Tacita Dean

The invisible ruin

One of my favourite books, In Ruins, considers our perpetual fascination and joy at the sight of a crumbled wall or toppled tower. Its author, the art historian Christopher Woodward, writes:

When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future. To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man’s aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of a stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art. Why struggle with a brush or chisel to create the beauty of wholeness when far greater works have been destroyed by Time?

Yet in the last hundred years, perhaps since the notion of Total War was born, we are far more likely to rip it up and start again. It was certainly necessary to rebuild from scratch in the wake of bombs that destroyed entire cities (as evidenced in my recent trip to Kassel). Those parts of London which were particularly targeted are conspicuous in their uniform 60s architecture – the Elephant and Castle immediately springs to mind. But the recent (and completely brilliant) BBC documentary The History of Our Streets also told of a desire on the part of local councils to sweep away the old and replace it with the new (sort of like Mussolini’s plans for Rome). Blocks and blocks of perfectly sturdy Victorian terraces were demolished to make way for modern tower blocks (a number of which have already been condemned and torn down, while Victorian housing steadfastly remains standing). It was the Poet Laureate of the day, Sir John Betjeman, who spearheaded the twentieth-century campaign to save older buildings of architectural merit from the wrecking ball. The organisation that he started, SPAB (the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings) continues his work to this day by assigning listed status to buildings in an effort to protect them for the future.

I’m not saying that old is always necessarily better, but more that sometimes it is valuable to remember what came before. The character of London, that mix of ancient and modern, was to a large degree, determined by where the bombs fell, but it usefully shows us who were are and who we were at the same time.

Back to Kassel, where that character is harder to determine. As I mentioned in my last post, 90% of the city centre was annihilated, and so there was little left standing to preserve. Although the Fridericianum was completely rebuilt in 18th century-style, the impulse was to start from scratch, and so most of the centre is permanently locked in the 60s and 70s.

Which is why Tacita Dean’s piece for Documenta 13 is so fascinating. As a long-standing resident of Berlin, Dean understands the impulse to start again (although Berlin, as I’ve said before, is a great city for the recycling of buildings, and you can find traces of the Wall marked in a discreet pathway beneath your feet). She has collected a number of pre-war postcards of Kassel, showing views of the old city centre, and has painted over them to show what stands there now. In my previous post, I talked about my friend Siriol Troup and how she likes to go round Kassel with a guidebook from 1901; Dean’s piece stems from a similar desire – to understand what came before, what it was like before your time.

To understand what it was like before your time is the second dimension to the piece. Dean then sent the cards by post to Kabul c/o Jolyon Leslie, the former CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. But the project is dedicated to another Jolyon, her late father. So she sent postcards of a place which no longer exists because of war destruction to a place which is currently going through what Kassel went through nearly seventy years ago; and addressed them to a man who shares a name with the father of the artist, who is no longer alive to receive them. The piece seems then to be about inheritance, noting things that have disappeared so that future generations do not forget to record what they have before it is gone.

A related installation is about bringing Kabul to Kassel, having already sent Kassel to Kabul. In the staircase of an ex-finance office (an older building, possibly from the twenties, which survived the bombs) Dean has installed a large panorama of the rivers and mountains of Afghanistan. These are drawn on chalk on large blackboards, so that the viewer could be a child in a classroom learning of this distant place which is being obliterated from the map (I remember a similar experience when I was growing up, learning about Viet Nam while the country in which I lived was destroying it). The chalkboards could also represent the fleeting nature of the landscape (which, like chalk, can be wiped away), although there is something more permanent about a mountain or a river than about man’s built environment, which can be toppled with one smart bomb.

Dean’s double work for Documenta is one of the most moving and beautiful I have seen recently which represents both our time and the past, and the desire to preserve and record, even those things which have already left us.

More images of Dean’s piece here: http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2012/06/documenta-13-tacita-dean/

Photos by Amy Stein and Andrew Lindesay

The listening sea

To St Ives, with its twisting cobbled lanes and whitewashed cottages, for a retrospective of the artist Peter Lanyon. Unlike Hepworth or Nicholson or Gabo or most of the artists associated with the town, Lanyon was born in West Penwith. It was the landscape of his childhood, one he ‘knew in his bones’, according to John Berger. Berger says of Lanyon’s painting ‘Trevalgan’:

It is a painting, not of the appearance, but of the properties of a landscape: properties only discovered when one knows a place so well that its ordinary scenic appearance has long been forgotten.

And so into his landscape. From St Ives we drove along the coast to Zennor, stopping in the churchyard to find the graves of Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter. We continued along to Gurnard’s Head, and made a visit to the pub, where WS Graham and Roger Hilton used to drink all night and then beg the long-suffering barmaid to cook them breakfast in the morning. Then to places I knew from Graham’s great poem-eulogy to Lanyon, ‘The Thermal Stair’: Levant and Morvah, with their worked-out tin mines that loom like ghost castles along the cliffs; Botallack, St Just, and then inland over the bleak, bleached-out wintery hills to Lanyon Quoit, that strange, ancient structure. These were the landscapes Lanyon painted, but as he said, ‘I paint places but always the Placeness of them.’

And we could find Lanyon’s palette in the landscape: the grey of slate, of smoke, of the sky on the verge of storm; the green of algae, of spring fields, of the ‘jasper’ sea (to steal a phrase from Graham); the white of chalk, of cloud, of wave-caps; the brown of cliff edge, of burnt heather. Once he took up gliding, his colours changed, became brighter, faster; racing blue, pure white, occasionally a bold strike of red as he reached higher and higher, not content with the familiarity of the ground, the contours of the land he knew so well. Gliding enriched him as an artist, but also brought about his early death, at the age of 46, in 1964.

Back to Graham’s poem, one of his most haunting and lovely, where the poet asks for a ‘thermal to speak and soar to you’, his dead friend. So many of Graham’s poems are about the search to find clarity through language, and here, he finds a common ground between the writer and the artist:

The poet or painter steers his life to maim

Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.

The poem is the object which will stand, as will Lanyon’s paintings and sculptures. These works ‘stand’ for a way of expressing landscape and our ‘stand’ as humans in the landscape. For Lanyon, the West Penwith coast wasn’t just a place of beauty, but a place of particular industrial history, the dark history of tin mining in the region. Lanyon talked about making a ‘pilgrimage from inside the ground’ to represent the lost mines, the dead miners. Lanyon said: ‘Images in painting do not stand for things. They are things.’

Tacita Dean writes of the shift in Lanyon’s work after he took up gliding: ‘his paintings begin to lose anxiety and something of the heaviness of earth and the old land.’ It was in the sky, she says, that Lanyon found his ‘elsewhere’. Graham understood this too. It was what they shared, an intimacy with the land, and the constant struggle to find a medium, and a ‘stand’ within that medium, to express how they felt.

Graham’s call to Lanyon is transformed into a tolling bell at the end of the poem:

Remember me wherever you listen from,
Lanyon, dingdong, dingdong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Dutchy shire wherever I turn.




A walk round Metfield in Suffolk and its neighbouring farms. Hedgerows heavy with sloes, wild bullaces, and the last blackberries. But we were there to taste apples. Russet and Pippin and Spartan, but more unusual varieties too: Orange Goff, Orleans Reinette, Flower of Kent. Biting into my first Orange Goff, named not only for its colour but for its citrusy tang, I remembered Tacita Dean’s incredibly moving and beautiful film of the late Michael Hamburger and his orchard in Middleton (like a scene from Vermeer come to life) and WG Sebald’s description of ‘a few dozen diminutive crimson apples on the sill of [his] window darkened by the yew tree outside’. And these lines from Ted Hughes, Hamburger’s great friend and fellow apple lover: 'Through all the orchard’s boughs / A honey-colour stillness, a hurrying stealth, / A quiet migration of all that can escape now.’