Great Britain : Tacita Dean
I have had in my possession for some time a postcard of Der Jungbrunnen, a painting by Cranach showing a square pool with a fountain in the middle. To the left of the painting, elderly and infirm women are being wheeled or helped to the edge of the water. Once in, they undergo a transformation and become young, nubile maidens who are helped out of the pool on the right of the picture by handsome suitors. This is the fountain of eternal youth, and for many years I wanted to find such a pool so I could re-stage this metamorphosis.
The walls of the steam baths in Budapest are covered with testimonials from people who have sought and found relief from innumerable ailments in the sulphurous waters of the city. The complaints are mostly of a rheumatic or asthmatic nature. I would go to the Gellart Baths almost every day of my stay in Hungary, and watch the old women sit together on the steps of the pool, moving their bodies slowly and making them work again in the warm waters, momentarily rejuvenating them in those few precious hours spent in the baths each week.
I first saw the work of the young British filmmaker Tacita Dean in 1995 at the Frith Street Gallery in London. She was showing two pieces. One was a very short film shot in Bourges, called A Bag of Air, which documented a journey in a hot air balloon. Its main image was a pair of hands holding a plastic bag aloft to capture the air of the upper atmosphere. The film was inspired by 16th-century alchemy, and its soundtrack told of an elixir that could heal all ailments, made from dew distilled from the upper ether. The other work was a display case holding the artist's collection of four-leaf clovers. The number of these delicately pressed tokens suggested unusual luck, but perhaps Tacita Dean has also been unusually determined in her search for the elusive.
These early works offer clues to Dean's subsequent oeuvre, which consists mostly of films but also includes drawings and installations in which sound is the chief actor. She is a hunter guided by a belief in serendipity, a seeker of the wonderful and the immaterial, a detective in pursuit of eccentrics whose visions - and delusions - impelled them to attempt feats beyond the ordinary imagination. Not surprisingly, disappointment and deception are prominent elements in her work. What is sought frequently eludes the grasp, as is made evident in a more recent sound work, Trying to Find the "Spiral Jetty", in which Dean and a companion search for, and ultimately fail to find, Robert Smithson's submerged monument.
The motif of healing plays a large role in her work. Her journeys frequently take on the character of pilgrimages and her trophies are often the relics - objects or stories - left behind by the saints, adventurers and failed visionaries who fill her pantheon. Whom or what does she pursue? Perhaps the idea of hope itself, hope that transcends the mundane limits of everyday life and the stern dictates of fate. Her narratives are often borne on water, like Girl Stowaway and the two Disappearance at Sea films (the second of which is subtitled Voyage de guérison), or have as their destination a watery site, like Gellart. Water has the power to transport and to transform physical reality. Death by drowning is the fearful mirror of the promises of elixirs and the fountain of youth. But the power of water is most evident in its grip on the imagination.
Gellart is a golden film, permeated by memories of an earlier age. It is shot in the lofty, Art Nouveau interior of the thermal pools at the once grand Hotel Gellart in Budapest, famous for the curative power of its waters. The women who move slowly between the showers and the pool are middle-aged and overweight, decades removed from the nubility of youth. Dean's camera watches them candidly but not without empathy, as they pause, greet one another and enter the water, hoping if not for eternal youth, then at least to sooth the aches and pains of age. There is a rhythmic structure to the passage of time in the film, as if to suggest the old cycle of pain and search for respite that brought people to the waters long before these baths were built. Like so much of Dean's work, Gellart approaches its subject obliquely, suggesting both the elusiveness of the thing sought and the persistence of desire.
Ottawa, July 2000