A Bag of Air is a short film three minute film that functions like a poetic vignette. Filmed in black and white, it opens with the shadow of a hot air balloon and two passengers ascending over an agricultural landscape to the sound of the balloon’s gas burner and ambient birdsong. As the balloon rises, the artist’s voice-over begins narrating instructions for collecting a bag of air ‘so intoxicated with the essence of spring that when it is distilled and prepared, it will produce an oil of gold, remedy enough to heal all ailments’ (quoted in Tacita Dean 2006, p.121). The camera then rests on a pair of hands, emerging from the sleeves of a white lab coat, that manipulate a clear plastic bag, alternately holding it wide open to fill it with air, and tying a knot to seal it. The final shot shows the filled and knotted bag held up to the sky, providing a vivid contrast with the opening view of the balloon’s shadow on the ground. This provides a visual metaphor for the alchemical distillation described in the artist’s words: ‘a delicacy of substance that is both celestial and terrestrial’ (quoted in Tacita Dean 2006, p.121).
Like almost all of Dean’s film works, the final form of A Bag of Air developed from a process of research combined with chance events, followed by selective editing. She has explained:
I was in Bourges, the alchemical centre of France, where Fulcanelli [psyeudonym of a twentieth-century alchemist and philosopher] wrote his fabulous Mystery of the Cathedrals (1926). At that time I wanted to catch air, which was an old alchemical process to do with the marriage of the elements. I don’t know why. I started to become fixated with a memory of when I was little. I always had a fantasy of going up in an aeroplane and catching a cloud. In Bourges I decided to try and see if I could do it. I did all these investigations, went to the local airport and found out that no one can lean out of an aeroplane and catch a cloud. You would get your arm snapped off. So I decided instead to go up in a hot air balloon. I was still after the clouds, so someone said, ‘Why don’t you catch morning mist?’ That was why I went all the way to Lans en Vercors for morning mist, and then of course there wasn’t any mist that morning. So I ended up catching clear air. And then of course it flipped back to alchemy, when it became totally appropriate to have got clear air because of the significance of the ethers in alchemy. Rosicrucians believed that by reuniting all four ethers – the two found in dew that come up from the earth and the two found in rain that come down from Heaven – you could resolve all the disharmonies in the soul or body energy. But again, the narrative, the story, came much later.
(Quoted in Tacita Dean 2006, pp.41–2.)
The duality constituted by earth and heaven that in the film is described verbally is figured visually and symbolically by the contrasting black silhouette image of the balloon (itself a bag of air or gas) on the ground and the plastic bag of air that appears white when seen against the sky. In her text about the work, written as a separate entity that sits side by side with it (Tacita Dean 2001, p.100), Dean meditates on the letter ‘R’ appearing on a bronze credence and a ceiling carving in the Hôtel Lallemant in Bourges, where she was Artist in Residence at the Ecole Nationale de Beaux-Arts in 1995 when she made the film. Fulcanelli had speculated on their possible meanings: Dean comments that, said in French, ‘R’ is ‘air’, perhaps pointing to the mysterious element of alchemical transmutation. The silhouette form of the balloon that opens the film A Bag of Air recalls the glass phial filled with Paris air, Air de Paris 1919 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), that Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) gave to his friend, the American collector Walter Arensberg. While Duchamp’s readymade functions as a clever souvenir of mysterious significance, Dean’s film evokes Medieval alchemy and processes of physical and psychological healing. She returned to the theme of elemental healing in her film Gellért 1998, made in the Budapest steam baths of that name.
A Bag of Air is exhibited projected directly onto a white wall from a projector on a free-standing plinth, on a continuous loop that includes the introductory title and credits at the end. The film was produced in an edition of three, plus a single artist’s proof. Tate’s copy is the first in the edition.
Jean-Christophe Royoux, Marina Warner, Germaine Greer, Tacita Dean, London 2006, pp.41–2, 50 and 120–1, reproduced pp.50–1.
Tacita Dean, exhibition catalogue, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona 2001, pp.24–9, 80 and 97–9, reproduced p.29.
Tacita Dean: Selected works 1994–2000, exhibition catalogue, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel 2000, pp.16–18, reproduced p.18.