INTERVIEW: The young woman and the sea

Artist Tacita Dean prefers the solitude of the sea to the London art scene. Jenny Turner finds out why
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I'd have to act fast, the press office at the Tate Gallery told me, if I wanted to interview Tacita Dean. First, she was off "to the Caribbean". Then she'd be working "in America". She'd only be at home in London for a few days in between. I met her at her studio - she rents space in the extremely hip Delfina studio and gallery complex in Bermondsey, south- east London - one afternoon in late September. She was tired and stressed- looking, but good to listen to. She has the most beautiful speaking voice: clear as water, diamond-precise, and with the merest rustle on every "t" and "s".

Tacita Dean is a 33-year-old British artist. She's one of four on this year's Turner Prize shortlist, along with Chris Ofili, Sam Taylor-Wood and Cathy de Monchaux, currently on show at the Tate. The pounds 20,000 annual prize, announced on 1 December, is awarded to a British artist under 50 on the strength of their work exhibited over the past year. Dean's work includes 16mm films, a selection of essays and anecdotal texts, and gigantic blackboard drawings. In her studio she has a stack of these boards, bubble- wrapped and leaning against one wall, as well as industrial shelving full of film canisters, and a pile of books. She talks to me from the depths of a huge old armchair: she's small and fragile-looking, with spiky, short dark hair and darting, big dark eyes.

"I went to the Caribbean," she explains, "specifically to photograph a boat ... You go to places, and you want to make something as a result of that, and it's a pressure the whole time ... I was on Cayman Brac which, conceivably, is a holiday destination. But it was raining all the time, and all I could think about was photographing this boat." She opens a binder and draws out sheet after sheet of contact prints, all of them showing a small beaten-up boat, of a relatively modern trimaran design. There's something forensic about all these pictures, as if Dean were a police photographer and the boat the scene of some terrible crime.

The reason for taking all these pictures, for her National Maritime exhibition in the spring, has its origins in one of her pieces at the Tate, Disappearance at Sea, first shown in 1996. Disappearance at Sea is a short 16mm film, shot in wide-screen Cinemascope, of the turning mirrors, prisms and filaments of the lighthouse lamp at St Abb's Head, and the lighthouse seen from offshore at night as it illuminates the sea. "Looming in the window," Dean has written in one of her accompanying essays, "you can just make out the anguished face of Donald Crowhurst. Like the man in the moon, he becomes the light of the lighthouse, his gaze fixed eternally on the horizon as he looks out to sea ... "

Donald Crowhurst was the amateur sailor who joined the 1968 Golden Globe round-the-world boat race at the last minute. He got as far as the Atlantic Ocean before he realised he would never make it through the Roaring Forties: so he deliberately broke off radio contact and started faking his route around the world. In June 1969 he resumed radio contact, and appeared to be winning. "But by then he was suffering from time-madness", Dean says, "which is what sailors get, because you can't locate yourself any more on the surface of the world ... " Crowhurst jumped overboard, clutching his chronometer, and was never seen again. Crowhurst's story, as told in the book by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall (1995), is the source behind the space-time continuum of Dean's film. And it was Crowhurst's abandoned vessel, the Teignmouth Electron, that Dean travelled to the Cayman Islands to see.

Dean's art is narrative more than sensual. But the spirit of her work does not reside in any of these artefacts, or even in all of them taken as a group. The spirit of the work resides most fully in the shapes these things carve in the viewer's imagination; the stories, memories and concepts they inspire.

"I've never studied film; I've always been in the painting department at art school," Dean muses. "But I've never been able to make a singular image. I was always making images in serial, right from my first term." This is not to say that her work is exactly about telling stories. The visual sequences from which Dean composes her movies are pretty minimal: such as the lighthouse lamp in Disappearance at Sea, and the women bathing in the Budapest mineral baths in her film Gellert, also at the Tate.

Dean's art also lies within that central modernist tradition of telling stories while being sceptical about them: a tradition the British mainstream has often found difficult to grasp. One of Dean's early films, The Martyrdom of St Agatha, has a voice-over like a documentary: "There are three known pairs of breasts belonging to St Agatha recorded in the Book of Relics ... "

For Girl Stowaway (1994), based on the story of a young woman who stole a journey from Australia to England in the late 1920s, Dean faked the rough, Flaherty-like footage of Miss Jean Jeinnie moving laboriously around the deck of the boat, the Herzogin Cecilie. The film goes on into the present day, as Dean visits the site of the ship's wreck, and it becomes a true-life love story and murder mystery in her essay of the same name.

Dean refuses to say what her mother and father do or did for a living. It's "too embarrassing", and would "typecast" her, apparently. But she would say it was "nothing in the least bit artistic". She doesn't know why they called her Tacita, but her sister is called Antigone and her brother is called Ptolemy: "That's right, Ptolemy with a P." I wondered later if she had been pulling my leg here, but it's nice to think about, so let us let it stand. Her grandfather, she said, was Basil Dean, the British director of early talking pictures starring George Formby and Gracie Fields. She grew up in Canterbury, then studied painting at Falmouth before doing a post-graduate course at the Slade in London. She can think of no especially biographical reason for her interest in the sea.

From the outside, it sounds fun and easy to make work of the sort that Dean does. You get grants, you visit places, you make short films and write essays about whatever it is you've seen. But it clearly isn't like that for the artist. It's laborious and painful and exacting, and it's all part of something enormous, the end of which she struggles and, she says, fails quite to see. It is perhaps - as the title of one of her short films puts it - a "voyage de guerison", a voyage of healing, and this seems to be why she persists in doing her blackboard drawings as well as making films. They're done fast, chalk on blackboard, and they aren't sprayed with fixative. The figures in them - a ship, a sailor - are sketched, with written directions, like on a storyboard for a film. They are cartoons, in the original sense of that word, struggling for animation, in the original sense of that word too.

"In a sense, they're quite close to performance", Dean says. "They're very, very physically active. I have to go to extremes to make them ... I find them very difficult to do, physically. They're huge, eight foot by eight foot, and in America I had to do a board a day, seven boards in seven days. If you imagine covering that in a day, it's a hell of a lot. I don't know what I'm going to do before I start them, they're not predetermined at all. They're actually really strangely improvised: that's why they're a bit weird ... "

Dean's life and work has very little in common with that of Sam Taylor- Wood, her mediatic cohort on the Turner shortlist. She doesn't hang out at the Groucho Club. She doesn't turn up on the social pages of glossy magazines. She isn't married to Jay Jopling, the dealer who has been instrumental in promoting YBA artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and his own wife, Taylor-Wood. Dean is a quieter soul, and her work is more reflective: a tussle with nature, mortality and the limits of the questing mind that needs peace and quiet, a cagoule and a pair of decent walking shoes to make it happen, rather than vodka and hot parties.

"Painting in my garret in Paris - that was my mother's idea of what an artist was, so that was my junior understanding too. But actually, the reality is quite disappointing ... Just dealing with things, dealing with requests, dealing with people - all of which is of course a sign of doing quite well ..." I asked her if her accounts were going to hit the Inland Revenue deadline for self-assessment. She did a grimace which became a tired smile. "Sometimes," Dean goes on, "I almost envy people coming out of offices and knowing it's the end of their day. I don't even have a start and an end; I don't have free time. Like being in the Caribbean and not being able to think about anything but taking photographs ... " She laughs. "But of course it's also a great enabler. I am a person who dictates what I am doing with my own time."

'Turner Prize', Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 10 January

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