“Directions: Tacita Dean”

Should every picture tell a story? In cinema’s initial phase, it was enough to display everyday life in motion: The Lumière brothers’ first film simply showed workers leaving a factory. Semilinear filmmaker Peter Greenaway argues that early cinema was soon corrupted by theater and remains in thrall to Victorian notions of proper storytelling. Only a relative few directors have challenged the movie biz’s narrative conventions, notably Andy Warhol, who made such more or less self-explanatory films as Kiss, Sleep, Eat, Haircut, and Empire—a seemingly endless gaze at the Empire State Building.

Tacita Dean’s Fernsehturm has a few things in common with Empire. Both enlist architectural landmarks, long takes, and shifting light. Dean’s title subject is a 1,200-foot-high television tower in what used to be East Berlin, and the film was shot between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., as the sky changed from blue to red to black. Where Warhol just stares, however, Dean plays circle games. Fernsehturm runs 44 minutes, the time it takes for the tower’s rotating tiptop restaurant to make a complete revolution. And the 2001 film—like the artist’s 1996 14-minute Disappearance at Sea, which unspools in the adjacent gallery—is a continuous loop, going around and around as long as the Hirshhorn is open.

Some curators and critics have connected Dean, a 30-something Briton, to the sort of landscape painters her country produced in the 19th century. After all, she’s interested in horizons, open spaces, and the quality of light. At least one of her pieces—the 63-minute Banewl, which documents a solar eclipse as seen in Cornwall—features cows. And although Dean doesn’t employ paints and brushes, she is something of an antiquarian: She works in 16 mm CinemaScope, forgoing chilly, intangible video for the warmth and physicality of film.

Fernsehturm and Disappearance at Sea are linked only loosely to Turner and Constable, however. Despite their representational aspects, it’s easy to see the two films as being principally about themselves. Like abstract expressionism, which employed pigment and canvas to express pigment and canvas, Dean’s work uses light and cycles to manifest light and cycles. Disappearance at Sea, for example, offers close-ups of a Scottish lighthouse’s pulsing lamp, a coastal cousin of a movie projector’s beam. It’s almost as if Warhol had made a film titled Film, which documented only the flickering light of a projector.

Dean cites as an influence not Warhol, however, but Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who has a Warholian interest in contemplative long takes yet fills her fidget-inducing static shots and slow pans with all kinds of content. (She’s even made musicals and romantic comedies.) Like Akerman’s, Dean’s films move far too slowly for attention spans attuned to quick cuts and frequent reaction shots, but they’re less monomaniacal than Warhol’s early cinematic work. The Dean films being shown at the Hirshhorn are not simple stares; they use multiple (albeit fixed) camera placements and are edited both to present these various vantage points and to compress the passage of time.

A year after Disappearance at Sea, Dean made another film involving a Berwick-upon-Tweed lighthouse. In this second project, the view is not of the light but from it—showing the viewer a roundabout vista of land and sea from the lamp’s vantage point. Dean does something similar with Fernsehturm, which depicts Berlin from several spots within the revolving eatery. This time, though, the sky, light, and landscape are mere backdrop; in the foreground are waiters, diners, and—eventually—a keyboardist who plays easy-listening hits plucked from a cultural time capsule for a clientele of silver-haired Osties. (Dean says the restaurant draws few customers from the population that lived on the western side of the Wall in the ’60s, when the tower was built.) Still, the content exemplifies the form: The three fixed-position cameras and rotating restaurant platform mirror Dean’s interest in stasis and circular movement, progress, and eternity. And the purr of the projector melds with the soundtrack’s ambient chatter, making the sound of reproduction as conspicuous as the sounds being reproduced.

Of the two films, Fernsehturm seems to have more of a narrative. Time passes, people come and go, and the mood changes. There’s even a comic moment—an incongruous version of “The Girl From Ipanema”—and a modest denouement: The sun vanishes, the overhead lights come on, everyone leaves, and waitresses clear the tables. In his catalog essay, curator Kerry Brougher goes further—much further. He links the film to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of it). If you didn’t know that the TV tower rises above Alexanderplatz, however, you might guess that the revolving restaurant overlooks, say, Indianapolis.

Brougher may be overreaching, but it turns out that Dean does think her films tell stories. She titled her lighthouse loop Disappearance at Sea to evoke the story of Donald Crowhurst, a solo sailor who became lost during a round-the-world race that began in 1968. Crowhurst radioed his coordinates, indicating that he was in the lead when, in fact, he had lost his way, both literally and psychologically. His boat was found, but he was never seen again and is presumed to have committed suicide. Dean has written that Crowhurst suffered from “time-madness,” and the film’s cycling light represents both the sailor’s view of safety from the sea, where “he believed he was floating through prehistory,” and “the anguished face of Donald Crowhurst.”

Yeah, well. Disappearance at Sea has nothing more to say about Crowhurst than Fernsehturm does about the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Those viewers who’ve never seen a deliberately slow film may be driven batty by Dean’s movies, but her work is far too methodical to evoke “time-madness” or any other form of derangement. The mystic Sufi dancers known as whirling dervishes spin to reach states of enlightenment beyond reason, but sitting in the dark and watching one of Dean’s films is not so intensely roundabout an experience. Indeed, she undercuts her work’s mesmeric potential by cutting, alternating between viewpoint and counterpoint. Postmodern and conceptual as they are, Fernsehturm and Disappearance at Sea have a modest impact. Maybe they really are more Constable than Warhol. CP