Reading between the Bible lines in Tacita Dean’s desert

Tacita Dean, ‘Quarantania’, photogravure, 2018

It’s a commonplace to find photography and the Bible linked through particularly simple illustration: if you pick up any modern guide to the Bible, you’ll invariably find a book or website with photographs of the landscape of Palestine and Syria, or of its flora & fauna, or of archaeological remains. Occasionally an image might zone in on an object given particularly rich symbolic significance in the text, like a vine or a dove. Invariably, the context of the illustration delimits the use of the image, ‘this is what it says’ becomes a closed line of reference, each in collusion with the other. To me, there’s a redundancy and a poverty, linguistically, in this arrangement. Ok to establish some concretion of the Bible and world, but it doesn’t reflect the elasticity of the text itself very well. MUCH more interesting to me is the impetus of an artist for whom the linking of photographs and biblical text is a chance to change the game, to ask questions that make the relation a more open question of reference.

This piece, Quarantania, by Tacita Dean is one such exploration. It’s by far my favourite in her London take-over this summer at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Academy. She has been given a landmark triptych of shows, all of which I visited in order to write a review for the forthcoming autumn issue of Art & Christianity. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of film, this being the medium for which she is most celebrated. She is at her best, in my opinion, when the landscape and the still life (two of the gallery themes) present opportunity to engage more widely across other media, other time-frames, other ideologically separate concepts (than that of self-conferring artist portraits). And one of these is the Bible. We find it as a premise for her film Antigone, an opening reference to the sojourn of the Israelites in the desert. We find it in the curated arrangements that include a painting of John the Baptist’s head, or a communion plate. We find it in some of her chalk drawings of the natural world. And we find it in Quarantania.

    

Mount Quarantania is found in the desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is also referred to as the Mount of Temptation. It is notionally the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil before he began his three-year ministry as recorded at the start of the synoptic gospels, in most detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Dean’s seven-panel work, each comprising 3 photo-mechanically printed sections, has a filmmaker’s sense of framing, even spooling, across what is a panoramic capturing of rockface and desert expanse. The lurid sky and seeping distant terrain have an apocalyptic oppression, and the only release of air seems to come from the dust of the chalk writing which scallops across parts of the scene. This breath, these whispers, are fragments of reading from/around the Bible. There are identifiers, ‘place of temptation’, ‘Satan’s Step’, ‘Judaen desert’. There are questions, ‘where are you JC?’, ‘alone?’. There are emphasised statements, ‘bread or SATISFACTION’, ‘hedonism, egoism and materialism, WEALTH’. Clustered around a scattering of pots in the fifth panel are the numbers 1 to 40, and the words ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Unlike a book illustration, where the texts pedagogically read the image, here the image seems to practise a reading of the text. And its ‘reading’ is like breathing, an organic reaction emerging from the cracks and fissures in the rock, not scripted around gridded lines of text. Conversation not proclamation. Hybridity not homogeneity. Imaged not written. In this sensitivity, something of an exploration is going on, in which Dean reaches for mythical/Scriptural attachment to place and uses it to inhabit her own engagement with the landscape and its representation. It is a theology of place no less, an interweaving/interleaving of Bible and world with self.

Perspectives on the Severn

tower

Highest tide of the year today. And possibly the highest workmen in the South West. Out at Aust, the pylon in the Severn Estuary is having a make-over, thanks to Ivan and his dare-devil team of four. Something mesmerizing about the air, space-clean, superhigh and white, with tiny figures and water at 14m. The bracket of day included a trip to the mouth of the Trym – the difference between 9am and 4pm. A miracle swell that hides a water-chasm of life and mud and disappeared boats. Some perspective gained on practice today – in the words of Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels: there are no small jobs, there are only small people.

Trym-mouth

Garry Fabian Miller in Edinburgh

No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976
No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976

Garry Fabian Miller first showed Series 1 of the Sea Horizon series in 1977, and 2 years later, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. These 40 photographs were then published in 1997, and exhibited again at the Arnolfini (also in London), which is where I first saw them, aged 16. My visual diary entry that day:

27th April. Down at the Arnolfini. Blue gets me every time. There were about 20 1ft square of these photos round the walls of one room. This idea of looking at the same thing in different lights is like Monet. I would have got the catalogue – only it was £75. There is a serene consistency in a set like these. They’re wonderful.

16 years later, another set (Series 2) of the same sequence has been printed for exhibition, which I caught just before it closed at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. For me, the conjunction of my birth year and place, at the cusp of higher education into Fine Art, and now as a practising photographer and researcher, marks Fabian Miller’s work with my own interests in a particularly personal way. Not to mention the repetitive looking at the Severn Estuary, and the later inspiration from Dartmoor. I struggle to write thoughts about his work without being spiritually reflective, preferring something more poetic than descriptive – a foreword from Fabian Miller’s early book quotes Hilaire Belloc on the sea as “the common sacrament of this world”. So at this show, on a hot summer’s day and in an empty gallery, I wrote the following:

The wavering edge of perception and cognition. A thin line or a seam between an up and a down that are held together in some sort of suspension. The down has the most mass or gravity when you can see the frill of the waves, the implacability of a sea surface and a slight perspective shift when you sense your space above it. But it has the least when it’s merely a graded shade of darker plane, either colour-blocked and solidified or a sliding angle inward. None of this edge feels outward to me, maybe it’s the scale (40cm), maybe it’s the square shape – both a tendency to abstraction contained. The clouds and the light are mostly an upwards activity, a shifting screen of billow or streak, sun or rain, pregnant cloud or dissipating veil of haze. Metal grey, azure blue, Monet pink, ricocheted sunset light in gleam or gloom – it’s like a phantasmagoria where you don’t hold the transitions, rather they hold you.

What’s in it for the landscape photographer?

Bernd and Hilla Becher, ‘Spherical Gas Tanks’, 1983-92

The most pressing issue in the photography of place is a site’s history, how it has been affected by time, by climate and by mankind. Landscape photography has become political, not necessarily in terms of environmental causes – although many photographers are directly concerned with such issues – but in terms of the meanings it asks us to consider. Since the 1970s, the best photography of place does not simply expect the viewer to inhabit the depicted space. It asks that the viewer think more deeply about how a place came into being, how environmental and social pressures may change it, and the way people use it. Landscape photography still takes us ‘there’, but the contemporary photographer also recognizes that a place, and its depiction, is a complicated matter – every site is acted upon by both nature and mankind. In photographing place, we are never just photographing nature. We are photographing culture.

Gerry Badger, in The Genius of Photography, p.154.

The heritage industry tends to rely on a kind of freeze-framing of time in order to present the tourist and visitor with a reordered, partial, tidied-up account of what happened at any particular site. Edgelands ruins contain a collage of time, built up in layers of mould and pigeon shit, in the way a groundsel rises through a crack in a concrete floor open to the elements. They turn space inside out, in the way nature makes itself at home indoors, or in the way fly-tipping gathers at their former loading bays, behind obselete walls. Encountering the decay and abandonment of these places is to be made more aware than ever that we are only passing through; that there is something much bigger than us.

England’s edgelands are the next big thing in photography. After all, photographing gritty urban locations is now likely to lead to arrest on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, and if you photograph rural Britain you are on very well-trodden ground. This is not to say that edgelands are untouched by the lens. Far from it. Great photographers like William Eggleston and Bernd and Hilla Becher have built their careers on these overlooked landscapes. But their edgelands were in the southern states of America, or in Germany. Eggleston’s notion of the ‘democratic’ function of photography, to step aside from received ideas of what is beautiful or romantic, has influenced a generation of art-school trained photographers. But it has sent most of them into the city. … In the early Seventies, [the Bechers’] attention turned to cooling towers, and they printed the images like sheets from an inventory, nine or ten towers to a page. The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long-forgotten gods.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, p.157, 194.

Emerson and the beauty of ‘Marsh Leaves’

Peter Henry Emerson, ‘Rime Crystals’, photogravure, 1895

The beauty of the place was infinite and heartbreaking. Emerson, in love with the landscape, overlooked nothing, from winter’s mists to summer’s fullness. Yet such opulence was beyond the scope of photography and, eventually realizing this, Emerson had to content himself with exquisite miniature pictures of frozen earth, mists and far horizons – winter landscape, which suited photography’s monochromatic limitations. His last illustrated book, ‘Marsh Leaves’ (1895), contains sixteen of photography’s most reticent pictures, tiny photo-etchings of a remote grey world punctuated by thorn trees and wasted reeds. These resemble nothing so much as souvenirs, fragile mementos impressed on paper.

To do full justice to such opulence and variety as he found in the Norfolk Broads Emerson had to rely on words, which eventually made up for everything the camera had promised and failed to deliver. Emerson was no ordinary writer, although he could be longwinded and apocalyptic when goaded by modern enormities. Guided by naturalistic precepts he wrote, when in control of himself, as a recorder, describing landscape and transcribing local speech. … At other times his reporting is anything but objective. He felt acutely for landcape as a living thing, stirred by the springtime, purified by fire, flayed by the wind, smothered and killed by winter. Some of his descriptions of this animated world read like word pictures of agile expressionist landscapes. Naturalist objectivity was at odds with a powerful subjective sense likely to dramatize anything which came its way. Why, in this case, did Emerson trouble to photograph at all? Because the camera, with its sparing depictions, placed some control on an imagination which threatened to run wild.

Ian Jeffrey in ‘Photography: A Concise History’, T & H, 1989, p.69, 70.
In memory of being overwhelmed by Emerson’s pictures at the Musée d’Orsay, August 2010.