Mark Dean: The Beginning of the End

Artforum, April 2011, p. 226

The phrase “Christian disco” might trigger cringe-making thoughts of buttoned-up adolescent parties monitored by censorious adults and lubricated with fizzy drinks and Cliff Richard hits; but that scenario couldn’t be further from Mark Dean‘s grimly impressive video installation Christian Disco (Terminator), 2010. Crafted from a three-second fragment of the 1984 film The Terminator, it shows a young man and woman dancing in a disco, but, characteristically, Dean’s edit desynchronizes and loops the footage, distorting its colors and corrupting the outlines of the swaying bodies. Luridly hued skeletal afterimages trail behind the dancers, occasionally catching up with them and sketching skulls onto their youthful, unconcerned faces.

The work’s sound track cannibalizes the movie’s theme music with its clanging bells and driving beat, and stitches onto it two voices, one male and one female, recorded from a Holocaust Memorial Day service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. “Here ends the first lesson,” “here ends the second lesson,” they intone somberly, but Dean’s piece offers no lesson. Projected onto a large screen in Beaconsfield’s cavernous brick railway arch, it suggests both a gigantic danse macabre and hallucinatory video decor for a rave whose music plays on but whose celebrants have mysteriously disappeared. Hints of motifs from the Western Christian repertoire – apocalypse scenes or the horror-pornography of vanitas images – are grafted onto contemporary existential and political anxieties: nuclear proliferation, survivalism, or the effects of spectacular, hedonistic-escapist industrialized entertainment (such as the Christian-derived Terminator narratives, or images of present-day clubbing and drug use). The viewer is left in the grip of contradictory urges: to saturate oneself in the hypnotic ambience, and to get the hell out as fast as possible. 

The other large video installation in this survey of two decades of Dean’s work similarly attracts and repels. Love Missile (7″ vs 12″), 2010, features two recordings of manufactured punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s single of the same name (with its calculatedly offensive “shoot it up” refrain), phased so they pass in and out of sync. The audio component accompanies a ten-foot-high video projection of a human silhouette, haloed by a sparkling golden aura suggestive of rock-concert stage lighting or a rocket’s tail (although in fact, it shows a streetlight reflected on water). Two smaller monitors screen vinyl-record shaped images of warships launching cruise missiles (these last are “deleted” with white strips, rendering them crucifixes). On paper, this conflation of rock, religion, warfare, and phallic imagery might sound rote, but the work itself is challenging and ambivalent. The doubled musical track generates slurs and echoes that lend it a peculiar depth. And the projected figure is likewise doubled so that its outlines never coincide. Ultimately, the work seems to embody impossible desires for psychical unity or transcendence – but though it signals the horror that can issue from the playing-out of such desires in real life, it doesn’t trivialize them.

Beaconsfield’s survey – timely, excellently curated by David Crawforth and Naomi Siderfin, and a big achievement for a small nonprofit team – also included a “video jukebox” screening thirty-six of Dean’s videos plus the artist’s written commentary on each. Briefly alluded to is the artist’s childhood experience of rape, a shocking detail that suggests a searing therapeutic dimension in certain works. Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32 +1), 1997, manipulates Hitchcock footage of a bloodied, collapsed Tippi Hedren, shifting her back and forth from wide-eyed dreamy repose to terror as she fights off Hitchcock’s attacking lens. On the sound track a repeated line from a pretty Byrds tune sings of “going back,” a paradoxically soothing reference to, in Dean’s words, “the recovery of traumatic memory.” Hedren becomes a surrogate for the artist in a nuanced and moving moment of crossgender identification.

Mark Dean: The Beginning of the End showed at Beaconsfield, London, UK between November 24 2010 – February 27 2011

Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2011