Tacita Dean’s name gives a lot away. Her father, Joseph Dean, was a lawyer who studied classics at Merton College, Oxford and aptly named his children Tacita, Antigone and Ptolemy. (They would hardly work at the checkout in Tesco with names like that.) Her grandfather, Basil Dean, was the founder of Ealing Studios. Born in Canterbury in 1965, Dean honours her grandfather’s background in that her artistic medium is principally film. The old analogue ribbons of celluloid that unspool in the dark are an apt metaphor for the passing of time. There’s a lot of waiting in her slow, poetic works. For sunsets to fall. For the beams of a lighthouse to sweep across our field of vision. The subtle, luminous light she records draws on the sensibility of English painters such as Turner and Constable.
In 1996, she made a 16 mm colour film on location at the lighthouse on St. Abb’s Head in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Consisting of seven long shots, the fourteen-minute film captured by a static camera shows both lingering vistas of the sea and the rotating lighthouse lamps. Night falls, and the sky bleeds from yellow into red and deep purple. We can hear the evocative, lonely cry of gulls and the grinding of the lighthouse machinery. Shot by the cinematographer John Adderly with a specially adapted anamorphic lens to add depth and breadth, Dean then edited the footage in London.
Inspired by the story of Donald Crowhurst (1932-1969), Dean has said, ‘All the things I am attracted to are about to disappear’. This made the mystery of the delusional round-the-world yachtsman and British businessman and his abandoned trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, a perfect subject. Crowhurst disappeared at sea on the 1st of July 1969 whilst competing in The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Soon after setting off, the Teignmouth Electron began to take in water. Especially built, the trimaran was an unproven design for a journey of this length. If it capsized, it was virtually impossible to set right. Crowhurst secretly abandoned the race, reporting false positions to convince people that he had actually finished. His dilemma was between two impossible situations: to admit his deception, face public shame and likely financial ruin, or return home to a fraudulent hero’s reception and a possible unmasking.
His log books, found after his disappearance, suggested that the stress he was under led to his suicide. At times, rambling and incoherent, he attempted to set down what he believed to be a ‘revelation,’ a new understanding between man and the universe. Life was a ‘game’ overseen by ‘cosmic beings.’ His son believes that his father may have seen stepping off the boat as a transformation into another psychic state rather than as an act of suicide. The ’disappearance’ in Dean’s title is both an allusion to Crowhurst’s death and to the sunset and eventual darkness that falls in the film. The filmic passage of time doesn’t correspond with real time, underlying Crowhurst’s emotional disorientation. Dean’s fascination with the sea can be traced back to 19th-century Romantic notions of the sublime. Elemental forces were seen to stand for turbulent human emotions, that which was untameable within the human psyche as illustrated in Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1942 or in Wordsworth’s first book of the Prelude.
For Tacita Dean, the story of Donald Crowhurst was, she says, more about integrity than forgery. To use her words, “It is a story about truth.” During her research into Crowhurst’s voyage, she often thought about his final decision and the lie. She refers to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended (fiancée) because the truth, the abominable truth of Kurtz’s death is too horrific and unbearable to tell. According to Dean, Marlow lies ‘to preserve her total faith. He lies in order that she might continue to live.’ Dean saw Crowhurst in the same light, though he chose the opposite; he chose not to lie. ‘He could have continued to deceive the world – thrown all his logbooks overboard or faked an accident at sea – but he choose the truth, ‘the great beauty of truth’.’ For Dean, his is a story of human failure, ‘about pitching his sanity against the sea, where there is no human presence or support system left on which to hand a tortured psychological state.’ It is a work that explores our relationship to ungovernable nature and to art itself, which can, as with painters such as Turner or Rothko, take us into transcendental psychological states.
Disappearance at Sea sits alongside several other related works by Dean, including Disappearance at Sea I-VI 1995 and a series of six chalkboards covered with maritime sketches and labels, along with another four-minute 16 mm colour film Disappearance at Sea II 1997. But Dean’s prowess rests primarily not as a storyteller but in her sensibility towards the medium of film and her ability to mirror its relationship to time and light. The lonely seascapes, with their evocative cries of gulls, capture a sense of existential alienation, of both awe and a sense of being overwhelmed by the vast and empty vistas of the sea.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and art critic. She has published three novels, a book of short stories and 5 collections of poems, Her latest, God’s Little Artist poems on the life of Gwen John is published by Seren. Flatlands, her fourth novel, is published by Pushkin Press and Mercure de France. www.suehubbard.com