The images on the wall at the Norton Museum of Art exude death, loneliness and terror. The sheathed body of a monk is ushered into its underground sepulcher. Pollution consumes post-apocalyptic landscapes. Explosions devastate villages. Ships wreck, bridges collapse, volcanoes erupt.
And on these black-and-white snapshots are the esoteric hand-written notations of an artist, scribbled here, there and everywhere, like a mathematician’s scattered equations on a busy blackboard. Some of the notes are incomprehensible; many are the commands a director might mete out on a film shoot: “Zoom in.” “Pan down to coffin.” “Last shot.” One note is simply the word “Slut,” which, in its context, doesn’t mean what you think it does.
The creator of this series is Tacita Dean, a 46-year-old English artist now residing in Berlin. Part of the Norton’s new “Tacita Dean” exhibition of her photo-based works, the series is called “The Russian Ending,” and it’s inspired by an apparent tendency in Danish cinema to shoot two endings to the nation’s films – a sentimental, happy ending for Hollywood audiences and a solemn, tragic conclusion for the unsmiling Russians. But the works are not, in fact, stills from Danish movies; they are, like much of Dean’s photographic oeuvre, found images. Disaster postcards, she says, are highly sought after.
Part of Dean’s m.o. involves finding visual texts and re-branding them, and “The Russian Ending” is a perfect example of this propensity. The shots are co-opted to fulfill her mind’s restless agenda, always thinking, always revising, always immortalizing.
The inspiration of film is more than a cinephile’s homage. Rather, Dean has made film preservation her artistic stock in trade. Most of her art is shot and presented on 16mm and occasionally 35mm. Her massive work “FILM,” currently on display in Britain’s Tate Modern, treats an 11-minute silent film as a totemic monolith, and its accompanying exhibition book is filled with pleas to save celluloid by filmmakers, artists and thinkers. “She embraces film not for nostalgia’s sake but for its inherent quality,” says Norton Assistant Director Charles Stainback, who curated the exhibition. In a world of increasing digitization in both production and distribution of moving pictures, Dean is a dying breed, and I for one hope she continues to spread the gospel of the endangered medium.
However, I digress. This isn’t entirely what the Norton’s retrospective is about, and I left the museum wishing that Dean’s film work, and its underlying agenda, had been explored more. Nonetheless, I was taken by “Czech Photos,” a collection of hundreds of bite-sized snapshots Dean took while visiting Prague in 1991. Each has an ethereal, elegiac quality of a lost Old Europe, and they presented, openly, in a filing box on a wooden desk. Visitors can rifle through them at their leisure, with the museum trusting that they won’t steal the photographs.
Other interesting pieces, following in the revisionist tradition of “The Russian Ending,” find Dean re-incorporating photographs – hers or other people’s – into new contexts. Dean makes mischief with reality, finding solace somewhere between fact and fiction. A collection of postcards from the 1930s of a then-uncompleted Washington Cathedral stand as a monument to a filigreed blueprint, the building and its environs resembling little of the edifice that would eventually be constructed in the late 20thcentury. And it almost goes without saying that her photograph of “Polanski’s Cutting Room Floor” is not, in fact, the editing room of Roman Polanski.
There are other pleasures to be found within “Tacita Dean,” but the exhibition does not convey what she’s best known for: her film fetishism. Visiting this exhibition is like seeing a concert by your favorite band that plays nothing but B-sides. It’s still pretty awesome, and is better than most other bands at the top of their games, but it feels incomplete.
“Tacita Dean” is on display through May 6 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $12 adults and $5 students. Call 561/832-5196 or visit Norton.org.