Ship of Death belongs to a portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.
Dean’s interest in narrative and the mechanisms of the film industry are also evident in her other work. Her installation Foley Artist, 1996 (Tate T07870) depicts cinematic sound engineers recording acoustic effects for a short soundtrack. The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days, 1997 (Tate T07613) is a series of chalkboard drawings that use the conventions of the filmic storyboard to suggest dramatic events taking place in tempestuous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Uncles, 2004 (collection of the artist) is a film about the artist’s own family connections to the first two Chief Executives of Ealing Studios, Basil Dean (1888-1978; Chief Executive 1931-37) and Michael Balcon (1896-1977; Chief Executive 1937-59).
The grainy black and white source image for Ship of Death shows a waterlogged boat in a stormy sea. Water cascades over the sides of the vessel, and the violent pitch of the waves has rendered the mast a dark blur. In its impressionistic depiction of a tempestuous seascape the photograph recalls the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851; see A Disaster at Sea, circa 1835, Tate N00558). The image also relates to Dean’s own fascination with adventures and misadventures at sea (see Disappearance at Sea, 1996, Tate T07455).
Dean’s notations superimposed on the found image emphasise the fiction that the picture is the still from a film. At the top left corner are the words ‘last scene’ and the work’s title. A shrouded figure is highlighted with the legend ‘ferryman’. ‘Slow movement’ suggests a long camera pan across the scene. The bottom right corner includes more allusive references to the image. The water is labeled ‘Styx’ and an arrow pointing off towards the right bearing the words ‘exit’ and ‘Hades’ suggests the ship’s descent to the underworld. The phrases ‘bye bye’, ‘it’s over’, ‘whence they say that no man ever returns’ and ‘end’ reinforce the finality of the ship’s fate.
Clarrie Wallis, Sean Rainbird, Michael Newman, J.G. Ballard, Germaine Greer, Susan Stewart, Friedrich Meschede, Peter Nichols and Simon Crowhurst, Tacita Dean, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2001.
Dorothea Dietrich, ‘The space in between: Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending’, Art on Paper, vol.6, no.5, May-June 2002, pp.48-53, reproduced pp.48, 50.
Jordan Kantor, ‘Tacita Dean’, Artforum, vol.40, no.7, March 2002, p.138, reproduced p.138.