A Meditation on Time: The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea (Part I)


Tacita Dean: Disappearance at Sea (1996): Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London.Tacita Dean: Disappearance at Sea (1996): Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London.

By Carol-Ann M. Ryan

A Meditation on Time: The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea (Part I)
Charles H. Scott Gallery
January 19 – February 20, 2011

The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea (Part I), curated by Cate Rimmer, takes the lighthouse as its subject matter. The meditative artworks are placed among historic objects and archival images, presenting the viewer with insight into the material and psychological life of a lighthouse keeper. Art-world heavyweights Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean suggest that this life is quiet and contemplative, isolating and filled with waiting.

Dean’s Disappearance at Sea (1996) is encountered as a long horizontal projection situated within a dark exhibition space. It is a 16-mm, colour anamorphic film installation with sound, capturing tightly cropped images of rotating light bulbs and glass lenses within a lighthouse beacon. Behind the lighting structure is a dusk-lit seascape that slowly changes from fiery orange to purple and eventually to black. The soundtrack is composed of rhythmic humming from the rotating beacon and the shrieks of seagulls, which grows more prominent as the sun sets. All the while, the whirring film projector warms the room, reminding us we are viewing an analog technology

Rodney Graham: Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955 (2010): Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Lisson Gallery, London.Rodney Graham: Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955 (2010): Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Lisson Gallery, London.Like her major film work Craneway Event (2009), Dean uses the shifting effects of natural light through glass to stunning effect, activating an otherwise minimal frame. In both cases, light situates the films in time and place. With Disappearance at Sea, light is mediated through the lenses of the lighthouse. Daylight refracts, lightens and darkens continuously in the foregrounded beacon. As the sun sets, the transition into twilight over the seascape is dramatic. Once dark, the screen is a deep blue-black; the only hint that we are still peering through the beacon is the subtle and eerie beam of light that intermittently passes over the sea. The viewer (and lighthouse keeper) is left to wait until the light returns, its reappearance representing the hopes of a sailor lost at sea, recalling the true story that inspired the film.

In the adjacent gallery, Rodney Graham’s brightly lit interior photograph Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model, 1955 (2010), is a large-scale scene the viewer can almost step into. Staged and shot like a film set, this photographic diptych is composed of two painted aluminum lightboxes, presenting the artist as lighthouse keeper, his feet up, perusing a book. An overhead lamp serves as a central light source located directly over Graham, the “main character’s”, head.

Seated in profile in the middle-foreground, Graham’s feet are propped up on the door of a small wood-burning stove. A kettle boils on the top of the stove. Behind him, a model of a lighthouse in progress, evidenced by the brushes and tools, rests on a table. Graham and his book, the lighthouse model and kettle are all situated within reach of the lamp light. The window above them indicates it is dark outside. The darkness emphasizes the harsh lamplight inside as it reflects off the ceiling and walls, and draws long shadows on the floor. This light source clearly embraces the essential activities and comforts required for the lighthouse keeper to pass the time. This is his world, a structural interior that projects a psychological interior; Graham has embodied this role for our consideration of its limitations and its luxuries.

Like many Graham installations, this image not only draws the viewer in with its scale and hanging height, but also contains an element that directs the viewer out and into the gallery space. Among the archival items, a U.S. Lighthouse Service Cap is on display (“courtesy of Rodney Graham”) in a vitrine immediately across from the lightboxes. That same hat appears in the background of his photograph, resting on a chair seat with matching coat draped over the chair’s back. This touchstone grounds the image in the real, reinforcing this representation of a life gone by, a real profession from another time.

Carol-Ann M. RyanCarol-Ann M. Ryan is a Toronto-based writer, arts educator and collections manager. She has written for C Magazine, Border Crossings and Canadian Art Online. She is an instructor at the Toronto School of Art, and an educator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.