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Posts from the ‘Tacita Dean’ Category

W.G. Sebald, Tacita Dean, Georges Rodenbach, Will Stone & More


A couple of weeks ago I called attention to an exhibition that had just opened in London called “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.” Poet and translator Will Stone recently paid a visit to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House and wrote a review of the exhibition for The London Magazine. “This exhibition constitutes a rare gift” to the viewer, he wrote. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn’t provide online access to non-subscribers, so I asked Will if I could reprint small portions of his piece.

According to Will, the exhibition is really “about destruction, or rather W.G. Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which, once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity.”

With Sebald as a kind of spiritual ringmaster, contributing performers come from a range of contemporary artistic backgrounds and mediums from across Europe. They are Tacita Dean, Susan Hillier, Dexter Dalwood, Guido Van der Werve, George Shaw, Jeremy Wood and Anselm Kiefer. A modest collection of Sebald’s mysterious photographic material is also under glass here, drawn from the Marbach archive. Sebald famously experimented with the insertion of photographic images within text, a trend which has now since caught on. But Sebald’s use of images was highly original, eccentric and complex, a means of suggestion rather than straight depiction, as if he followed the edicts of symbolism with a cheeky nod to surrealism. Sebald’s ‘taking to task’ of those post-war German writers who had repressed the memories of the bombing, lead to a re-evaluation of the so-called ‘Trümmerliteratur’ (Rubble literature) and hence further responses in the visual arts…

Of the remaining exhibits, special mention should be made of Tacita Dean’s “Our Europe” and “I had a Father,” a series of new works on slate specially commissioned for the exhibition and dynamic Dutchman Guido van der Werve’s award-winning endurance-art film project Nummer Vierteen: Home, 2012, a highly personal and searching absurdist work that uncompromisingly explores themes of exile, place and history.


I wanted to highlight Will’s comment on the work of Tacita Dean so that I could also make reference to the latest of the great Cahiers Series, from Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translators. I’ll let the blurb from Sylph Editions website do the describing:

A woman travels to seven ‘invisible’ countries, and from the moment of arrival is surprised, challenged, disturbed by what she discovers. In the brightly coloured and somewhat sinister world conjured by American novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, what is standard – passing through customs, checking in to a hotel, pronouncing words in a foreign language – becomes fraught; the traveller’s urge to escape and seek adventure vies with her sense of melancholy and anxiety at feeling unmoored. Brownrigg explores border-crossing, cultural misunderstanding, touristic voyeurism and naïveté, as her visitor attempts to navigate the environments she encounters. Accompanying the text are images by the celebrated British artist Tacita Dean which extend the traveller’s journeys into spheres that turn almost uncanny in their combination of abstraction and realistic detail.

Dean’s evocative drawings are done in chalk and other materials on blackboards, on found postcards, and on top of black-and-white photographs. Each piece seems to project a world that is slightly atilt, which nicely corresponds to the blend of artifice and reality that dominates Brownrigg’s story.


Finally, if you happen to be in Bruges on October 18, Will Stone will be reading from his new translation of the poems of Georges Rodenbach at 7:00 PM. This is happening at Brugse Boekhandel, Dijver 2, Bruges. It’s co-sponsored by another great book dealer, Marc Van de Wiele Antiquariaat. Rodenbach wrote Bruges la Morte (1892), one of the first novels that deliberately included photographs as an integral part of the text. From the publisher’s website:

This is the first-ever collection of Rodenbach’s poetry to be published in English translation. In it, Rodenbach’s vision of Bruges, so brilliantly portrayed in his famous symbolist novel, Bruges la Morte, is drawn with even more potency. Using the symbolist devices of suggestion and mood, Rodenbach, in these poems, sifts the elements that make up the decaying Bruges. He sees it as a medieval corpse laid out for him to ‘rescue’ through his interpretation of its atmosphere of melancholy, its seductive romantic decline and its loneliness.

Rodenbach poems

After Sebald

After Sebald Full Circle

Even before I opened up the book, I wondered about the front cover of Full Circle Edition’s new title After Sebald. The list of the nine contributors (excluding Jon Cook, the volume’s editor) – three visual artists, four writers, and two academics – suggested a welcome new approach to Sebald, a possibly refreshing change from the steady appearance of theory-infused academic volumes that have been appearing regularly for years.

But first I had to ask if my tally of four writers was correct. Was “John Coetzee” really J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winning novelist? I had never, ever seen his name written this way. So I turned to the two pages of Author Biographies to confirm the identification, only to find that Coetzee was missing. The Contents page also listed him as “John Coetzee,” but turning to the actual page on which his essay began I found that the author was suddenly “J.M. Coetzee.” Not an encouraging sign.

Jon Cook, whose two-sentence bio is included in the Author Biographies, is a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia, where Sebald spent most of his academic career. In his Introduction, he tells us:

A collection of this kind does not have a single purpose, other than to help readers enjoy and think further about Sebald’s work….If these different readings give us the opportunity to gauge the scale of his achievement they suggest something else as well: that Sebald is an author whom we are still learning how to read and one whose works can stand the test not just of time but of different interpretations.

Fair enough. The presentation of such a wide range of responses in a single volume actually does say a great deal about Sebald and his work. Writers, for instance, tend to have a very different way of analyzing and examining the work of  fellow writers than do academics. And it is difficult to think of another writer who has attracted the attention of visual artists in the way that Sebald has.

Robert Macfarlane, whose simply-titled essay “Sebald” is given the task of batting first in After Sebald, wants to focus on the elusiveness of Sebald’s writing and the varied ways in which readers respond to that. “The extreme resistance of Sebald’s prose to interpretation is one of the reasons why he has already attracted so many interpreters. His writing operates as a mood, rather than as a set of propositions, and as such it is often its own best expression. Certainly, Sebald’s work incites inarticulacy.” Macfarlane’s piece wants to serve as a warning to those who parse and dissect ever smaller bits of Sebald’s work, a warning to those who see only “a set of propositions” that through the examination of the lone branch or the single leaf they risk misunderstanding the entire forest. In short, Sebald’s work is vastly greater than the sum of all its parts. Macfarlane also attempts (in nice Sebaldian fashion) to catalog “the case against Sebald,” beginning with the impression “that he is the Eeyore of contemporary literature whose glum pessimism is relentlessly mistaken for profundity,” but it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t give much credence to any of these concerns

I would argue that Will Self’s “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners” would have served as a better opening essay. Macfarlane gives a quirky first impression of Sebald and is often hobbled by his own perspective as a  writer who is most at home in the wilds of nature, which limits the range of responses he can give to much of Sebald’s work. Self, on the other hand, meanders over Sebald’s life and work in a compact, determined way, touching, even if lightly, on nearly all of the major issues raised in Sebald’s primary books. In “Loosed in Translation,” novelist and writer Ali Smith focuses on “what gets lost, what gets found, what gets loosed, freed, liberated in the work of Sebald.” Her essay centers on writerly issues like language, silence, and translation. “Reading Sebald in translation is, in many ways, the whole point,” she decides. J.M. Coetzee’s essay “W.G. Sebald, After Nature,” was the most disappointing and dated of the writers’ responses. Originally written as a review of After Nature in 2002, it suffers from its book review brevity and its focus on a single book. I would have much preferred to hear what Coetzee would think of Sebald’s legacy today, after a dozen more years have passed.

Artists observe writers with a completely different set of eyes and concerns. Tacita Dean’s essay-like piece called, simply “W.G. Sebald” (which I have written about at some length earlier) is perhaps the best Sebaldian homage to the writer ever written. She combines descriptions of her own art-making practice and travels, her reading of Sebald, her family history, and numerous photographs into a terrific tale that demonstrates the way in which the uncanny operates in Sebald’s works. Tess Jaray’s “Two Pieces” is the only essay in the anthology which deals with Sebald the man. Jaray recounts several meetings with Sebald at her studio, leading up to the collaborative book that used his poems and her artwork, For Years Now. Her insights into Sebald’s personality seem as incisive and clear as an X-ray. Finally, artist Richard Long contributes a piece called “LIFEDEATH” that consists of two color photographs of a landscape stretching over a pair of double-page spreads, followed by a fold-out text work that has the subtitle “A Four Day Walk on Dartmoor.” Dartmoor, of course, is a long distance from Sebald’s East Anglia, so it’s hard to determine if Long created something specifically in relation to Sebald or merely contributed an image of existing artwork that seemed appropriate. The text piece (without the photographs) can be found on Long’s website dated 2011 with no reference to Sebald.

Gillian Beer turns her scholarly sights on a nice overview of “Sebald in the City.” Sebald’s cities are places where continual renewal and never-ending self-destruction are one and the same. “Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” Beer writes.

I was particularly interested in Clive Scott’s essay “W.G. Sebald: Enumeration, Photography and the Hermeneutics of History.” Scott carefully binds together Sebald’s endless fascination with lists and repositories of all types with his use of photographs.

The enumerative principle makes itself manifest in many different Sebaldian institutions and activities: the artist’s studio, the graveyard, the collection, the repository, the library, the museum, the catalogue, the treasury, the inventory, the dictionary, the encyclopaedia, the pawnshop, the second-hand shop (where Sebald is in the habit of picking up old photos), the antiques shop, the country house, the attic and the photo-album….my approach to enumeration …here is treated as an existential pivot, a perceptual crux which generates a dialectic between the paratactic (close-up) and the hypotactic (the long view), between a jamming mechanism and the flow of history.

And a few pages later:

The more we discover, the more, proportionately, our ignorance increases; the more we do not know, the more injustices we do, the more we misrepresent reality, the more prejudiced we are, the more unjustified is the store we put by what we do know, the photographs we do have. Sebald’s photos do not fill holes, they create them. We must, then, write the kind of history in which we not only take responsibility for our ignorance, but acknowledge that it is a guilt that subsumes all others, and that it is always in excess of memory’s capacity to redeem it.

After Sebald is a useful, if flawed, book, pulling together a number of helpful articles and presentations on Sebald that are generally hard or impossible to find. Like all of Full Circle’s books, it’s a very handsome volume and reasonably priced at £16. Unfortunately, After Sebald is marred by sloppy editing that permitted several misspelled names, including Sebald’s own first name – which appears (incorrectly) as “Winifred” in Macfarlane’s essay but is later correctly spelled as “Winfried” in Self’s piece. Even the origins of the various contributions are sometimes obscured. As far as I can tell, the only essay being published for the first time here is Clive Scott’s, but even the book’s Acknowledgements page is inconsistent when listing the place where essays were first published or presented as lectures. Coetzee’s piece is simply credited to “Random House,” when it actually first appeared in the New York Review of Books years before being anthologized in his book Inner Workings (2008), and there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that Ali Smith’s piece was presented as the 2011 Sebald Lecture at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Yes, for the most part these are small issues, but if these happen to be merely the mistakes that I caught, I have to wonder what other ones I might have missed.

Jon Cook, ed. After Sebald: Essays & Illuminations. Suffolk: Full Circle Editions, 2014

Tacita Dean on Collecting


An artist I follow closely is Tacita Dean, whose interest in W.G. Sebald I have noted before several times. (Read here and here). Like many artists, she has accumulated some quirky collections that occasionally appear in her own artworks – like her collection of many-leaved clovers.

Now the problem with a collection is realising that you’ve started one. Recently I have begun, quite unintentionally, to collect old postcards thematically. It started with finding an attractive postcard of a frozen water fountain. On finding the second frozen water fountain, I had begun a collection…

I know people whose lives are dominated by their collections, ceaselessly searching in flea markets, auction houses and specialist book shops, never resolving their quest. Whether you are collecting versions of popular songs, postcards of lighthouses or votive sculptures of Our Lady of Montserrat, your collection will never let you be. You’ve started so you must continue, and with most collections, there is no end. Whether it is postcards of lighthouses or four-leaf clovers, there can never be the definitive collection. For what is more inert than a finished collection.

Artist Tacita Dean, writing about her collections of postcards and of four, five, six, and seven leaf clovers. From Tacita Dean (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000).

Dean also co-edited a very smart book on contemporary artists whose work deals with the idea of place. “The artist can evoke a place that will always only exist as a memory of another place in the mind of the viewer…” Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, Art Works: Place. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005). Highly recommended for anyone curious about contemporary art, in part because the selection of artists is definitely not limited to the usual suspects.

Skimming Waterlog 3 – The Artists


…the museum and the gallery are those spaces where obscurity may become the condition for enlightenment. [Brian Dillon, writing in Waterlog]

I have never been much good at skipping stones across a pond. Nevertheless that is the image I had in mind when I thought of writing about the monograph Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition over the course of three posts – here, here, and now here.This final post deals with the visual artists in the monograph, although several, due to the hybrid nature of their works, have already been mentioned in the post on the poetry of Waterlog. (There are also additional illustrations in that same post.) Keep in mind that I am not reporting on the exhibition itself (which I have not seen), only its manifestation in the form of this monograph.

In the books of W.G. Sebald, the twin powers of nature and history overwhelm whatever pretensions and inadequate defenses mankind can muster, inevitably bringing insignificance, loss, and death.The only lasting power that mankind itself wields is destruction – a destructive attempt to dominate nature and a endless knack for self-destruction in the form of war. For the most part, the artists in Waterlog choose to meditate on our dialectical relationship with nature rather than with history. Marcus Coates is the only artist to address, even if obliquely, mankind as an agent of destruction. As I have mentioned earlier, his project Britain’s Bitterns circa 1997 Population – 11 Breeding Males is an elegy to England’s bittern population – and by extension the animal kingdom – brought to the level of near extinction by human encroachment.

In a gesture that is both playful and quixotic, Alec Finlay throws poetic life buoys to the city of Dunwich, an important port during the middle ages that became completely lost to storms and erosion over the course of centuries and now lies underwater. His project The Sunken Bell also included a number of color photographs by Guy Moreton of ruins, flooded marshes and other reminders of the power of nature. Simon Pope’s project The Memorial Walks, which was part installation and part performance, involved the selection of landscape paintings from area museums which were displayed draped in black and only occasionally unveiled.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that any publication can do to adequately translate video art onto the printed page. The film stills and short descriptions included in Waterlog give only the most skeletal sense of intriguing works by collaborators Alexander and Susan Maris and by Tacita Dean. In Alexander and Susan Maris’ video piece Silentium, Arvo Part’s composition Tabula Rasa provides the background music for their exploration of two key places in the life of composer Benjamin Britten: his long-time residence at Aldeburgh and the later residence in Horham, which he took up in order to find respite from the noise of air force planes flying overhead.

Tacita Dean is represented in Waterlog by two works, only one which was included in the exhibition. For Waterlog, Dean created a video on Sebald’s close friend the writer and translator Michael Hamburger, who died earlier this year.

Unwilling, perhaps unable, to talk of his past and his migrations, most especially fleeing Nazism in 1933, [Hamburger] talks poignantly, instead, of the apple trees in his garden…

Sebald had written his own lengthy profile of Hamburger on pages 175-190 of The Rings of Saturn, including two grainy photographs of the interior of Hamburger’s house. Stills from Dean’s video show scenes which clearly reference Sebald’s photographs.

Tacita Dean, still from Michael Hamburger


From The Rings of Saturn

Dean’s second work in Waterlog is a welcome reprint of a photo and text piece on Sebald which I have written about earlier. As far as I know, until now this work could only be found in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald as part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of Dean’s work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The version in Waterlog is not only a complete reprint of Dean’s fascinating piece on Sebald, but it also contains a brief Postscript that she added after the French publication.


Consisting largely of newly commissioned works from artists, the exhibition Waterlog is a clear indication of how Sebald’s writing can be inspirational material for artists in many media. As the exhibition’s successor in print form, Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition does a fine job converting the exhibition into a book that is can stand on its own. I only wish that Waterlog included a full exhibition checklist, which would have documented the contents of the show.
simon-pope-memorial-walks-2.jpg Simon Pope, from The Memorial Walks

Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald

The British artist Tacita Dean (b. 1965) happens to be one of my favorite contemporary artists.Winner of the 2006 Hugo Boss Prize (and hence a 2007 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum), her work is simultaneously visceral and intelligent and nearly always involves seemingly incompatible opposites.She often uses banal objects such as found photographs or common postcards to explore profound issues of life, death, history, and memory.Much of her art is based on historical or biographical research, yet chance and coincidence are everpresent factors. Since 2001, Dean has referenced Sebald in several of her works.


Tacita Dean: W.G. SEBALD (2003)

Although chronologically not the earliest piece on Sebald, her 2003 Paris catalog provides the perfect entrée to examining the connections between Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald.In September 1999, while recording ambient sound in a bus stop on the island of Fiji for a commissioned art project, Dean found herself reading the section of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn which deals with Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist who was executed by the British for treason in 1916.Before becoming fatally entangled in the Irish nationalist movement, Casement was best known for his service as a British diplomat in Africa.His Congo Report (1904) exposed Belgian atrocities and was probably influenced by Joseph Conrad’s great 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.When Dean read the pages in which Sebald describes Casement’s trial for treason, she realized that the presiding judge who had condemned Casement to death was her great, great uncle.

Dean reveals this startling anecdote in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald, which is part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of her work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.The “story” that she tells in W.G. Sebald, is – appropriately – full of those coincidental moments when genealogy, personal experiences, and world events intersect with oddly illuminating results.Her story not only involves Casement, Sebald, and Dean’s own ancestors, but also the aerial bombing of Germany during World War II, the Marconi Telegraph Company, and a missing family painting by Van Gogh.Like Sebald, she punctuates her story with contemporary snapshots, family photographs, historical images, found postcards, and artless photographs of objects to create a narrative that seems to meander aimlessly toward a conclusion that finally seems inevitable. Intrigued by the Casement connection to her family, the resulting artwork is more or less a document of her subsequent research.But, like Sebald’s fiction, Dean’s art is also a semi-fictional form of documentary.

 The 32-page Paris catalog is bi-lingual – English and French – and delightfully uses different illustrations in each section.Some version of this piece apparently appeared in a piece that Dean published on pages 122-136 of the Fall 2003 issue of October magazine from MIT Press (surprisingly impossible to locate second hand).

Tacita Dean: THE RUSSIAN ENDING (2001)

A second volume in the Paris boxed set of catalogs is called The Russian Ending and reproduces twenty photogravures that Dean had created in 2001.While the Paris catalog makes no mention of Sebald in connection with this work, when this series was first exhibited in the U.S. at the New York gallery of Peter Blum from December 8, 2001 to February 2, 2002, the gallery issued a four-page brochure that included a quotation from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which one assumes Dean herself selected.In the quotation Sebald describes the sensations of being enveloped in a sudden sandstorm.When the whirlwind dissipates into an eerie quietude he muses: “This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.”

For The Russian Ending, Dean used flea market postcards to create large prints via photogravure, which serve as treatments (complete with etched-on stage directions) for an imaginary film about failure and disaster.Jordan Kantor, reviewing the exhibition in Artforum (March 2002), called the imagery of explosions, shipwrecks, and funerals a “melancholic iconography,” which would succinctly define the writings of Sebald as well.“The Russian Ending” apparently refers to a practice in which movies were once made with different endings for different markets – the Russian audience requiring the more tragic ending.



Die Regimentstochter is a 64-page signed and numbered book designed by Dean and published by Steidl in Göttingen, Germany in an edition of 2,000 copies.The book’s title, of course, refers to the Donizetti opera known in English as The Daughter of the Regiment.The book itself reproduces a series of Nazi-era opera programs that Dean found in a Berlin flea market, all of which had sections of pages mysteriously cut out, creating a sequence of oddly evocative “found” collages.As the publisher’s website says: “Each programme gives a tantalising glimpse of a title or a face through a small window cut into the embossed cover; we recognise Beethoven, Rossini, the face of a singer perhaps.When and by whom this incision in the cover was made, very neatly one might add, even more why these disfigured programmes were kept remains a mystery. A swift search in an archive would easily show what has been removed; most likely an embossed swastika, for these performances all happened during the Third Reich. Why they were removed is left to our imaginations; perhaps an avid theatre-goer livid at the co-option of culture by the regime, perhaps someone afraid they might be misinterpreted as fascist memorabilia, while wishing to retain the memories these performances triggered.”

I have no direct evidence that Dean knowingly linked the subject of Die Regimentstochter with Sebald.Nevertheless there is a marvelous connection between Dean’s book and a short section in the “Air War and Literature” chapter in Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction.From pages 42 – 45, Sebald briefly ponders the role of culture – specifically music – “in the evolution and collapse of the German Reich.” Sebald quotes a number of sources who wrote about the presence of opera and classical music – both live and on radio – in the very midst of the Allied bombing of Germany and the total devastation immediately after the end of the war.Sebald includes a photograph of war-time German audience intently, if not raptly, listening to music in a concert hall, perhaps to one of the very programs included in Tacita Dean’s book.

Tacita Dean Phaidon Monograph

Jean-Christophe Royoux, Marina Warner, and Germaine Greer: TACITA DEAN (2006)

In 2006, Phaidon published a very useful introductory monograph on the work of Tacita Dean in their Contemporary Artists series.Tacita Dean discusses and illustrates many of her projects including all of the ones relating to Sebald mentioned above.In a section called “Artist’s Choice,” which recurs throughout the series, the artist under discussion is asked to make a selection from another artist or two.For her volume, Dean chose William Butler Yeats, whose 1939 poem “One-Legged Fly” is reproduced, and W.G. Sebald.Dean chose one of the most remarkable and telling paragraphs from The Rings of Saturn which begins: “As I sat there that evening in the Southwold overlooking the German ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark.”What follows is a beautiful, dark meditation on landscape, dream, memory, and the power of transformation.The extract concludes: “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”, which seems a near perfect description of Dean’s art.

Dean continues to produce art work that relates to Sebald.As one of seven British artists commissioned to respond to Sebald’s writing and to the landscape that inspired him for an exhibition in Norwich called Waterlog, Dean has created a film on his close friend and translator, the poet Michael Hamburger.

Click here to go to my earlier post on Waterlog.