Tacita Dean's black and white film Ztráta (Loss, 1991-2002) opens with a close-up of the Czech title written on a blackboard. Almost immediately it's wiped off and literally lost - the cloth flies out of the classroom window. Next, the film cuts between shots of the room - sometimes with boys slouching at their desks, at others completely empty - and images of the woman with the chalk. She's now writing Pritomnost and Nepritomnost, each letter following smoothly on from the last. The words mean 'presence' and 'absence'. But this film is about more than exploring the differences between words or picking out semantic peculiarities. In this language lesson these patterns, made from nothing more than simple lines and curves, have become intertwined with the associations they conjure up. Like logos, they don't just signify meanings, concepts and feelings, but are inextricably bound up with them. Silhouetted against the light in the window, the film shows a figure from behind. Maybe it's the semiologist who knows the answers, but he isn't giving anything away.
The projector whirrs loudly above the backs of the chairs in the gallery. The sound adds to the shifting atmosphere of the film as it develops. Its quality recalls an amateur film, or an experiment in a darkened basement. Ztráta is, like Czech Photos (1991-2002), a rediscovered object from Dean's past: she lived in Prague in 1991. For her first major solo exhibition in Germany she also dug out old negatives from her archive and printed almost all of them to make a series of black and white, small-format photos. The almost forgotten scenes reveal a cross-section of the early years of post-communist Central Europe: broken-up cobbles, blurred, speeding trains, gracefully curving stairwells suffused with the crumbling charm of Eastern European modern architecture. A woman's fat legs in black tights; a friend at the breakfast table. Looking at these photos arranged in open wooden boxes on a small table was like opening a message in a bottle.
The blackboard motif of the Ztráta film was introduced by what the viewer first encountered on entering the gallery: a large diptych of two equally sized blackboards, Chère petite soeur (Dear Little Sister, 2002). A wet sponge created an atmospehre of rain on the black night of the blackboard, and the water obscured the view of the storm-tossed ship. It became apparent that the ship in the picture to the left was about to sink in the one on the right. In some places words, like splashes, were scribbled in small letters on to the seascape, as if a director had hastily made notes on a storyboard. Whether the ship managed to stay afloat or not, is unclear - the chalk was left unfixed.
Dean makes creative use of chance discoveries, as with the pages from newspapers entitled Palindrome (2002). Three international daily newspapers agreed to her request to print the date 20 February, 2002, in the form of '20022002' and a little larger than normal on their front pages. Dean highlighted the aesthetic value of the date as if it marked the day out as something special, something different from the dull sameness of all the other days in the calendar.
The attention given to the significance of numerical patterns (1991 is a palindrome, too) recurs throughout the show, for example in the film entitled Section Cinema (2002), which was shot in Marcel Broodthaers' old studio in Dusseldorf. Static shots of the room - now a storeroom - show its white walls behind rows of objects carefully covered with floral-design cloth; boxes full of bits and pieces. Broodthaers used to show films there, and 'Section Cinema' is painted on the door the way that 'Machine Room' would be on a steel door in the belly of a ship. The writing on the white walls is still there from when, 30 years ago, Broodthaers developed and set up his Département des Aigles (Department of Eagles, 1968-72). In doing so, he only used the numbers 0, 1 and 2. Dean made fresh use of this self-imposed limitation in the opening and closing dates of her show: 12/10/2002 - 21/12/2002. The circular structure, the tension between concept and feeling, will remain unresolved.