The Sinking of the SS Plympton 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 black and white source image for The Sinking of the SS Plympton depicts a large ship capsized in a still sea. The ship has beached dramatically on its side and only a portion of the hull is visible above the water. Dean’s notes provide historical detail about the incident in the photograph, which she calls ‘the classic Russian Ending’. The shipwreck took place in ‘treacherous waters’ off the ‘Scilly Islands’ where a ‘southwesterly blew her onto the rocks’. Text superimposed on the water immediately in front of the ship provides a mournful litany of the casualties: ‘all hands lost ... all crew lost ... all lost ... lost at sea’.
Additional notes on the print approach the image as the template for Dean’s fictional film scene. The hull of the ship is marked with detailed measurements and the comment that, at over forty feet long, it is ‘quite a prop’. Camera directions encourage a ‘zoom in’ while sound notes call for a choir singing off-screen as the ship goes under. At the bottom of the print are instructions for a sentimental flashback sequence showing the Plympton’s launch, a ‘happy day’ despite the fact that ‘the bottle did not break’.
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 p.48.
Jordan Kantor, ‘Tacita Dean’, Artforum, vol.40, no.7, March 2002, p.138.