The Charles H. Scott gallery is physically attached to my alma mater, Emily Carr University (née Institute) of Art & Design on Granville Island. Hence, going there to see any one of the consistently strong exhibitions usually entails dealing with a heady blend of nostalgia and unease. This storm of emotions was pictorialized on my most recent visit by the magisterial presence of Tacita Dean’s work Disappearance at Sea. Shot from lens-eye-view at St. Abbs Head lighthouse on the Scottish Borders, the 16mm film documents the hyperreal polychromasia of the dusk skies as their natural exhibit is bathed with the incandescent rays of the flickering beacon, bouncing and rippling through the whirling fresnal lens.
This piece was the first of several of Deans’ works inspired by the saga of Donald Crowhurst, a competitor in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Single-Handed Round-the-World Yacht Race. Experiencing difficulties on the outset, Crowhurst recorded a false log regarding his progress, which also included poetry and bizarre philosophical musings, indicating a distressed psychological state. His unmanned trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, was found weeks preceding the race's finish. It is speculated that he jumped overboard, commiting suicide.
In 1998, at the same time Disappearance at Sea was to see Dean nominated for the Turner Prize, I was embarking on my own ill-equipped journey into the treacherous waters of the art institute. Those who spend a lot of time on Granville Island become quickly accustomed to the kind of swashbuckling seascapes captured on Dean's 16mm film. As one might imagine, these vivacious vistas can inspire wanderlust in the dreamy eyes of an idiotic young art student with great ease. On one particularly lively evening, after several thousand glasses of lager, I employed a first mate to aid me in commandeering a vessel from the nearby docks: a paddle-boat. After trawling several metres into the great blue void, we were intercepted by an unamused Coast Guard who informed us that our current activity was unlawful and that we could be prosecuted under federal piracy laws. He justifiably voiced no concern for our safety.
And nor did I, for the essence of the sea is found in its ineffable lure. It is the closest we have as a physical representation of the mercilessness of time; seemingly never-ending, cold, invigorating, yet cruel. As the last of the great lighthouses became completely automated in the 1990’s, I was in those murky waters, fancying myself a salty dog. Even if my own pathetic voyage had been allowed to run its course, it would have been comparable to Crowhursts dementia-induced oddysey in that the result would have been the same: young pickled flesh.
- Aaron Carpenter
(Images: Tacita Dean, Disappearance at Sea, 1996 (stills). Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London)