Mark Dean’s exhibition at Beaconsfield consists of a back catalogue of 36 of his videos - Retrospective Jukebox - two large-scale installations, a sound piece and a single video piece, arranged over two floors. This is a retrospective of the artist’s work half way through his career.
Dean has the uncanny knack of getting under your skin. There is something about the way he manipulates the material properties of film footage and music from a variety of sources that enables him to open up psychological spaces or areas of meaning, to tap into areas of the unconscious that you might otherwise want to leave untouched if they weren’t so compellingly conveyed.
An extract of video no.10 from the Retrospective Jukebox - Picture In Picture (TyhaerPGincatiurroeDoffoDeorruitacniGPreahyT) 1997 - uses footage from the movie A Picture of Dorian Grey. An elliptical insert in the middle of the screen reveals the film being played backwards at the same time as the movie progresses. This has the effect of frustrating the narrative, compelling the viewer to engage more actively with the work than might normally be expected. This is Dean’s way of holding our attention, drawing us in and making us ask questions. It is difficult to extract yourself from his obsessive grip.
Perhaps Picture in Picture also says something about the viewer’s innate need to construct meaning even from scrambled information - from a film played forwards and backwards simultaneously in which parts of the footage are visually obscured. Despite being tampered with or perhaps because of it the themes of the film still emerge - wouldn’t we all like to turn back time? It is the inherent properties of video as a fine art medium that make it ideal for exploring our relationship with time - repetition, variations in speed or reversal of the footage present ways of playing with this aspect of our existence while Dean’s deft handling of the material serves to intensify its affective content.
Fear is a recurring theme in many examples of his work. In What kind of fear (Alice in den Stadten x4) 1995 the boldness of the young girl contrasts with the unexplained dread of the adult. A distorted soundtrack jacks up the tension as they discuss the nature of fear. There is sense of prolonged foreboding that often appears in Dean’s work but which is rarely dissipated as it is here by a joke and a smile. In Nothing to Fear (The American Friend +-12) 1995 Dean again uses an accelerating soundtrack to heighten the emotional subject matter, as Dennis Hopper repeats the words into a recorder ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’ like a mantra reiterated to ward off misfortune. Insert Coin (Nico) 2002, which exchanges Dean’s frequent preference for punk for Nico’s track I’ll Be Your Mirror and a gentle commentary on human vulnerability, comes as some relief as does a Stevie Wonder track slowed down by 70% for extended aural bliss.
Dean’s frequent use of clips from horror movies and psychological thrillers by Hitchcock all play on our fears. There is also an underlying current of religiosity or the occult. In Teenager (Moondogs) 2002 the camera pans over the surface of an inverted school photograph until the shadowy eye sockets of the people in it start to distort and their faces morph. We start to question its visual reality. Allusions to Christ on the cross appear both in Untitled (Inverted Frenzy) 1999 and (Untitled) Twisted Motorcycle Gang 1999. In the latter the body of a woman prone on the floor is flipped horizontally as if suspended from a cross. The motion of her breathing is speeded up until the shuddering makes her look possessed. The convulsions bring devil worship to mind, as do the use of Heavy Metal and the reversal of music and video tracks elsewhere in Dean’s work.
The two large-scale installations in the arch space and upper space also reflect the artist’s interest in the axis between the languages of religion, art and music.
Love Missile (7” vs 12”) 2010 uses recordings of a track by Sigue Sigue Sputnik combined with circular stills of missiles being released from ships at sea. The missiles releasing billowing plumes of smoke are transformed into crucifixes in flight by the addition of a horizontal bar across the shaft, and the overall impression is of a sublime, if subverted, Baroque ceiling painting. The stills are accompanied by a video projection on the opposite side of the gallery of a figure silhouetted against rippling water, also sublime. Presumably the installation is a comment on the role of religion in war, although I think it lacks the incisiveness of his simpler videos. However, after two to three decades of sustained intensity from this prolific artist it seems churlish to criticise. Dean deals with difficult themes and refuses to sanitize them. Watch him if you can.