Review: Tacita Dean

*Tacita Dean, 2003

Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris

7 May – 22 June 2003


What remains of art? Perhaps only a vestige.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses

 One of the great disappointments of my soon to be terminated residence in Paris is that I was unable to bear witness to an encounter arranged between the artist, Tacita Dean, and the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy. I discovered the details of this rencontre, hosted by the Musée d’art Moderne, too late. It seems that Tacita Dean is profoundly familiar with the sensation of having arrived too late. She gives us the faint residue, fallen moth wings of an event that has passed on, just recently, years before, millennia ago. Following her we apprehend the devastated traces of a passage through time. In his catalogue essay, Nancy names Tacita the divinity of silence and draws circles around her proper name. Tacit Tacita, he murmurs, she who silently gives us the ruins of lost time. Nancy has gone so far as to suggest “art seems past, showing nothing more than its passage.” Tacita turns this lament into a revelation as she places us in intimate proximity with the sensation of time’s irrevocable passage. Do we have sufficient tact not to touch Tacita too much? Can we resist obfuscating her work with our readings and our desire to seek some unifying sense?

One suspects that the central piece in the exhibition is Tacita Dean’s 16mm filmic trilogy Boots. Here we are lent a guide to the traversal of lost time. Her work goes even further, intimating that the past is more often than not invented after the fact and, as such, errs toward the fictive. Boots is composed of three twenty-minute films screening in three rooms. Ostensibly, each film is identical, but for the fact that they are translated into French, English and German, and it would be rash to speculate on which language is the original. We are on a walking tour of a deserted art nouveau villa. Boots, our guide so named for his prosthetically enhanced shoe, laboriously leads us along, telling us in abrupt fragments the tale of his past life. This is a tale inflected with the history of the deserted residence itself, and as the tale unfolds it is as though the villa owns a distinct and autonomous personality. At first there seems nothing more remarkable about our aged guide than a deformed foot and a disfigured nose. With just enough French to get by, I gradually discover that a slightly different story is being told in this version, which leads me to understand that the German, likewise, must tell yet another narrative. The disjointed monologue delivered by Boots in each of the three renditions is not translated directly into the next. Accordingly his character becomes more or less sinister, his occasional laughter more or less mad or vindictive. It is at about the same moment that I realize, and perhaps rather belatedly, that each film in the trilogy shares none of the same footage. Each is taken from a series of quite distinct points of view. In the end, all that they share are the mere superficialities of appearance. We notice the light of day falling away, the sky turning pink, the shadows stretching as we progress through each screening. In each we witness, either by sound or sight, the passing of an airplane. We recognize the same empty house, and are presented with what appears to be the same protagonist, even the sound of his misshapen boot resounds in a similar manner. Nancy calls the rhythm of his footfall the rhythm that attends a contemplation of space. But each time we visit him, we find that, like a senile grandfather the details of his age-old tale shifts, as does the house itself. We become perturbed spectators of three possible worlds. In the English version Boots himself speculates, “…one has the feeling, or I have the feeling, that they are still here but in another dimension…and this whole house is in another dimension.” The erstwhile indelible inscription of the past on objects and places is rendered malleable. Is it that the rhythm of time has gone awry?

We tend to reflect on the past as that which is irretrievable. An impenetrable  threshold divides us off from that which has passed away. Tacita Dean shows us otherwise, she pulls us outside of time, placing us in what might be called a milieu of fascination wherein past, present and future are conflated. Needless to say we are still lost, for the present continues to pass with such celerity, it is enough that we grasp a vestige, a trace here and there. One is tempted to read the entire exhibition as a puzzle of sorts, we gather in each piece, there are many objets trouvés presented in the oeuvre, and feel we could almost make a whole picture. Only the pieces of the puzzle never quite meet, something continues to stir in their midst.

In one of the final rooms Geraldine and I arrange ourselves on two comfortable chairs behind a solid table. We divide and share the contents of two simple boxes between us. They contain 326 photographs taken in Prague. We entertain ourselves by imagining possible taxonomies. Graveyards, train interiors, street images, shop windows, our list continues. It is always the same with collections of photographs, there is both a sense of humour that attends their revisitation, and a sense of inexplicable loss that could bring one to the point of tears. Two other visitors join us, then a third. The first two, a fiery Brooklyn dame and her friend, a diminutive French woman, both some way into their fifties, begin a conversation. Brooklyn says to Frenchie, “Look, it’s a picture of me in Prague. Remember, it’s just like my visit to that Greek island where we discovered a statue of me, my spitting image. I found myself on a Greek island and now I seem to have discovered myself in Prague.” Frenchie responds, “oui, tu es partout, et rien a changé.” You are everywhere and nothing has changed. We join them in their laughter and continue to pass them the photographs we have finished with, regretting that we cannot pause over every detail more leisurely, sad that they will all have to be left behind.