Foul-Up on Afghan Film Has Tacita Dean Back at Blackboard

After more than a decade away from blackboard drawings, British artist Tacita Dean returned to the form with last year’s “Fatigues” series.

First shown at the Documenta exhibition outside Kassel, Germany, the works are now at the Marian Goodman Gallery, along with Dean’s 2010 film “The Friar’s Doodle.”

“Fatigues” comprises immense drawings in white chalk on blackboard that depict Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush peaks, the source of the Kabul River in the mountains and another view of the river descending toward Kabul.

Dean, 47, planned and created the drawings for Documenta’s tall vertical space, with the peaks shown on top, the flowing river on the bottom.

At Marian Goodman, she had to adapt her vision to a single floor of two rooms. She sees a long corridor between them helping the viewer make the spatial transition.

We met at the Manhattan gallery just a few days before the opening of the show.

Rosboch: Your main medium is film. I understand there was a foul-up with a film project that more or less forced you back to blackboard drawing after so many years.

Dean: I went down to Kassel and the curator told me that she would have part of Documenta happening in Kabul. So I decided to make a blind film there.

I found a cameraman, got a little Bolex wind-up camera and some film, and sent everything by diplomatic bag to Afghanistan.

Tax Office

Then I was very involved with the Turbine Hall and when I eventually looked at the footage, I realized that most of it was unusable. Also, the space that I was supposed to have was given to someone else and in its place I was offered a three-story tax office with a very ornate staircase in the middle.

That’s when I realized that I would have to work with things on the wall and, given the little time, go back to something I trusted -- blackboard drawing.

Rosboch: Tell me about the drawings.

Dean: I bought some albumen prints of Kabul from 1875 off the Internet that depicted an incident in the second Anglo-Afghan war. I started researching into that and was led to a horribly jingoistic poem by Rudyard Kipling called “Ford O’ Kabul River,” about a platoon of soldiers trying to cross the Kabul River and drowning.

It was the combination of that and the memory of a brief moment in my failed faulty footage when a flash flood was going through the streets of Kabul.

Fatal Floods

So I started doing the Hindu Kush and the passage of the Kabul River and got quite into the whole geography of it. The war receded and it became just about the general rising of the waters and the melting of the ice every year, that brings some sort of catharsis, the washing of the streets, but is also a disaster and kills people.

Rosboch: Have you been to Afghanistan?

Dean: No, the blind film I did in the beginning was because I didn’t want to go. The drawings came from my head, to some extent. I used some pictures of mountains, like the Himalayas, but then I kind of made it up. That is always what happens to me, I find a way of doing things and then drawing takes over.

But I had to not make it look like Switzerland because there are no trees there. So the moment of breakthrough was working out how to do those bare rocks. It was pretty hard.

Rosboch: Do you keep any of your work?

Dean: No, but I keep proofs of all my films. Not that that’s going to be of any use when film doesn’t exist anymore.

The art world knows the difference but the cinema industry, which has all the money and controls the medium, thinks film and digital are the same thing.

Time Medium

Rosboch: What are the main differences?

Dean: Everything. Film is for me a medium of time, and you never know what you have, so all the energy goes into the making. With digital it’s all in post-production and everything can be changed.

There’s a potential to have two different mediums, which is exciting, but they have to be so absolutist.

Rosboch: Can you talk about “The Friar’s Doodle,” the film now at Marian Goodman?

Dean: When I was at boarding school -- I was a Catholic in a Methodist school -- I received dispensation from attending chapel and was allowed to go across the road to a study center for young Franciscans.

One of them gave me a photocopy of this doodle that he’d made, which I kept, amazingly enough, for 30 years.

No Exit

When I was invited to do something in a monastery in Silos, Spain, I immediately thought of the friar’s doodle. It’s quite strange, with swirls and ducts, stairs and passageways, crosses and stars, and no kind of exit. It always fascinated me.

So I filmed it the old way, with an old rostrum camera -- probably the last place you could find one in England is gone now.

It goes round and round and you can’t ever find a way out. You never see the whole doodle in the film, you’re lost in it.

The show is on view through March 9th at the Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 W. 57th St. Information: +1-212-977-7160;

(Lili Rosboch writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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