The Wrecking of the Ngahere 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 photograph for The Wrecking of the Ngahere surveys a large ship in stormy waters as seen from the air. Water spills over the bow of the ship and the heavy swell almost engulfs the vessel from both sides. Frothing expanses of spume extend from the far left of the image. This image is one of several in the portfolio that depict disasters at sea; Dean’s fascination with often tragic narratives set on the ocean extends to her work in other media (see Disappearance at Sea, 1996, Tate T07455).
The Ngahere was a steamship that was wrecked off Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand in 1924. As Dean’s notes recount, the ship beached and sank in ‘disturbed water’ leaving ‘no chance of rescue’. The camera directions specify a ‘long shot’ to ‘watch her go (a matter of moments)’. Towards the bottom right of the print the word ‘rock’ is scrawled in large letters. Above and below it are lines that could be snatches of dialogue from Dean’s imaginary film: ‘the sea’s got her now – bye bye’ and ‘she’s come a croppa’. The scene is described as ‘The Russian Ending (rough misadventure)’.
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.