Drawing Time: Tacita Dean’s Narratives of Inscription

Zo-grapho, literally meaning, writing life.’1

I Of marks, traces, and supplements

One of the pleasures of looking at drawing is the way in which, because the marks comprise a record of their own production, the viewer is able to re-experience, to a degree, the process of that drawing’s manifestation. To produce a drawing, marks are made on a surface that did not previously bear them; something emerges through the gesture of the maker. It could be said of the films of artists producing works involving graphic marks – Hans Namuth’s film of Pollock painting on glass, shot in 1950, or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso, from 1956 – that they bring out the experience of the work coming into being that is already contained in a drawing as a record of mark-making over time.
At the same time as recording a process of coming into presence, these films are themselves traces of traces. They record marks that are records of a time that has already departed in the very moment of their inscription. This non-presence is constitutive of their ‘being’ as the marks that they are. Or to be more precise, as the ‘more’ than the physical marks that they are. This ‘more’ itself has a double aspect. Traces are more than marks because there is something to them that is not a matter of the perception of their qualities – that is what I am calling the dimension of absence.² Their presence indicates an absence on which they depend for their very presentness. This first sense of absence may itself be understood in two ways: structurally, as an aspect of the temporal dimension of presentness where the non-present past and future are constitutive of the present; and as the withdrawal of an other – including an other person – in the leaving of the trace. As is well known, Pliny the Elder points this out in his story of the ‘origin of painting’, where the daughter of the potter Butades outlines the shadow of her lover who is about to depart.³ The second aspect of this ‘more’ in the mark of drawing, rather than being an absence, is an excess. There is more in the drawn mark than that which serves its function either as a signifier or as the delineation of a representation. This might be described as an obtuse materiality that neither precedes, nor is absorbed into these functions of the drawing.
Thus we could say that drawing touches the two limits of the meaningful and the representational, namely absence and excess. The same is true for the relation to the other person, according to Emmanuel Lévinas who, writing of the ethical relation, says that the other both transcends the immanence of being, so in a certain sense ‘is’ not, and yet ‘overflows’ his or her image in an excessive proximity.4 It could be that these two dimensions are connected by the idea of the ‘index’ where the mark is understood as a sign linked by causality, touch or contiguity to that which generates it.5 Thus it involves both excess as an event of contact, and absence as a trace that has been left behind: both involve a ‘not-seeing’, one as the blind spot – the French phrase for which, tache aveugle, nicely suggests that this blindness is associated with a stain or smear on a surface. In this way the mark of drawing involves simultaneously life and loss or death.
On the side of the trace, I am drawing on the text by Jacques Derrida for the catalogue of the exhibition he selected under the aegis of the Department of Graphic Arts at the Louvre in 1990, titled Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. For Derrida, drawing involves blindness in its making, and a drawing of the blind is a self-portrait of the one who draws, because the mark of drawing has an intrinsic relation to the trace. The trace for Derrida is that non-presence constitutive of the present that renders full presence impossible and therefore undermines the project of a phenomenology of perception with its watchword ‘to the things themselves’.6 Derrida’s fundamental concern in Memoirs of the Blind is therefore not with providing an account of the materiality of drawing, or the ways in which drawings manifest themselves as phenomena, but rather with the relation of drawing-as-trace to ‘witness’. Since this is a witness to the other as transcending perceptual appearance, it must be a witness in the modality of blindness, a blind witness, a certain blindness that will come to be related to touch, as witness. The act of bearing witness requires that evidence always be accompanied by testimony that usually takes the form of a narrative of some kind.
This is why, in his catalogue text, Derrida does not give us descriptions of how drawings look or appear. Rather, he tells stories. We could say that stories indicate the place of the blindness of drawing insofar as the marks of drawing are also traces. So here we have a possible relation of drawing to narrative. Derrida’s intention is not to reduce drawing to the illustration of a story. This is because we are not primarily concerned with drawing as image. The story arises in relation to the mark as trace, trace of absence and trace of the other: the story concerns that which withdraws from or exceeds presence, for example the other, or an event – maybe traumatic – of which sense needs to be made. If the trace names what Derrida calls the ‘originary supplement’ of presence – that which appears to come after and be derivative (the trace left by something that was present) but makes the ‘original presence’ possible,7 and we take that to be a dimension of the marks that make up the drawing – the trace as both absence and excess is supplemented in turn by the story that needs to be told about the work. In a movement of double supplementation, the story thus bears witness to the witness (to absence and otherness) borne by the trace.
An act of witness is often a story told by one who is alive, sometimes on behalf of those who are not. If a piece of writing, or a recorded image, is to stand witness, it needs someone to attest to its authenticity. Witness is connected not only with death and absence, but also with life and presence. Tacita Dean’s writings concerning her works often take the form of a story of how the coming about of the work, frequently through coincidence and happenstance, is entwined with her life. The texts are therefore a form of life writing. They are supplements, asides, yet essential to the work which would not have come into being without the events and experiences that they describe.
The title Dean chose for the group exhibition she selected and which toured in 2005, An Aside, also refers to the title her earliest book of writing, and is now often also applied to the stories she tells about how her works come about.8 In the introduction she writes that the title is ‘active’: ‘it is no stage whisper but a decisive moment when an actor chooses to address the audience directly whilst not affecting the action on stage.’9 What does this mean? Is the ‘aside’ a part of the work or alongside yet outside it? This might remind the reader of Derrida’s discussion in Truth in Painting of the ‘passe-partout’, the border between work and frame for example when a drawing or painting is placed in a matte or cardboard mount, in relation to the figure of the ‘parergon’ in Kant:

‘…neither work [ergon] nor outside the work [hors d’oeuvre], neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work. It is no longer merely around the work. That which it puts in place — the instances of the frame, the title, the signature, the legend, etc. — does not stop disturbing the internal order of discourse on painting, its works, its commerce, its evaluations, its surplus-values, its speculation, its law, and its hierarchies.’10

The parergon has the same structural relation to the work as what Derrida also calls a ‘supplement’ has to the origin: the supplement appears to come after that which it supplements, to be outside it, nonetheless it only does its work as supplement with respect to an internal lack, something missing rather than a positive origin. What seems to exist within clear borders, marking the division between inclusion and exclusion, is shown to depend upon what it excludes, and to do so not in a derivative but in a fundamental and constitutive way. But this process of supplementation works in two directions: not only is presence supplemented by the absence involved in the trace, but the traces themselves, whether of drawing or of film and photography, are supplemented by the lives of both Dean and those who form the subjects of her films, whether directly, or through the things that they have left behind and the marks they have made in the world.

II Drawing and narrative time

Tacita Dean began making blackboard drawings early, in 1992 during her second year at the Slade School of Fine Art. The blackboard drawings have a number of common features. Mostly they comprise sequences, deriving from one of their sources in story boarding for film. This would imply a sequence of events, the trajectory of one to the next sometimes indicated by arrows at the edge of the frames. The images are supplemented by written phrases, describing the action taking place, and its conditions, for example ‘strong wind’ with an arrow showing the direction in which it blows in one of the boards of The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days (1997), which depicts a line of sailors on a yard rolling up the sail. Weather is important in many of the drawings, which often depict danger, wreckage, and catastrophe. The sea becomes a metaphor for the extent to which human beings are vulnerable to forces beyond their control, and subject to luck.
The blackboard drawings allow erasure – rubbings out – to be manifest, and for drawing and writing to be layered like a palimpsest. Time thus works in two dimensions: laterally from board to board, and in depth through the layering of the marks and their erasure. The lateral dimension relates to sequence and thus (potential) narrative, while the layering suggests the temporality of emergence into presence, and withdrawal into concealment. Taking these two dimensions of time together, the sequential depiction spatialises time, lays it out in front of the viewer, sometimes in the manner of a panorama, while the use of signs pointing to the out-of-field, such as arrows (also to be found in Paul Klee’s Departure of the Ships (1927)), as well as the inclusion of the traces of erasure (a characteristic also of William Kentridge’s films such as Felix in Exile (1994), where the process of inscription, erasure, and re-inscription is made manifest in the animation), touch on the limits of any such spatialisation.
Another work by Dean to deal with time, entirely in terms of landscape and writing, is the five-part photogravure Blind Pan of 2004. The ‘Pan’ of the title refers on the one hand to the panning shot in cinema, which is ‘blind’, as when in its making the cameraperson can’t see the final frame, and so is working without entirely being able to know the result. This implies a relation both to contingency, and to the out of frame. On the other hand, the title is of course also a reference to the Greek god of shepherds and pipes, with the hindquarters and horns of a goat, whose sons helped Dionysus, and who was the only one of the Greek gods to die. Insofar as Pan played the pipes, and is thus linked with art, the title also connotes the idea of the blind poet Homer, at the ‘origin’ of the poetry of the West, and reminds us of the seer Tiresias who warns Oedipus of his unwitting fate. The trajectory of narrative time reveals the fatality – subject to contingency and luck – of coming into being, and thus forms a parallel to Dean’s working method.
If Dean’s Blind Pan has a narrative subject, this has to do not with narrative fulfilling a meaning or providing a conclusion, but rather with the gap in a narrative, the space between Sophocles’ plays King Oedipus and Oedipus at Colonos. Dean imagines Oedipus being led by his daughter and sister Antigone from Thebes, where he has put out his own eyes, to the place close to Athens where he passes from human sight, where, according to Antigone’s sister Ismene, ‘He’s gone without a tomb, and no one saw him go.’11
The inscription of words and names from ancient Greek drama, coupled with the erasure of the writing and graphic marks which conveys a sense of the process of emergence of image and word in inscription, recalls the paintings of Cy Twombly, on whom Dean wrote an undergraduate thesis, and who formed the subject of a film, Edwin Parker (2011). In ‘A Panegyric’ for Twombly, she mentions – referring to a collage drawing by Twombly – the ‘horned and hairy half-goat god’, under a quote presumably from a journal written in 1987 on an undergraduate visit to Greece, which begins ‘I have wandered to the communal wasteland just below Delphi.’12 However, the words in Dean’s Blind Pan don’t so much give the impression of graffiti or an Ur-writing smeared to become an event of contact with the force of the Classical past, but rather seem almost like annotations – on something between a landscape and a map, literally a topo-graphy. Another contrast with painting is the photogravure that Dean uses for this work, a medium now obsolete for the mass dissemination of images that is associated with early photography – hence the double, or even triple, inscription of a ‘topo-photo-graphy,’ involving writing, image and reproduction. Whether in Blind Pan or the films, synoptic space and linear time are evoked only to be disrupted. Dean’s is an art not of progress and control but of anachronism and chance. In its afterlife, the past that appears to have been left behind by progress dreams another future than our present.13 And the work demonstrates – through how it comes about, what it shows and the tales that the artist tells – that a condition of our finitude is that what befalls us by chance or unintended consequence may equally be happy or tragic.
Sophocles’ Oedipus tragedies show how vision and blindness are connected with time. They also invert at its very beginning the triumphal relation of seeing and knowing that is so much a feature of the Western ‘hegemony of vision’. When Oedipus sees, he does not know, and when he knows, he blinds himself. The transition – from unknowing vision to the exposure of blindness – is brought about by his subjection, as a mortal, to time. In Oedipus at Colonos Oedipus says,

O Theseus,
dear friend, only the gods can never age,
the gods can never die. All else in the world
almighty Time obliterates, crushes all
to nothing.14

Echoing what the Chorus said to him in Oedipus the King, ‘Time, all-seeing Time has dragged you to the light…’15
Tragedy is the experience of finitude, of being subject to time. Dean’s Blind Pan brings out what is at stake in the analogue as the medium of finite time. Not least this has to do with the implication of vision and blindness. Dean’s Blind Pan uses drawing and writing to touch on the limit of the visual, a limit that is time, and also that of the trauma of a ‘family romance.’ As if the pan – the gaze – is necessarily blind. The artist’s role is not to make the invisible visible, but rather to bear witness to the gap, the space between two plays that Oedipus traverses blindly, yet with another kind of sight.
We could take as a counterpoint to this movement the later vertical line of five photographs by Dean, The Line of Fate (2011). It is named after an essay by Leo Steinberg where, in the words of Dean,

“…he studied the significance of the diagonal in the work of Michelangelo, particularly in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He saw in the fresco a hidden diagonal trajectory stretching from the vault of Heaven to the furthest corner of Hell, with the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew and its distorted self-portrait of Michelangelo at the exact centre point. Michelangelo was painting his own Line of Fate, placing himself at the centre of judgment, for the individual is humanity judged.”16

Dean visited Steinberg, then ninety years old, in his apartment to photograph his hands as he wrote his manuscript on Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni on a yellow block of lined paper. As she is leaving, he remarks that ‘the greatest misery of old age was that one loses the right to be judged by one’s own peers.’ Looking through the photographs some time later, Dean ‘caught sight of a serendipitous diagonal across five of the images—the appearance of a Line of Fate in the writing hand of Leo Steinberg.’ The hand that writes is also written: in palmistry, the fate line contains the history of a life, a traversal.17 The photographs are placed in a vertical line on the wall – the second from the top the only one in colour showing a small reproduction of the Tondo sitting on the desk – and the hand holding the pen forming a diagonal from left to right, echoing the line described by Steinberg in the Last Judgment. So, three judgments: Michelangelo’s placing himself under the judgment of God, Steinberg’s sorrow at the loss of his peers who might judge his work, and Dean’s judgment in choosing which photographs to use and how to place them – and a fourth, perhaps, that of the viewer. Various kinds of line that join across the gaps are discovered: between the five photographs, between Steinberg’s impatience at the little time left to him and Dean’s patient attendance on serendipity, between the renaissance artist’s disguised self-portrait in the flayed skin of another, and the portrait of the historian not as a visage, but through his writing hand alone. In each instance there is a perception by a viewer of the presence of the artist in the work in a mise en abîme: Steinberg sees how Michelangelo puts himself into the Sistine Last Judgment; Dean sees Steinberg in his writing; and the viewer sees Dean seeing Steinberg seeing Michelangelo in his painting. Each life is in relation to the other in the shadow of death. By supplementing the photographs with the story of how the work came about Dean is putting the viewer addressed by the story in the position of Steinberg with respect to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, discovering and acknowledging her own line of fate.

III Drawing Places and Things in Film

In 2009 Tacita Dean made Still Life and Day for Night, two films extracted from footage shot in the studio of the painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), in the Bologna house at via Fondazza 36 where he lived with his sisters and worked from 1910 to 1964, and which has been restored to comprise the modern rooms and passageways of a museum and study centre and, visible through a transparent screen, the studio preserved as Morandi left it. In the text to accompany the films, Dean writes of the objects that were everywhere, ‘grouped on the tables and under the chairs and gathered together on the floor…face powder boxes, conical flasks, vases of cotton flowers, gas lamps and oil cans, pots, jars and bottles, and containers whose function we no longer recognize.’18 To her surprise,

He did not choose, as I had always imagined, simply not to paint anything about an object that he did not deem necessary, but instead transformed them beforehand, making them the objects he wanted to see. It was not about denying detail because the detail he liked, he kept. The miraculous opacity of his painted objects is already there in the objects themselves. His was a double artifice.19

This double artifice meant making paintings, drawings and etchings of the objects on which he had already painted. He did not show these objects that he had transformed, only the paintings and etchings of them. If these could be taken as works, they might best be descried as ‘studio works’ – to borrow the name Briony Fer gives to Eva Hesse’s sculptural experiments20 – which occupy a strange space in between the untransformed object and the painting, objects already half incorporated, made part of that peculiar world that is the studio, where they are subject to an attention that is different from that given to objects with a function or that we have grown accustomed to in our surroundings.21 This in-between status of the object on the way to becoming an art work but not quite there, and of the traces of the art-making process left behind, have come to intrigue us at a time when the ontological status of the art work – its mode of being – is unstable. The idea of the readymade invented by Marcel Duchamp, art works made by displacement, has something to do with this instability: photographs of the time show us that the readymades had a life in the studio before they were shown outside in the world or passed on to collectors.22 Photographs and films too, as indexical representations that allow objects – relics of themselves – to be transported anyplace, have offered a model of art-making as displacement. Also, increasingly since the 1960s artists have explored the potential of eliding the distinction between artworks and other objects in the world, to question both the sanctum of the gallery and the commodification of everyday life.
Still Life and Day for Night are, directly and indirectly, about the studio (Edwin Parker also contains extended sequences in the studio in Lexington, Virginia, his birthplace, to which he usually returned every autumn for a couple of months from his studios in Rome and Gaeta).23 The studio is a place for being with things that are, at least temporarily, removed from the world of instrumental relations, and are allowed to disclose themselves in other ways. In Being and Time the philosopher Heidegger describes this relation as one of ‘care’.24 Care – like the ‘anxiety’ of ‘being-towards-death’ – is a temporal condition of finitude. As Maurice Blanchot has shown, being towards death involves an ‘impossible relation’, what the French call un rapport sans rapport, a ‘relation without relation’: death is an experience that cannot be experienced since it involves the extinction of the subject of experience, and yet, for Heidegger it is this impossible relation that defines the very singularity – the Eigentlichkeit or ‘ownmost’ – of the Dasein (Heidegger’s preferred word for the human being who is ‘thrown’ into a world already there, and projects herself forward over there in ‘anticipatory resoluteness’, a mixture of passivity and activity). We could say, then, that the studio is the place in which the artist ‘lives out’ this impossible relation, where she encounters the opacity – the mystery – of things and of herself.
The two films that Dean made in Morandi’s studio indicate two aspects of the experience of being with things in relation to finite temporality. Still Life comprises a sequence of still shots of the paper on the table on which Morandi drew out the positions of the objects that he painted in his still lives – so what we see in the film is a palimpsest of the traces of positions of objects that are now absent – like the circumscription of the shadow in the story from Pliny, and are also reminiscent of the faded patches and tears in the Hessian wallpaper and marks on the carpet of Darmstädter Werkblock (2007) filmed in the Joseph Beuys’s seven room installation in Darmstadt’s Hessisches Landesmuseum, before the modernization of the galleries. Dean was not allowed to film the works, so recorded the traces of time since Beuys established the rooms, which were about to be obliterated.
The circles, swirls, childlike squiggles and sometimes written letters and numbers – an ‘R’, a ‘B’, ‘2’. ‘30’, ‘50’, words that are hard to decipher – that we see as the camera is now closer, now further from the sheets in Still Life, and that appear to form abstract overall drawings in their own right, are overlaid on top of each other so that they record not just spatial placement of objects, and in the case of pinholes the sheet itself, but are also the traces through time of different arrangements, so that they exist both spatially and in a palimpsestic depth, like the tracings and erasures of Dean’s backboard drawings and Blind Pan. The film also makes clear something that is latent in Blind Pan, the relation of the horizontal, the sheet laid flat on a table or angled on a drawing board, to the vertical orientation when it is hung on the wall, or projected onto a screen.
It was Leo Steinberg, discussing the production and effect of Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings and prints, who called this the ‘flatbed picture plane’ which ‘makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered’, that ‘cuts across ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’’ and ‘that changed the relationship between artist and image, image and viewer’.25 This play of the relation between horizontal and vertical had already been remarked as an effect of graphic art by Walter Benjamin. In an early fragment of 1917 he notes that paintings are ‘longtitudinal sections’ and seem to contain things, while drawings and graphic works are ‘transverse sections’ that are ‘symbolic’ in that they ‘contain signs’.26 While some drawings are made to be seen held up, others only make sense in a horizontal position, which is like that of texts to be read. In our historical epoch ‘pictures are set vertically and signs horizontally’, but he speculates whether there may have existed an ‘originally vertical’ position of script, such as engraving in stone. In another early text, ‘Painting, or Signs and Marks’ he understands the ‘graphic line’ as belonging to the sphere of the sign, whereas the ‘mark’ is characteristic of painting. The mark involves the body, something smudged or laid on a surface, and also time – the German word for mark, Mal is etymologically linked to painting (Malerie) and means a moment in time. The word, for Benjamin, enters into painting as the name that is required to link it to the world.27 Inscription thus combines the distinct modes of sign and mark, and the orientations of horizontal and vertical, each convoluted around the other. In Still Life film adds to these horizontal and vertical orientations further dimensions of time, that of its own recording in Bologna, and replay in the gallery as it winds through the camera and the spools of the projector, and between the two the editing – cutting and joining of the strips of celluloid – that takes place in the artist’s Berlin studio.
The drawn marks on Morandi’s sheets are indexes (signs caused by or in direct proximity to their referents) not just of the hand of the artist that made them, but also of the now absent objects. The film thus plays between the presence of the marks and the absence of both the artist and the objects whose positions they demarcated. These sheets were not intended by Morandi for exhibition. What joins the drawings – or perhaps we should call them diagrams – to the film is the finitude of analogue time. As trace, the presence of the filmic image comprises a remembering of absence.
On the one hand, this finitude relates to human finitude, as an experience of loss and the anticipation of death. On the other hand, time is finite in a sense that is not necessarily human; that is, it involves contingency, that things are as they are in the mode that they might have been otherwise. Put in another way, this is to say that an element of chance enters into every configuration of time. With respect to this, art becomes a framing of contingency, which is a way of finding a necessity in it, not in the form of a general law, but in the singular happenstance. This is one reason why the analogue photograph assumes such importance as a model not only of verisimilitude, but also for art as such: the photographic model of the work of art. Film – celluloid, analogue film – elaborates the temporal dimension of the photographic model, extending it from the still into duration. Dean’s Still Life and Day for Night stretching the still image into the span of time by creating pictures that have duration by shooting them with a static camera. In Still Life the perduring objects are touched with the marks of Morandi’s brush – his presence on the objects that also become traces of his absence –sustained in the duration of Dean’s film.
Day for Night presents a sequence of still shots of the bottles, jars, and other objects that Morandi prepared for his still lives. Dean was not allowed to move the objects in the studio, which had become a museum, perhaps even a kind of mausoleum. The objects are still, but the film of course moves, it is ‘moving image’ even when the camera is still and the objects remain in their place. That is, film presents the still life (nature morte) as a temporal mode of attention. But Dean has inserted a distinction between Morandi’s still life paintings, and her film. She concludes her text:

Amidst his objects, which still held the aura of their depiction, I came at last to a decision as to how I could treat them. I filmed them singly, one by one, centred in my frame, and did as Morandi would never have done: made their composition random.

Morandi used the sheets that Dean filmed in Still Life to control the positioning of the everyday objects – mostly jugs, bottles, and other containers – that he had already incorporated into his world by painting them, although Dean shows this ordering device to have the inadvertent consequence of a near chaos of curves, lines and cyphers. Morandi did not travel far; his art was one of interiorisation, largely made at home, in his room. To look at his still life paintings is calming, we need think of nothing else. It is impossible to say why they are perfect, but perfect they are, although it is not a geometric but a lyric perfection. This is what it means for them to be composed. To take the sources for what Morandi placed and painted in their afterlife, and make their composition random is to open the work – Morandi’s as well as Dean’s – to chance. Instead of an arrangement, the work becomes the result of a journey, an unanticipated destination.

IV The Maze of Time

A number of the journeys involved in Tacita Dean’s works take the form of pilgrimages, such as the search for the remains of works by Robert Smithson, Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997), From Columbus Ohio to the Partially Buried Woodshed (1999), and the various journeys made to find things related to Donald Crowhurst, the yachtsman who sent fictional radio messages in a round the world race, and may have gone overboard, supposedly with his malfunctioning chronometer. It sometimes seems as if relics fascinate Dean, a trait already in some of her earliest films, such as The Story of Beard (1992) and The Martyrdom of St Agatha (in several parts) (1994), with its fabricated breasts. Relics are analogue, because they transmit their power by touch, as the needle picks up the sound from a wax-covered disk. Film could be a means of transmitting the power of the relic, of ‘translating’ it from one place to another. And, indeed, like the revealing of the relic, the films and other projects, like the exhibition An Aside, often come about as a result of a series of coincidences or little miracles, which Dean calls, borrowing from André Breton, ‘objective chance’.28
To see Dean’s film The Friar’s Doodle during a trip to Spain I had to make a ‘pilgrimage’ myself to Silos, about four hours drive north of Madrid, to the Benedictine Monastery of Santo Domingo.29 The work was shown in an underground chamber off the cloister, which dates to 1073-76. The carved capitals and twisted columns are masterpieces of Romanesque art. At the entrance to the chamber was a display of photographs taken by Dean of graffiti carved into the stone walls, a mixture of stone-masons’ marks and designs, and text and signatures which may have been made at different periods of the building’s history. These marks cued the visitor to think about the individual who carved the graffiti as a memento of themselves, like a message to the future when they would no longer exist. Once again, the medium, the analogue photograph, doubles this structure as a trace of absence.
The library of the monastery contains the Missal of Silos (1151), the oldest known paper document in the West, with the paper probably coming from Islamic Spain.30 So Dean is showing a film of an ecclesiastical doodle on paper in a monastery containing the first example – a book using paper – of a form that is now in the process of becoming obsolete. We confront here the relation to time of a physical medium, one that bears the marks of the hand as a trace of the one who made it.
On entering the underground room with its stone walls and arched ceiling, we see a wooden chair positioned in front of a fairly small screen onto which a 16mm film on a loop is projected from behind. There is only a single chair, intimating a one-to-one relation with the image. Despite the long drive to get there, and the tiredness of arriving in the late afternoon, I felt a sense of tranquility on sitting in the chair. The screen was quite small, and not far away. Regarding it, I felt myself drawn into an architectural fantasy. The camera seemed to glide steadily back and forth following the lines and paths inscribed on a piece of brownish paper, the texture of which was quite visible.
As it happens, I wrote the first draft of this essay while listening to The Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of Perrotin’s early 13th century polyphonic liturgical music (French rather than Spanish), in the organum style based on existing liturgical chant, including the earliest four-part music written in the West. I’m reporting this at the risk of sounding precious, because there emerged a strange parallel between the rhythm and enfolding curves of the song, and the camera movement and rhythmic editing of The Friar’s Doodle. Indeed at Silos after watching the film through a number of times, I attended vespers in the chapel, sung by the monks. The exhibition of Dean’s work, organized by the Reina Sophia museum using Silos as an outpost, was chief curator Lynne Cooke’s initiative, and I had been told that attending one of the services is recommended as part of the visit. While listening to the chant, my mind and my eyes started wandering, and I found myself following the lines of the architecture, from the paving of the floor, up columns, and across arches. I was suddenly reminded of my experience of the film, in which the doodle is turned into an architectural reverie. Through the movement of our look over the paper, we are literally wandering in the drawing: there is neither a single static viewpoint – a prospect – nor multiple viewpoints, but rather a single, floating viewpoint. This might suggest an allegorical landscape ‒ Dante? – except for the fact that what we are wandering above and among seems too capricious, too fantastical.
The movement of The Friar’s Doodle contrasts with the stillness in many of Dean’s films, including the ones made in Morandi’s studio. However, rather than the camera moving, it was made using a static rostrum camera with the drawing on a moving table (a device that was typically used for the creation of film credits). This may account for the smoothness of the movement, which conveys a dream-like feeling, or more precisely one of reverie. Strictly this is a version of ‘go-animation’, where movement is created by moving the camera and/or the object, rather than creating it by drawing frames.31 Dean’s very first film, made in 1985 while a student at Falmouth School of Art, was an animation of drawings called Eternal Womanly, based on a personification of Wisdom from the Apocrypha (so interestingly enough also in relation to religion, albeit non-canonical).32 Of course almost all animation now is done digitally, so in this context part of the significance of The Friar’s Doodle is provided by Dean’s choice of an extremely simple, but effective, analogue method, and using celluloid film rather than digital video. This method is applied to a hand-drawn doodle. So what we are offered here is the trace of a trace: the tracing of the friar is traced in the film. Dean has written ‘It is as if my frame of mind is analogue when I draw: my unconscious reverie made manifest as an impression on the surface.’33 Although in The Friar’s Doodle the drawing is not by her, this sense of reverie seems to be present and is communicated to the viewer.
The trace on paper and the trace as film are subject to ageing. Just as the paper might oxidize, and eventually crumble, so the film becomes scratched by dust caught in the mechanism of the projector, and is subject to chemical changes with time. In other words, both mediums are vulnerable, and this is affected by and affects their relation to time. Much has been made of Dean’s choice of obsolete mediums, and her use of the analogue in opposition to the digital.34 We really need to try to understand what is at stake here. Obviously there is a question of the particular qualities of image and sound associated with analogue: not only is the image projected from celluloid film so far unsurpassed for its richness and depth, but it also is marked by the effect of scratches and dust during its projection, and it is gradually subject to chemical decay. Film ages just as its mortal viewers do, so it bears a relation to our bodies quite different from that of digital images that are generated from code (although it could be said that the latter are subject to glitch and ‘decay’ from errors entering the code, which could be related to biology and the body through genetic code, but the way that the aging is perceived is different). And in her statement on obsolescence for October magazine Dean writes, ‘I like the time you can hear passing: the prickled silence of mute magnetic tape or the static on a record.’35 But while analogue recording media are still marked by certain differences from digital in practice, is this so in principle? ‘Apps’ are available for mobile phones that imitate the effect of Super 8 film and photographs produced on rolls from different times and with a variety of old cameras. And no doubt digital sound recordings will simulate the effect of tape, if they do not do so already. A perfect imitation of a celluloid film projection can be imagined, perhaps even one that would simulate the effect of dust and scratches over time. So is it a question of what we know rather than what we see? Or the way in which what we see – and how we see – is affected by what we know?
In her statement for October, Dean also refers to ‘anachronism’:

I court anachronism – things that were once futuristic but are now out of date – and I wonder if the objects and buildings I seek were ever, in fact, content in their own time, as if obsolescence was invited at their conception.36

The word, which emerged in English in the 17th century, a time when new forms of society were emerging and being disputed, implies two times, one that is linear, the time of progress, and another that moves both backwards and forwards against that line disrupting its smooth passage. Something that is anachronistic is at once a throwback and a survivor, an anticipation in the past of a future other than that of the present, and something that remains, but does so in an active way that makes a claim on us that may be ethical, political, and existential. For me the issue here is one of finitude. There is a sense in which the films – and this perhaps applies to all the old films that we watch today – are memento mori. This effect is emphasized by the installation of The Friar’s Doodle in a crypt. We might also remember the connection of drawing to memorial in Dean’s Alabaster Drawings, where what looks like landscape of map together with words are engraved with dry point needle into the panels of stone, a series of which have been installed in a church in Casole d’Elsa in Italy in 2002, works that have some parallels with Blind Pan.37 The sense of a journey is carried into the experience of The Friar’s Doodle where the camera, which is very close to the surface of the paper, so that we can see its texture and the marks of its history left by the way that it was folded and placed for years inside a book, travels along the lines, which sometimes look like roads or passageways, in a fantasy city, neither the city of God, nor any existing or even possible city of man, but some other place, at once in the mind, yet extremely material.

Tacita Dean: Still Life (III), 2009. Set of 6 black and white photographs on fibre paper. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Frith Street Gallery, London.
Tacita Dean: Still Life (III), 2009. Set of 6 black and white photographs on fibre paper. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Frith Street Gallery, London.

The back-story places the work as having to do with the rediscovery of a lost fragment of the past, a long-lost doodle given to Dean when she was a schoolgirl by a young Franciscan friar, Brother Martin Jeffs, studying at the local university with whom she used to attend weekly Mass.38 She kept the piece of paper, folded in two, in a book about St Francis by another of the friars, Father Eric Doyle, whom Dean admired greatly, and who died shortly after she had requested that her art prize book token be spent on his book. The circumstance of the making of the film is connected with another, profound loss: Dean’s father, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager, had recently died. In an email to me, Dean characterized the film as ‘an odd film, a bit internal’.39 But what is internal to what? Internal to the friar who made the doodle? To the artist? Or are we inside it, as if wandering within someone else’s mental landscape? I’m inclined to think all three. And that is perhaps the odd thing about it.

There is also something about the unfolding spaces created by Dean’s animation of the friar’s doodle that reminds me of the ways that graphic architectural sets are used in German expressionist film of the 1920s – such as Walter Riemann’s designs for Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) – and generally the way in which such graphic space is animated through film. The effect of the subjecting of space to time in this way is to internalize it. This effect of internalizing space by subjecting it to time creates the effect of something like a reverie or phantasy. In the expressionist film sets, the architecture is already distorted before it is filmed, so already in a sense ‘inward’.40 So the filming creates a kind of double internalization, which also turns the inside – the space of reverie and phantasy – into an outside. The looped film The Friar’s Doodle also conveys a sense of endlessness. The film conveys the sense of being on a journey that is at once deliberate and haphazard, maintaining a momentum though the consistent speed of the movement of the camera, yet taking unpredictable turns, and subject to the stops and new starts of the cuts. At times it reminded me of Piranesi’s Carceri, large etchings of imaginary prisons, begun in 1745, where the viewer eye wanders in a labyrinth of paradoxical architectural spaces, with seemingly no exit. Perhaps in this sense of animating a space Piranesi is proto-filmic. In her writing, Dean suggests that this might combine the wandering life of the mendicant friar, with that of the contemplative Benedictine monks walking round the cloisters above the crypt – ‘defining a life by walking it like defining a life by drawing it’.41 In the situation Dean creates for the viewer of The Friar’s Doodle, a body is sitting on a chair, watching a projected image on a rather small screen situated quite close, on which a graphic image loops endlessly. Perhaps in the end, more than of Pirenesi or Weine, this is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, with its loops back into the past by means of an old audio tape player, an image of anachronistic memory in an analogue medium.
I would argue that with The Friar’s Doodle, instead of being an ‘aside’ to the work, writing has entered into its substance. The camera movement produces a meandering linear path throughout the drawing. If we take the doodle viewed instantaneously – a view we never see in Dean’s film – as a kind of hieroglyph, then the film marks a passage, using the process of filming the doodle on the horizontal, the orientation of writing, then projecting it vertically, the orientation of the image, from something like an ideogram to a linear form of ‘writing’ seen in one direction in its materiality as marks on paper, and in another as a drawing of the imagination, Brother Jeffs’ doodle, filmed by Dean, is accompanied by her writing, in which she remembers and bears witness to the departed. By insisting on the temporal dimension of materiality in analogue film, as an acknowledgement of mortality and loss, of those who leave as much as that which is left behind, The Friar’s Doodle leads not to the afterlife in eternity but back from these marks and traces to the only life we have.

Tacita Dean: Silos Overpainted (The Friar's Doodle) 5, 2010. Gouache on fibre based photograph. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Frith Street Gallery, London
Tacita Dean: Silos Overpainted (The Friar’s Doodle) 5, 2010. Gouache on fibre based photograph. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris and Frith Street Gallery, London

Another coincidence: during the weekend that I was concluding this essay, I received an email from Tacita Dean in which she wrote that she was in the process of copying parts of the friar’s doodle onto the photographs that she made of the more ancient markings on the stones of the monastery of Silos.

This paper is a modified version of a keynote lecture delivered at the conference, ‘Making in Two Modes’, organized by Ed Krčma and Liam Lenihan at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 16 September 2010.
1. Tacita Dean, ‘A Panegyric’ in Nicholas Serota, ed. Cy Twombly – Cycles and Seasons (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 37.
2. I am drawing here on Derrida’s various discussions of the trace, beginning with Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973); in particular see his exhibition catalogue essay on drawing, Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, trans slightly modified). In my review ‘Derrida and the Scene of Drawing’, Research in Phenomenology 24 (1994): 218-34, I discuss the difference and relation between the trace as trace of being and as trace of witness.
3. See Pliny, Natural History: Books Xxxiii-Xxxv, Goold, G. P. ed., vol. IX (London: Harvard University Press, 1952), 151-53, and for a discussion see Michael Newman, ‘The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing,’ in The Stage of Drawing – Gesture and Act: Selected From the Tate Collection, ed. Avis Newman, and Catherine de Zegher (London and New York: Tate Pub. and Drawing Center, 2003), 93-108.
4. Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity; an Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 197-204.
5. The idea of the sign as index derives from the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: see The Collected Papers of Charles Saunders Peirce, Hartshorne, C ed., vols. 1 and 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934), 196. This is developed in relation to art in Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 1985), 196-219.
6. For Derrida’s deconstructive critique of Husserlian phenomenology, see Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
7. For the ‘originary’ or ‘original’ supplement see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 313-15.
8. Tacita Dean: Selected Works from 1994-2000: An Aside, (Basel: Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2000).
9. Tacita Dean, An Aside (London: Hayward Gallery, 2005), 5.
10. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 14.
11. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles, introduction and notes by Bernard Knox (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 385 (Greek text 1954). It might be remarked here that Antigone is the name of Tacita’s sister – her brother is named Ptolemy – children of a father in love with the classics. ‘Our names are signposts to the classical world and in this way have always been otherworldly and out of time.’ Tacita Dean, ‘A Panegyric’, 37.
12. Tacita Dean, ‘A Panegyric’, 33.
13. For the role of salvage in Dean’s work, see my ‘Salvage’ in Tacita Dean (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris/Steidl, 2003), n.p..
14. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, 322 (Greek text 685-89).
15. Ibid., 234 (Greek text 1341).
16. Tacita Dean: Seven Books Grey (Göttingen Wien: Steidl Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2011), Selected Writings 1992-2011, ‘The Line of Fate’, 118.
17. Wolfram Pichler discusses The Line of Fate together with Blind Pan in ‘Horizon and Line of Fate (with Tacita Dean and Leo Steinberg)’ in Tacita Dean: Seven Books Grey, Essays on the Work of Tacita Dean, 5-17.
18. Tacita Dean, ‘The Studio of Giorgio Morandi’, Tacita Dean: Seven Books Grey, Selected Writings 1992-2011, 105.
19. Ibid.
20. Briony Fer, Eva Hesse: Studiowork (Edinburgh and New Haven: Fruitmarket Gallery, distributed by Yale University Press, 2009).
21. For the studio as a space for a particular kind of attention, see my ‘Models and Fragments: Ian Kiaer’s Studio’, in Ian Kiaer (Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Art Museum, 2012).
22. For photographs of Duchamp’s studio, with a discussion, see Elena Filipovic, ‘A Museum That is Not’, e-flux journal, No. 4, 03/2009: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-museum-that-is-not/ (accessed Feb 17, 2013).
23. For a thoughtful description of the shooting of Edwin Parker, see Achim Hochdörfer, ‘Tacita Dean Makes a Film’, Tacita Dean: Seven Books Grey, Essays on the Work of Tacita Dean, 39-43.
24. An earlier version of part of this essay was given as ‘Out-takes, Snippets, and Goings-On: The Moving Image in the Studio’ at the symposium to accompany the exhibition ‘Eva Hesse: Studio Works’ (curated by Briony Fer and Barry Rosen), ‘Processual Art and the Object: Repetition and Ephemera’, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona and Càtedra d’Art i Cultura Contemporanis, Universitat de Girona, May 25-26, 2010. At the symposium Catherine de Zegher gave a paper in which she discussed the etymological connection between the ‘curator’ and the Latin ‘cura’ meaning care, as discussed by Heidegger (as the German Sorge) in Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 180-230 (marginal pagination of German edition).
25. See Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations With Twentieth-Century Art. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 84, 90-91.
26. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 197-98, see especially the editor’s introduction to ‘Painting and Graphics’, to which I am indebted for this discussion.
27. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 1996), 85.
28. Dean mentions André Breton’s idea of ‘objective chance’ in her introduction to Dean, An Aside, 4. For a discussion of ‘objective chance’ see Michel Carrouges, André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism (University: University of Alabama Press, 1974), 179-221; and Denis Lejeune, The Radical Use of Chance in 20th Century Art (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012), 91-94.
29. I would like to thank Rocío Robles for giving a day to transport me from Madrid to Silos.
30. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missal_of_Silos (accessed Feb. 15, 2013).
31. Go-animation is most famously used in Wallace and Gromit, for example the train sequence in The Wrong Trousers – interestingly also a journey sequence.
32. See Tacita Dean, ‘Analogue’ in Theodora Vischer and Isabel Friedli, Tacita Dean – Analogue: Drawings 1991-2006 (Göttingen: Schaulager Steidl, 2006), 12.
33. Ibid., 8.
34. See Caylin Smith, ‘‘The Last Ray of the Dying Sun’: Tacita Dean’s commitment to analogue media as demonstrated through FLOH and FILM’, NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, No. 2, Autumn 2012, ‘Tangibility’, http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-last-ray-of-the-dying-sun-tacita-deans-commitment-to-analogue-media-as-demonstrated-through-floh-and-film/ (accessed Feb.15, 2013).
35. Tacita Dean in “Artist Questionnaire: 21 Responses”, October, No. 100, Spring 2002, 26.
36. Ibid.
37. For the Alabaster Drawings, see Tacita Dean, Analogue: Drawings 1991-2006, 87-91.
38. Tacita Dean, ‘The Friar’s Doodle’, in Tacita Dean: Seven Books Grey, Selected Writings 1992-2011, 110.
39. Tacita Dean, email to the author, September 3, 2010.
40. Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass; London: The MIT Press, 2000), 100-110.
41. Dean, ‘The Friar’s Doodle’.