Tacita Dean and “the genius of Nothing”

Before I met with the English artist Tacita Dean at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, I came across an article she had written for The Guardian about the late British writer JG Ballard right after his death in 2009. As an aspiring author, I’m drawn to Dean’s work because of (other than her brilliance as a filmmaker) her proximity to writers: Ballard was her friend, whom she latterly called Jimmy, and the American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides is her son’s godfather.

Dean also writes. Ballard had apparently said of her, “Tacita writes well – perhaps too well for an artist.” Critics tend to describe her writings as anecdotal (she calls them “asides”) – short narratives about life’s randomness and inevitable obsolescence, reminiscent of the style of the German writer WG Sebald. When he died suddenly in a car accident in 2001, Dean saw the shocking event as her “John Lennon moment”. Sebald was one of her literary heroes. She later made a film about him and her friend Michael Hamburger, the German-Jewish poet and Sebald’s translator, who emigrated to England in 1933.
Some consider her work (both filmic and textual) as nostalgic and too lyrical, but she disagrees. To her, everything explored in her oeuvre is about the moment of deterioration (or of decline) – in analogue film technology and in everything – and has nothing to do with the past. But she’s also a romantic, defiantly so, she told me, which sets her apart from her peers, the so-called Young British Artists (YBA), simply because she dares to show seascapes and sunsets in her films.
 Banewl, 1999, 16mm film; colour anamorphic film, optical sound; 63 minutes
Art writer Jonathan Jones sees her approach as more about Englishness than sentimentalism, like Gainsborough’s “vividly English” landscape paintings: “Tacita Dean is a very English artist, I thought as I watched black and white waves, a sea of mist, and a fountain flicker in and out of her superb film in the Tate Turbine Hall” (in her Unilever Series installation, titled FILM). ‘The atmosphere of film, as stuff, as celluloid, that it creates made me think of classic English films.”
Dean comes from impressive English stock. Her grandfather was the legendary actor and impresario Basil Dean (1888–1978), her uncle is noted musicologist Winton Dean, and her brother Ptolemy Dean is one of the Queen’s favoured architects and the 19th Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey (Sir Christopher Wren held the position between 1698 and 1723). In 2010, she inscribed a poignant Guardian obituary of her father Joseph Dean, a circuit judge and rural activist, describing how he never really emerged from under Basil’s shadow despite his “great integrity, erudition and much complexity”. Basil had abandoned his wife, the first of three, on the day she gave birth to Joseph, and Tacita wrote: “Joe never recovered from the wretchedness of his childhood and it remained a presence throughout his life.”
Her friends consider her formidable. In the introduction to his interview with Dean for BOMB magazine, Eugenides called her Formidable (with a capital letter), a nickname first given to her by Gallic journalists. In French the word means terrific and awe-inspiring. “I agree with the French,” he wrote. “Tacita Dean. Formidable!’ And this was how the English author Jeanette Winterson, a fan of Dean’s work, described the artist in a different article in The Guardian: “Dean is the genius of Nothing. Nothing needs a capital letter, because it is a Sartre Nothing, or a Beckett Nothing.”
 Fatigues (2012), Chalk on blackboard, 3 panels, 2.23 x 4.85m
Indeed, nothing much happens in her filmscapes, but the nothingness that pervades her works is a meditation on time, or the nature of time. Dean waits for things to happen on their own, in their own time, aiming her camera at the decaying world, letting time crawl, as in Banewl (1999), a film that contemplates the Cornish landscape for sixty-three minutes, or Fernsehturm (2001), a film that lets time unfold slowly inside the TV tower restaurant in Berlin in a homage to the perpetually rotating spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Her latest film J G, which was first shown at the Arcadia University Art Gallery in Glenside, Pennsylvania earlier this year, was inspired by her correspondence with Ballard on the possible connection between his short story The Voices of Time (1960) and the American artist Robert Smithson’s iconic earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970). JG is a technical sequel to FILM, which is also her tribute to the dying medium of analogue film. For this she invented and patented the “aperture gate masking” system of using different shaped masks to expose and re-expose the negative within each film frame, creating a retro-future collage that is both edgy and anachronistic.
The gradual demise of analogue film is a central concern in Dean’s artistic practice. It made her into an activist in fighting for the survival of the non-digital way of making films. To her, the archaic way of processing film is magical. She told the New Yorker that “the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics, but something deeper – something to do with poetry.”
Sound mirrors, 1999, Black and white film
Born in Canterbury, Kent, in 1965, Dean now lives and works in Berlin inside a warehouse on Hamburger Bahnhof – her neighbours include artists Thomas Demand and Olafur Eliasson. She studied art at the Falmouth School of Art, the Supreme School of Fine Art in Athens and the Slade School of Fine Art in London. In 1998 she was nominated for a Turner Prize (the award went to Chris Ofili, infamous for his elephant dung painting of the Virgin Mary) and was awarded a DAAD scholarship for Berlin in 2000. She has also received the following prizes: Aachen Art Prize (2002); Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy (2004); the Sixth Benesse Prize at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and the Hugo Boss Prize at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2006). Dean also participated in the Venice Biennale in 2003 and 2005.
Her Wikipedia profile describes her as a YBA, along with Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Ofili, even though she doesn’t think of herself as one. She told me: “I was never a YBA. It was my generation and it was my life but I didn’t fit into that. I was left out of pivotal shows but then suddenly someone’s written me in as a YBA. I think it was a great movement for London – it spawned the Tate Modern in a way – but I was never part of it. I left in 2000 anyway. So already an outsider I made myself even more of an outsider. But I’m pretty British. I’m from Canterbury. My references are quite British.”
I was immediately struck by her presence when I arrived at the gallery in Midtown Manhattan on the morning before the opening of her show Fatigues (2012), a series of non-filmic white chalk drawings of the Hindu Kush peaks on large-scale blackboards, originally created for dOCUMENTA (13), an exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany for a hundred days in different sites around the city. Sitting alone on a chair in the middle of the gallery, she was exactly how Eugenides had described her in his article: “There is something formidable even about her hair. Its frizzy electricity puts you in mind of Golda Meir overseeing the Knesset. Her eyes exert a Rasputin or Madame Blavatsky force … She is an overpowering force and I cower before her in admiration.”
Then I sat down on a chair next to her and cowered before her, like Eugenides, in admiration, and began my interview.
(Detail) Fatigues (2012), Chalk on blackboard, 6 panels, 2.8 x 11.07 m
What is the connection between J G and Ballard’s The Voices of Time?
JG is all about time. It’s about geological time in the age of the land; it’s about cosmic time and human time, and then film time. Ballard was interested in time in his early fiction, and JG, my film, is connected to The Voices of Time, his short story. But his later concerns were not so temporal: they were more about a disfigured society.
Jeanette Winterson is a fan of your work.
I loved her when I was young. I was a real fan. She wrote a great article all about me being boring and how boring is underestimated.
She said you’re a genius at nothingness. 
I just call nothingness time. For me there is always something. I am incredibly formal, my films are highly structured, and the editing is incredibly precise. I do that alone. I edit on film, with film. So film time stays there, it is imbued.
Can you tell us more about your aperture gate masking technique?
Well masking, I made it. We even have a patent. I developed the technique for the Turbine Hall project where I could mix landscapes and mix time, you know, play with the notion of time. It’s a departure from my previous works because it’s slightly more science fiction. What I like about the masking is that it’s so close to collage and drawing, but it’s actually imprinted, and there’s no post-producing in this. It’s like a highly layered image but all born inside the camera so you don’t know what you are going to get. It’s a very anti-digital project. I wanted to make a film going back to the origins and invention of filmmaking.
So I looked into the old techniques of masking, which was when they used to – for example, you’d have somebody looking through binoculars and then you’d see what they’re seeing and it would have like rounds. But it was always very crude. I didn’t want to use any post-production. It had to be made in the camera, which is the point. It’s all about refusing to do post production and interfere with it digitally.
Can you elaborate more on FILM?
I basically turned the Turbine Hall into a strip of film. And it was fighting for film, fighting to keep it alive as a medium, which we need to do of course. It’s very touch-and-go whether that is going to be the case. It’s another working material, it’s another medium, and I don’t understand why the world is getting rid of it – because it is different from digital, it is completely bloody different.
What about Fatigues and its connection to film?
Does there have to be one? The medium is just chalk but they look like black-and-white negatives. These relate to film, not so much my films but they relate to a cinematic trope: the establishing shot, the panorama, the action. You have the mountains – it is supposed to be Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush – and it’s fiction because I’ve never been there. It uses cinematic language. I had bought these prints from the Internet and realised they were of the second Anglo-Afghan war. I started to do some research on that, which in turn led me to this poem by Rudyard Kipling called the Ford O’ Kabul River, a very jingoistic poem about these Hussars being drowned.
Kipling was an imperialist.
I hate Kipling. He was an anti-Semite. There’s an anti-Semitic poem by Kipling against my great-great-uncle. Kipling was a really right-wing guy. I mean really right wing. He was a nasty piece of work. We all think about the Jungle Book and how charming he was, but this poem is very ugly as well. It’s all written in fake cockney and it’s very bizarre. He is totally colonialist. He is a real jingoistic right-wing git. I don’t have a love of Kipling so it was just ironic that I should be led to him. I started doing more research about him, because it was a great shock to originally find out that the writer of the Jungle Book was quite an unpleasant character. Superiority was educated into them. The English still have that problem.
Do you have any plans to make a feature-length film? 
People have been asking me for years, and I did go to Sundance when we were making JG there. While I was cutting this film I thought for the first time, I need to do it now because of the medium. Because I’m not interested in the digital – for me it’s as different as cement or marble – without my beloved film I’m not that interested. So if I don’t make it now I’m not sure I ever will be able to. And also because of the masks: I would make the whole film with the masks. Actually JG is a step closer to cinema and a step away from art because of the voiceover and because there is more of the structure in it. The structure is the Ballardian loss of daily time.
What will your film be about?
I have no idea. I need to take that road of money and stuff first. And I don’t want to make it in their way. I need to make it as an artist. So if there’s no way of doing that, I won’t do it. I don’t want some production company to say I have to have music or that “it’s boring, can you cut it?’ Because it will be, that’s my thing. And also I’d like to show it as film and there may be no projectors left by the time I want to show it.
Are you a romantic when it comes to the purity of the film process? 
I have many facets, I have a Ballardian facet and I have a romantic facet. I am a romantic. I don’t care. I’m an unashamed romantic. My work is romantic. In the YBA movement it was a bit of a no-no to be so romantic. You know I was making Disappearance at Sea (1996) at the height of the YBA movement when everyone else was doing all this urban work. I remember people saying, “You’re going to use a sunset?” But I am definitely a romantic. But I don’t see it as a pejorative thing. Why is that bad? Look at my work! My film isn’t a film without a setting sun.
by Peter Yeoh
From the Glass Archive Issue 14 – Romance 

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Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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