Tacita Dean’s newest series of blackboard drawings, ‘Fatigues’ (2012), presents a discourse on the fragility of the human gesture. This vulnerability stands in the face of many things: it manifests in her delicate lines that describe the majesty of nature, in the almost insufficient marks that describe the epic troughs and crests of historical narrative. In this series of six multi-panel black boards, the Berlin-based British artist traverses the length of the Kabul River from its origins in the Hindu Kush down to Afghanistan’s capital. (Dean began on a filmic treatment of the subject matter, but her attempt to direct a local Afghan cameraman from afar did not work out.)
‘Fatigues’ was realized last year for dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, where the series initially capitalized on the layout of a two-storey former tax office in the town, so that the viewer ‘descended’ from the mountains to the flood plain below via the stairs. At Marian Goodman, walking from the north room of the gallery to the south room proved to be just as effective. The drawings are a linear, cinematic voyage, which recall the ‘promotional’ paintings of the 19th-century artist Albert Bierstadt, who created his monumental oils partly as a paean to the untouched beauty of the American West, but also to encourage pioneers to fulfil America’s Manifest Destiny. Dean is more cautious.
Against the overall black ground, blindingly white peaks evoke the sensation of a sunny day on the slopes. With the first three blackboards, Fatigues D, E and F, there is an economy of means with respect to the chalk, delineating the peaks and subtly picking out the volumes of the mountains, which lends a notably Romantic effect – perhaps we are standing under a cloud on a promontory, finally gazing out at some promised land, from the dark into the light. The inspiration for these vistas is a Rudyard Kipling poem about an episode in the disastrous Second Anglo-Afghan war (‘Ford O’ Kabul River’, 1890) and footage of a flash flood in Kabul from Dean’s unsuccessful film enterprise. The second set of blackboards, A, B and C, are about the river and its destructiveness. Emerging from the almost total darkness of Fatigue C, the river rises, becomes engorged and in a bright slash of dusty white swirls becomes a fearsome maelstrom in A. There is crackly film or flip-book quality that links the six drawings across the breadth of the gallery.
Well-paired with these drawings was Dean’s 2010 film The Friar’s Doodle, a claustrophobic, ten-minute black and white odyssey across a page of inky drawings sketched by a Franciscan friar who gave them to the artist in the 1970s. As the projector whirrs, the viewer follows the eye of the artist as she explores the meandering path of a bored monk, climbing stairs and navigating various architectural fantasies; but also unintentionally reiterating the profession of its creator, as the way is littered with Sacred Hearts and other suggestively Catholic imagery. Unlike the ‘Fatigues’ though, there is no escape from this flickering winding passage, only endless climax and suspense. It becomes more of
a comment on the predicament and frame of mind of its original doodler, as enabled through Dean’s purview.
The ‘Fatigues’ are inscribed with peripheral text, lines that sometimes serve the viewer: for example, ‘(Narrative) Direction’ followed by an arrow seems like a guide, while other notes might be little reminders to the artist as she was drawing. ‘Friday 12:41’ and several other times and dates prove to be enigmatic. ‘A mountain for Donald’ must be an inside joke. But these jottings heighten the ephemerality of the series, and the tragic weakness of the line, or the word, to postpone inevitable destruction, either by nature or humankind. If it was easy enough to eradicate the graceful 1,400-year-old Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in this very same country in the relative blink of an eye, how hard could it be simply to erase Dean’s board?