Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean
The Voyage or Three Years at Sea – Part 1

Kathleen Ritter
Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver
January 19 – February 20, 2011
Rodney GrahamLighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model (1955), 2010.
Photo : courtesy 303 Gallery, New York & Lisson Gallery, London, UK
The symbol of the lighthouse looms large in literature and myth; its perpetually roaming light illuminates the surface of the water with unfailing constancy, warning and searching, waiting and passing time. It is through this symbol that two major figures in contemporary art — Tacita Dean and Rodney Graham — are uniquely paired. 

The Voyage or Three Years at Sea – Part 1 marks the first in a trio of marine-themed exhibitions and related events, curated by Cate Rimmer at the Charles H. Scott Gallery on Vancouver’s Granville Island, a fitting location for a series of exhibitions about the sea. The first, focussed on the lighthouse, brings together two major works of Dean and Graham, along with a selection of artefacts from the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the BC Maritime Museum and the Vancouver Archives.

On entering the exhibition, the first room is dead black, animated only by the sound of crashing waves against the eerie noise of a film projector. An image appears sporadically on the wall as the beam from the lighthouse briefly illuminates the surface of the water, as if in tandem with the rotating motion of the projector itself. Dean’s 16mm film projection, Disappearance at Sea (1996), is inspired by the story of the English sailor Donald Crowhurst, who fell into madness and eventually committed suicide after failing a contest to sail around the world. Shot at the St. Abb’s Head lighthouse in Scotland, the film records the passage of time, the crepuscular sky turn from day to night, and the searching motion of the light, interspersed with shots of the reflective beauty of the lighthouse’s rotating complex lenses.

In the adjacent room is a large backlit photographic diptych by Graham, Lighthouse Keeper with Lighthouse Model 1955 (2010). The image features the artist posed in the role of the work’s title, seated in profile, warming his feet by a wood stove. Set at the moment when the work of the lighthouse keeper had been made redundant through automation, he has increased time for leisure activities, passing hours of tedium by reading, listening to records, even building a model lighthouse — a replica of the Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, used on the insignia of the US Lighthouse Service — which sits on the table beside him. The book he reads is on lighthouses, open to a page showing the illustration which was the inspiration for the work, collapsing the construction of the image into the image itself.

Rimmer mined the rarefied holdings of local museums and archives to collect historical artefacts related to lighthouses — old diary entries and logbooks, a fog horn, newspaper articles, a postcard (the same as one used in Graham’s image), and finally, a tiny painting of the shipwreck of the SS Beaver on a piece of wood from the wreckage itself — drawing out the mythology of the lighthouse so beautifully evoked by the work of Dean and Graham.

Kathleen Ritter, Rodney Graham, Tacita Dean
This article also appears in the issue 72 - Curators

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