Seeing through water

Tacita Dean is an artist obsessed with the sea. Since she’s a native of England, perhaps that’s not surprising. In her film and video exhibition currently on display at the Cranbrook Art Museum, nearly every work draws from a rich trove of poetic associations related to maritime themes, or just explores the fluid, multivalent properties of water itself.

In Delft Hydraulics (1996), a black-and-white 16 mm film, the image initially presents itself as an enigma. Dark horizontal and vertical stripes divide the screen into squares and rectangles of varying gray shades. But once the components of the image begin to move, grinding up and down in a regular rhythm, it becomes apparent that what is depicted is a mechanical apparatus churning a tank of water, the pliant, yielding nature of the water providing a counterpoint to the rigid oscillations of the wave machine.

The 14-minute color film Disappearance at Sea (Cinemascope) (1996) was inspired by the doomed, desperate gesture of one would-be mariner by the name of Donald Crowhurst. Failing in business and saddled with debt, Crowhurst quixotically chose to solve his problems by entering a nonstop, solo, round-the-world yacht race. Ill-prepared and lacking the skills to complete the race, he stopped near Argentina, but continued to report his position as if he were still in the race, in essence fabricating an imaginary journey. Obsessed with the deceit, he kept two logs, one documenting the imagined journey, the other chronicling his increasing disorientation. Eventually crossing over into madness, he is believed to have jumped overboard.

The film itself consists of a close-up of the rotating inner mechanism of a lighthouse beacon. Gradually, as the sun sets, the sky darkens and the beam can be seen reflecting off the surface of the sea. Though the Crowhurst story is never referred to explicitly, the beam of light stands as a point of reference opposed to the vast expansiveness of the sea which so overwhelmed Crowhurst, while formally the image of the beacon is a mirror image of the projection of the film itself.

Disappearance at Sea II (Voyage de Guérison, 1997), another 16 mm film, is projected alongside the first and is its exact inverse. Here the camera is mounted on the lighthouse mechanism, looking outward, rotating to show the stark North Sea coastline.

The missing narrative behind the inspiration for this film is taken from the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde. Instead of a journey into dissolution and nonmeaning, here the wounded Tristan surrenders himself to the sea without oars or sails, only to land safely on the shores of Ireland where he’s healed by the Queen and her daughter Isolde.

The nature of artifice is a theme that runs through Dean’s work like an underground stream, and the installation entitled Foley Artist (1996) foregrounds the deception intrinsic to the cinematic process – the fact that sound and image are created separately and later combined to create the illusion of one seamless reality.

This installation features a video of two Foley artists (sound-effects specialists) creating a sound track for a film. Rather than the narrative of the story, which can be gleaned from a complex, multitracked, backlit dubbing chart mounted across the room (something about an usherette and her lover) what we actually see (and hear, gloriously amplified through eight speakers) are an elderly man and woman jogging in place on gravel or wet newspaper, opening an umbrella, closing and opening doors, and kissing their own wrists.

Instead of the artifice of images merged with a sound track that was created elsewhere, the actual source of the sound is displayed. But artifice is merely transposed, since under actual working conditions the Foley artists would coordinate their effects with an image, and in Dean’s video the pair perform before a blank screen.

If the visual image is given short shrift in Foley Artist, it’s completely eliminated in Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997), an audio recording of Dean and a friend trying to make their way to conceptual artist Robert Smithson’s massive earthwork that spirals 1500 feet into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Despite the incredibly precise directions that Dean reads off as her friend pilots the car, the two nevertheless manage to get lost, the immense, trackless Utah desert apparently as overwhelming as the sea that claimed Crowhurst. This piece has the effect of destabilizing our faith in language, for if these simple, exact directions can lead one astray, the potential for misunderstanding in more complex communications must be infinitely greater.

To encounter a number of Dean’s pieces in succession, with their overlapping thematic concerns, is to experience a metaphorical echoing between the works. Her use of film, at once analytical and poetic, plays with formal possibilities while creating a space for real mystery.

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