Like Dean’s earlier film, Fernsehturm 2001 (T07871), Palast was created in Berlin, where the artist has lived since she undertook a DAAD fellowship with the Berlin Artist-in-Residence programme in 2000. It comprises a sequence of still shots angled at the reflective surfaces of bronze-mirrored windows on the Palast der Republik, or the Palace of the Republic, a government building opened in 1976 in former East Berlin serving primarily as the seat of the German Democratic Republic parliament – the Volkskammer. Built on the site of the former Hohenzollern palace (the Stadtschloss or City Palace), an ornate baroque palace, the Palast der Republik embodied the architectural style of the socialist government – a grand, imposing rectangular block, clad in white marble with 180 metres of windowed façade and named ‘the house of a thousand windows’ (Dean in Tacita Dean 2005, p.22). Dean’s film looks at the building close up – only ever showing a section of the windowed walls and giving no sense of its vast scale. Instead, the camera focuses on the visual effects of changing light as the sun sets. Tightly cropped shots of the gridded windows show rectangles of brilliant yellow and glowing gold, abstracted compositions interrupted by the silhouette of a streetlamp, the reflection of a church crucifix or a white X mysteriously inscribed on a single pane of glass. While the soundtrack features the banal ambient noise of the street, including the sound of cars and the rumble of a motorbike, footsteps, clocks chiming, female voices speaking in German and dusk birdsong, the visual imagery becomes increasingly apocalyptic as the sun sets, reflected on the surface of the windows and framed by the industrial grid structure of the window cladding as a white ball of fire in a dramatic sea of red and orange that recalls the sublime paintings of the British nineteenth century artist John Martin (1789–1854).
From the timelessness of the sunset sky on fire, the camera returns to the world of contemporary humans, showing twentieth century graffiti in pale blue and black on the window surfaces before catching distorted silhouettes of figures with horses that belong to a public monument reflected in the window glass. Finally the film lingers on the baroque outlines and green domes of a church standing next to the palace; by this time the luminous intensity of the setting sun has lessened and the colours have faded to rich pastels with only a fluorescent tube creating a strip of livid white and green light. Fixed in a continuous ten and a half minute loop, the film then returns from dusk to the gold tones of its beginning. In her text to accompany the film, Dean has written:
It is the building that always catches and holds the sun in the grey centre of the city: its regime-orange reflective glass mirroring the setting sun perfectly, as it moves from panel to panel along its chequered surface, drawing you in to notice it on your way up the Unter den Linden to Alexanderplaz. For a time, when Berlin was still new to me, it was just another abandoned building of the former East, that beguiled me despite its apparent ugliness, tricking and teasing the light and flattering the sensible and solid nineteenth century cathedral opposite with its reflections. Only later did I learn that it was the Palast der Republik and former government building of the GDR, a contentious place that concealed its history in the opacity of its surface, but had now been run-down, stripped of its trimmings and was awaiting the verdict on its future.
(Quoted in Tacita Dean 2005, p.22.)
Dean goes on to describe the views of the two opposing camps: the ‘revivalists’, who want to destroy the symbol of the old hated regime, and rebuild the old baroque palace as it once was, erasing history versus those who believe that ‘to level such a building is to level memory, and that a city needs to keep its scars within the fabric of its architecture in order to preserve what our finite human memory will soon forget’ (quoted in Tacita Dean 2005, p.22). The artist herself takes a more distanced position in relation to the building, as is reflected in her film, ‘attracted to the Palast for aesthetic reasons: the totalitarian aesthetic’ (quoted in Tacita Dean 2005, p.22). In the event, the German parliament decided to remove the building and leave the area as parkland until funding for the reconstruction of the old palace could be sourced. The Palast was demolished during 2006–8.
As is standard for Dean’s films, Palast was produced in an edition of four of which Tate’s copy is the fourth. Following the artist’s specifications, it is exhibited projected at a height of two metres above the floor in a purpose-built space with light grey walls. The image is 90cm in width. A set of six colour photogravures, also titled Palast, was created from the imagery of the film and printed by Niels Borch Jensen Verlag, Berlin and Copenhagen in 2005.
Jean-Christophe Royoux, Marina Warner, Germaine Greer, Tacita Dean, London 2006, pp.132–5, reproduced pp.132 and 134–5.
Tacita Dean: Berlin Works, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives 2005, pp.22–7, reproduced front and back cover and pp.26–7.