Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tacita Dean and the Death of Analogue, the Death of our World

'Analogue, it seems, is a description,' the artist writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, 'a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear.'

So begins James Quandt's ArtForum review of Tacita Dean's recent Schaulager retrospective, and so begins my first entry in quite some time. The review reminds those of us in the know and introduces the rest of us to Dean's near religious devotion to the texturally "real," her

adherence to analogue--a precise and palpable "thisness" in a world increasingly dematerializing in a blizzard of pixels.

Dean is not one to be easily fooled by the ease, ready availability, and lowered costs of digital production. She is well aware that these glossy fruits mask a core of deeper superficiality, detexturalization, and even, perhaps, inhumanity. Quandt adeptly sums up the raison d'etre of Dean's defiantly analogue work:

the materiality of the medium seems a bulwark against a fast-advancing future where imagery is insubstantial, endlessly transmutable, there but not there. Dean is no loon or Luddite in her lost-cause allegiance to celluloid. As the poet of imperiled sites, abandoned dwellings, defunct technology, and architectural relics, she is at once an English romantic, an aesthetic descendant of Turner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Michael Powell, and a recalcitrant materialist. She adheres to the concrete and quantifiable even as her artworks often proceed from found objects, chance events, and coincidences, and her films rely on evanescent, unpredictable nature for their mysterious beauty.

Tacita Dean, as you have surely noted, is an artist with integrity. And I would suggest that what undergirds her fascination with "analogue" has everything to do with integrity. The integrity of the real. The integrity of immediate sensation. The integrity of the kind of image that, so long as it is there, it would surely be false to suggest that it is not there.

I have heard arguments put forward in defense of the digital media. These futurists, blissfully unaware of the immediate visceral power of the tactile, have suggested with straight faces that the advent of digital media is a boon for the arts, that it is the first step toward a society in which wealth and status are not the primary indicators of one's success in the arts. They go on, and without so much as cracking a smile, to suggest that the ready availability of digital technologies will translate into a situation in which every young person can explore aesthetic creation and continue to do so unhindered by the overwhelming costs of traditional materials.

I do not deny that this rhetoric has threatened to sway me from time to time. But the work of Tacita Dean has managed to open my eyes to its thinly disguised implications. For, I ask you, would you give up integrity, sensual beauty, and aesthetic depth for the mere "ability" to produce works of far lesser worth? Why, these futurists have already contradicted themselves before they left the gate. But alas, the futurists are correct on one count: their struggle will end in victory. And Tacita Dean more than any living artist has faced this dark truth unflinchingly, with integrity.

I would like to close with Quandt's apt description of the last scenes of Dean's 2006 film Kodak:

Dean’s elegiac intent appears in the film’s finale, in which ruination displaces celebration. Unpeopled, drained of color, shot in steely or matte tones, Kodak’s closing images focus on the abandoned and broken—smashed spools, hanging wires, tangles of crumpled film—as if the factory, now bereft of its true function, had turned into Tarkovsky’s entropic Zone. Dean’s shorthand may seem a bit literal, but the finality of the last blackout is moving: It represents for her not merely the end of her film, but of all film, the end of analogue.