the work of seventeenth–century Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp, known for his moody, open scenes of cows, as well as that of John Constable and the eighteenth– and nineteenth–century British pastoral landscape tradition. The experience of Banewl is about waiting and watching, for the passage of time and the reemergence of light.3

Banewl is characterized by duality and juxtaposition. There are two narratives. The first comprises the daily rituals of farm life, including the task of taking the cows out to pasture. The second is the extraordinary event of a total solar eclipse. The film is split into two parts, as if to ensure that the viewer grasp the subtlety of the subject. In the first half, the effect of totality, the covering of the sun by the moon, is witnessed on the earth through the changing behavior of the cows. Through the focus on the sun and the clouds, the eclipse is experienced in the sky in the second half of the film. Abstract images of sky alternate with representational images of earth that are then horizontally divided on the screen into equal parts sky and ground. Dean presents a series of contrasting pairs: time against sequence, image against sound, day against night, light against dark, sun against moon, and, finally, the distinction between the spelling (Burnewhall) and pronunciation (Banewl) of the farm on which the film is shot. In Banewl Dean highlights the inherent magic in bringing about darkness in the middle of the day.

The artist used some of her footage of the eclipse to make another film, Totality (2000). As Dean describes it, in this work "you are looking directly at the sun; it is all but entirely covered. Suddenly the moon seems to lurch across it, and the sun is gone. For two minutes and six seconds there is nothing." Totality is comprised of a slowly shifting monochromatic gray screen, barely distinguishable from a blank screen. It is an extremely subtle work, so subtle that the uninformed viewer might not notice the progression or even the existence of the film. Disappearance at Sea (1996) is loosely inspired by Donald Crowhurst's failed around–the–world sea voyage. He was one of nine competitors in The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race to be the first to circumnavigate the world solo and nonstop. His disappearance was preceded by a deception regarding his whereabouts and supposed lead in the race. Extreme isolation and distress marked his eventual death at sea. Despite the narrative basis, the subject of Dean's film is the mechanism of a lighthouse. Commissioned for presentation in the lighthouse at Berwick–upon–Tweed, England, the film consists of the movement of time and light from day into night.4 Thus, Disappearance at Sea can be seen as a metaphorical precursor to Banewl. Dean describes the environment: "At night, you watch in the blackness for the rotations of the lighthouse and you decipher time in the gaps between the flashes. Without this cipher, there is no time. Crowhurst's 'time–madness,' where he believed he was floating through prehistory, utterly alone in an unforgiving seascape so far removed from human contact, is only just possible to imagine standing in the last human place where the ocean starts and the land ends in a solitary beacon of safety."5 Disappearance at Sea is about the phenomenon of projection, a beam of light being transmitted through a lens—in actuality, the essence of film.6 Here, real and filmic space merge seamlessly.

Dean is fascinated with the fictions underlying truth. The Teignmouth Electron, Crowhurst's boat, is the surviving icon from which any truth about Crowhurst's journey can be deciphered. Dean therefore tracked the current location of the boat, to Cayman Brac Island. Teignmouth Electron (2000) records her trip there to photograph and explore the vessel. Ironically Dean's images are classic shots of a tropical island paradise with sunny skies and calm water, the opposite climate and conditions of those which Crowhurst encountered. In 1997, after having spent two weeks at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, Dean embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts to Rozel Point on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, the site of Robert Smithson's infamous earth work Spiral Jetty. Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997) is a twenty–seven–minute–long sound work presented as an imageless "road movie."7 Contrived as an in–car commentary, positioning the viewer in the backseat, the recording is largely (re)constructed. In fact, Dean recorded only the end of the actual voyage. The remainder was created through an exchange of audio tapes sent transatlantically between the artist and her companion. The product was based on their individual memories of the trip. Such overlay of memory and fictionalization of narrative are characteristic elements in much of Dean's work. Equally revelatory is Dean's fascination with disappearance: she traveled to Rozel Point based on a rumor she had heard in New York that the Spiral Jetty had reappeared. Dean has made several works concerned with disappearance, including those of the Spiral Jetty and David Crowhurst, the mysterious vanishing of Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, and the apparent disappearance of the sun. The first of Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art" reads, "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach."8 Dean's fascination with the blurred boundaries between truth and reality, knowing and premonition, art and magic locate her firmly within the tradition of Conceptual Art as defined by LeWitt. Dean's creations, be they filmic, photographic, literary, or aural, reflect her ongoing interest in the hidden, the evolving, and the alchemical.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

1 Tacita Dean, an aside," in Tacita Dean: Selected Works from 1994-2000 (Basel, Switzerland: Museum fŸr Gegenwartskunst, 2000), p. 52.

2 Matthew Higgs, "Tacita Dean," in Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture (London, U.K.: Phaidon, 1998), p. 89.

3 Patrick T. Murphy, "Dean's Alembic—An Introduction to the Art of Tacita Dean," in Tacita Dean (Philadelphia: The Institute for Contemporary Art, 1998), p. 5.

4 Ibid., p. 9.

5 Dean, op. cit., p. 27.

6 Barry Schwabsky, "Cine Qua Non: The Art of Tacita Dean," Artforum, March 1999, p. 100.

7 Higgs, op. cit., p. 89.

8 Theodora Vischer, "Afterword," in Tacita Dean: Selected Works from 1994–2000, loc. cit., p. 54. Sol LeWitt, "Sentences on Conceptual Art," originally published in 0–9 (New York: 1969) and Art Language (London, U. K.: May 1969).

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by the generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM MATRIX Council Endowment, Ann M. Hatch, Eric McDougall, and the California Arts Council.

The museum also wishes to thank Nancy Goldman, Head of the Pacific Film Archive Library, for offering her technical expertise.