The Story of Minke the Whale 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 photograph on which The Story of Minke the Whale is based depicts a whale beached in shallow waters. A large pulley has been attached to the whale’s mouth; it is unclear from the image whether this is a means of capture or of attempted rescue. A slightly out of focus group of people including two children stand on a boat behind the whale looking down at the vast expanse of the mammal’s flesh. The scene appears to take place in an estuary; land is visible beyond an additional boat in the water.
Dean’s notes describe the scenario as ‘a cheap Moby Dick’ set on ‘a fjord in Denmark’. Her fictional film places the blame for the whale’s death on the onlookers: ‘they killed her ... poor Minke, killed for her blubber’. In the artist’s narrative, the ‘audience’s sympathy [is] with the whale’. Dean draws attention to sentimental detail that echoes her film’s tone, including the whale’s ‘last toothless smile’.
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.