Tacita Dean: Schaulager, Basel
Quandt, James, Artforum International
DESCENDING TO THE BASEMENT of the Schaulager--Herzog & de Meuron's sand-encrusted bunker with its slashing gash of a window--one was beset by a sound that seemed oddly antique, like that of typewriter keys or rotary phone dials: the whir and clatter of a film projector. It was apparent in that sound, now threatened with obsolescence, that Tacita Dean's retrospective (organized by Theodora Vischer) was called "Analogue" for both polemical and nostalgic reasons. "Analogue, it seems, is a description," the artist writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, "a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear." Dean's fidelity to 16-mm film and its bulky, outmoded apparatus, as digital technology quickly renders them obsolete, defines her art and her outlook; the materiality of the medium seems a bulwark against a fast-advancing future where imagery is insubstantial, endlessly transmutable, there but not there. Dean is no loon or Luddite in her lost-cause allegiance to celluloid. As the poet of imperiled sites, abandoned dwellings, defunct technology, and architectural relics, she is at once an English romantic, an aesthetic descendant of Turner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Michael Powell, and a recalcitrant materialist. She adheres to the concrete and quantifiable even as her artworks often proceed from found objects, chance events, and coincidences, and her films rely on evanescent, unpredictable nature for their mysterious beauty--twilight skies tinted mint, rose, peach, and darkling purple (Boots, 2003; Fernsehturm, 2001); blackbirds gathering to ominous mass in the dusk (Pie, 2003); a triptych of grass, trees, and sky invaded by lowing cows (Baobab, 2002); seascapes roiling and becalmed (Bubble House, 1999; Sound Mirrors, 1999); late afternoon light glowing molten on glass or burnished wood (Fernsehturm; Boots; Palast, 2004).
Nowhere is Dean's adherence to analogue--a precise and palpable "this-ness" in a world increasingly dematerializing in a blizzard of pixels--more marked than in her latest film, Kodak, 2006, which received its premiere in the first of six islands in the Schaulager installation. Dean seems inspired to new heights by the very imminence of her medium's disappearance. A record of a production cycle for soon-to-be-extinct celluloid film at Kodak Industrie in Chalon-sur-Saone, France, Kodak is a meta-lament, its subject the end of the material on which the film's being and beauty are dependent. By documenting this demise with exquisite precision, Dean shows us just what we'll be missing when celluloid has ceded to digital. (In this, Dean echoes Godard's Eloge de l'amour , the first half of which is shot in dense, sumptuous 35 mm, the second in juddering, swimmy DV.) More rhythmic than many of her films--it relies less on straight cuts, more on associative editing--Kodak at times recalls David Rimmer's classic Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970) and its transformation of industrial process into abstract, choreographed motion. Shifting from black and white to crisp, saturated color, populated shots to empty ones, intercutting pristine symmetries in medium or long shot with defamiliarizing close-ups, Kodak turns the factory's gears, shafts, and drums into Moholy-Nagy compositions of fathomless beauty, its fixtures and white-suited employees into a Mondrian boogie-woogie of primary colors. As the celluloid traverses six miles of machinery, Dean's aestheticizing eye concentrates on texture, color, found design: Flavin-like red lozenges of overhead lighting; a cobalt drum parked next to a copper one; a strip of blue celluloid with a beveled edge crowding three-quarters of the image, a diagonal shaft of white light arranged behind it; a trio of symmetrical metal tubes rolling ribbons of pinkish film; an undulating surface that appears to be aqueous but turns out to be celluloid--accompanied by a mechanical musique concrete of hum and whir. Dean plays with perspective, tricks the eye with initially unintelligible details or strange framings; one shot of a man at a desk, seemingly scrunched into the right-hand third of the frame, suddenly reveals itself to be taken through an oblong aperture in a door. …