Nostalgia and the Sublime in the Film Work of Tacita Dean

Moving image as part of a fine art practice is central to the work of British artist Tacita Dean. Born in 1965, Dean emerged as an artist in the 1990s as one of the Young British Artists. Her success came quickly. She received a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1998 and an election to the Royal Academy in 2008. Although she trained as a painter, she explores photography and film quite prominently. Her drawing skills become a part of these media in the sense that storyboards and narratives are central to her expressive creations. Such films are characterised by fixed camera positions of long takes, so that the passing of time is palpable to the viewer. Her personal themes involve elements of loss and memory, with a particular obsession for the sea.

Dean is sometimes criticised (and praised) for being too much of a nostalgic: not only does her work explore elements that have been lost; she also predominantly uses a medium that is seen to be a dying art, analogue film. Film (2012) is a monumental installation project exploring the medium itself as rolls of 35mm film become her canvas, cutting into them and hand tinting them with colour; abstract shapes appear hovering above scenes of nature. Kodak (2006) is a testimony to the on-going demise of this art, bringing to life the beautiful colours of a Kodak factory in France that was demolished soon after filming. Dean illustrates this passing of the medium in a more figurative manner with the setting of the sun in Green Ray (2001). She films her search for the last ray of the dying sun that is said to flash green if one looks hard enough. The great orb of the sun sits on the horizon, splitting the field of view into two blocks of colour: green and orange. The movement is slow and subtle: we must wait in patience just as she did. The same image can be found in a more abstracted sense in Film. Elements of the wondrous and intangible, namely the sublime, in nature are repeated again and again.

Dean often shows an interest in humanity’s struggle over the elements and the natural evolution of things. Palast (2001) is a document of the Palace of the Republic, a socialist seat of government in former East Berlin, focused this now obsolete structure. The sequence of shots focus in on the light reflecting off the bronze windows, becoming increasingly intense with the sunset, framed by an industrial gridding. It recalls the dramatic painted landscapes of the sublime in the 19th century, such as those of John Martin, yet the soundtrack is a recording of street sounds. The imagery is most powerful and emphasised in contrast with such banality.

The artist presents her passion for the power of the ocean in Disappearance at Sea (1996), which involved the motif of a lighthouse: a structure of safety and reassurance of those at sea as the last outpost of civilisation. This symbol of hope is futile here as she investigates the death of Donald Crowhurst in the first non-stop solo sailing race around the world in 1968. Setting off in an untested and experimental boat, Crowhurst falsified his navigation knowing that his boat had failed him rather than returning defeated, and in the end threw himself overboard in a delusional mental state. Dean charts the turn of day into night, from inside the lighthouse tower, focusing on the revolving bulbs and the refraction of light caused by the lens. The screen is filled with artificial light as the natural light ebbs away. Eventually the view turns outward, as the landscape if plunged into darkness: the sense of loss and helplessness against the present water is evident. The companion film shows the outer view of a lighthouse, the camera revolving to follow the horizon across the far stretching ocean. Our vision is filled with blue, seemingly endless, yet contained by the barrier of the horizon: the dark unknown is beyond. In the lighthouse we are safe, but insignificant beside the vast ocean.

Through her explorations of nature in such a work as this, Dean reveals her fascination with 19th century thoughts of the sublime, considered to be a state of the soul close to the tragic, but causing an experience of pleasure in the astonishment of beauty and power of nature rather than fear. There is an opposition of appreciation and pain, felt also in the nostalgic moments of memory tied to her work also. Her slowly changing, filmic landscapes are imbued with these feelings and a sense of the Romantic. 

Tacita Dean is the latest artist to take up the challenge of filling Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. Her response, entitled 'FILM', is a silent 35mm looped film projected onto a monolith standing 13 metres tall. FILM is an 11-minute silent 35 mm film projected onto a gigantic white monolith standing 13 metres tall at the end of a darkened Turbine Hall.


Essay by Gemma Batchelor, third year Fine Art student at Edinburgh College of Art

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