The Beginning of The End

The Beginning of the End, Beaconsfield, London, 24 Nov 2010 – 27 Feb 2011

The texts below are reprinted with permission – all rights reserved


Naomi Siderfin, ‘Mark Dean: The Beginning of the End?’, catalogue essay, 2010

The development of this solo exhibition has been the locus for the play of tension between two callings. Is this The Beginning of the End or, as per Churchill, The End of the Beginning?

Ideally, Mark Dean wouldn’t make art. He likens it to taking a pill for a headache – practicing art as a way of connecting to the world, because separated. He uses video because this has been the platform on which he has been able to successfully combine various skills and preoccupations to develop his ideas. The materiality of the video image and of the way it needs to be shown is what excites the artist. And it is his intimacy with the medium coupled with the content-driven reality of the work that makes Dean a key contemporary British practitioner of video art.

The artist’s journey with video began at Brighton Polytechnic in the late 70’s when he experimented within the painting department to make a didactic work called Artists’ Video – a piece that reflected on the materiality of the art-making process, a video intended to be watched by artists. Selecting a 10-minute film in the video library which documented the making of handmade paper, the clip is repeated six times, to make a work with the duration of an hour – the exact length of a U-matic tape, and long enough to become as tedious as the artisanal process of making paper for artists. This earliest video set the pattern for a body of work that only started to emerge a decade and a half later.

Dean draws a veil over his experience of the 80’s, referring to a post-punk wilderness. During this time he played saxophone and electronics in various bands, on one occasion supporting The Clash. He specialised in producing thematic mix-tapes, which were often used as a prelude to live gigs. Towards the end of the decade, as he began to recover from his former habits, Dean started taking photographs again. (An earlier attempt at straightening out his life as a teenager led him to become a self-taught photographer who often stayed up all night in the dark room.) But according to the artist, there was always something wrong with the photographs, and he was never good enough at the music.

Montage provided an answer. Dean attests that the first time he was ever happy with his own artwork was when he combined photography and music in Love Love Love in 1992, the making of which kick-started the next phase of his development as an artist.

Made during intensive therapy with a borrowed camera, and crash-edited as a portfolio piece in the application process for a Masters degree, Love Love Love re-edited grainy home movie footage of (his) family life in the 60s with repeated incidences of the sung word “Love” spliced from Pop songs and processed with Dean’s electronic music equipment. With this work everything came together. Exhibited in the Riverside Open, 1992, Love Love Love caught the attention of the influential art critic Stuart Morgan. It was Morgan who wrote the reference for Dean’s application for the MA at Goldsmiths College, attended between 1992-94. Dean’s first MA seminar was held in the artist-led gallery City Racing, where his work was being exhibited, while Love Love Love became a prizewinner in New Contemporaries, 1993.

Dean identifies some other key inspirational figures in this phase of his life. One was Tracey Emin, whom he met (pre-fame) when they worked together on an art project for Southwark Youth Service, and who convinced him to keep making art. She introduced him to John Burgess, who had seen Love Love Love at the Riverside; he invited Dean to exhibit at City Racing in1992, where he later exhibited solo in 1995. Another key figure was a charismatic Anglican priest, Martin Israel, who made radical connections between questions of corporeality and the spiritual – and in 1995 Dean was confirmed as a Christian. Works made at this time explore fear and its antidote – hope: Nothing To Fear (The American Friend +-12), 1995, Nothing To Worry About (Easy Rider/Frenzy -3), 1995, What Kind Of Fear? (Alice in den Städten x 4), 1995.

Mark Dean’s earliest works are essentially autobiographical. Mediated through appropriation and mechanical process, many of these revisit the site of trauma through the selection of iconic moments of cinema, juxtaposed with sampled pop lyrics. All Dean’s earlier work is characterised by a process of noticing the essential moment at which fundamental human experience is amplified in popular culture; lacerating that moment from its context and then meticulously and mechanistically re-rendering the incident and re-presenting it to us, as if under a magnifying glass. He is able to speak to us about our human potential for depravity and rejection and in the same few minutes, offer a glimmer of hope – Tippi Hedren gradually opens her eyes in Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32 + 1), 1997, while the incantation of the Apostles’ Creed survives the horrific soundtrack of a rape and murder in Nothing to Worry About (Easy Rider/Frenzy -6). For Dean the reality of hope is very different from the glibness of nihilism, theorising no hope.

Dean’s work was first brought to the attention of an international audience in Black Box Recorder, a British Council show that opened in Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2000, touring to 2003, which included other British video artists who worked with appropriated cinematic material, thus enabling a distinction to be drawn between their various approaches. As Ian Hunt wrote in Art Monthly, ‘It is not preference for the underdog that leads so many people in conversation to compare Dean favourably with Douglas Gordon, but a recognition of the qualities of care in the realisation of the work and its very different way with feeling.’

The dark works of this period often repeat a fragment of film lasting a few seconds. Dean has also explored his preoccupation with death and redemption by going to the opposite extreme with the movies. Responding to a Beaconsfield brief (Instantaneous, a project exploring the indefinable moment of connection that is striven for in the experience of live performance) Dean inverted his habit of clipping extracts from mainstream film. Using the full-length feature The Picture of Dorian Gray, in its entirety, he reversed in it a cameo-shaped insert, so that the forward and reverse time frames coincide for an instant at the mid-point: Picture In Picture (TyhaerPGincatiurroeDoffoDeorruitacniGPreahyT), 1998. This led to two other feature-length works first screened during the same exhibition – Jane/Fonda (Barbarella/Klute) and Scorpio Rising 2 (The Gospel according to Matthew/Hells Angels on Wheels) – which used a split-screen to investigate the production of meaning through the simultaneous viewing of two films.

Dean explains: “Scorpio Rising 2 was an explicit attempt to imagine a religious work, but by eschewing editing (beyond the split-screen) I left the interpretation of my material to the viewer. However, this is a hermeneutic that remains committed to its subject matter (as registered by the lower half of Pasolini’s movie, which proclaims the gospel in subtitle form).”

At this time, Dean was holding considerable responsibility at Southwark Youth Service, managing a project for young people with learning disabilities in Peckham, where he set up an alternative art school called The Untitled Art Project. But he had reached the inevitable crossroads for artists in survival jobs, and decided to leave after his daughter was born. Working freelance, he developed a gallery education programme at the South London Gallery (including an Art & Spirituality event featuring Faisal Abdu’allah and Tacita Dean) and within a year was offered teaching at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford University.

A series of slow, silent works moved Dean’s work into a less visceral and more contemplative space, closer to the form of a traditional painting. Of these, the 8-hour When I Was A Child (I Was ƒucked By Someone I Didn’t Know – Nothing Was Ever The Same. Now I Fear The Same Thing Will Happen To My Child; Sometimes I Fear I Will Do It Myself), 2000, provides a key to the content of Dean’s work. When you’ve seen this work, the rest falls into place – the survivor who’s lived to tell the tale, with the artist’s ability to place his finger in the human wound and provide cathartic experiences.

This work, although literally a self-portrait, effectively puts the artist behind the camera and opens up a new objectivity. This outward focus was initially embarked upon in more sophisticated appropriation works, such as The Return of Jackie & Judy (+ Joey) 2001, where ‘issues of the passing of time and meaning’ are registered in less autobiographical terms and developed in later works filmed by Dean, such as the series, The Band. These were studies of musicians from his past interacting with Dean’s remixes of their early recordings – other survivors, living creative lives, mediated by their past, but not determined by it.

The glimmer of hope brightens and burns longer. Works made between 2007 and 2009 grapple with the conflicts of theology and aesthetics, arising while he was studying Contextual Theology as part of his training for ordination in the Church of England. In Darker Block (1 Thess 5:1-11), 2007, a radio debate on religion is literally eclipsed by a reggae soundtrack, which is in turn illuminated by a strobing text from the New Testament. In Experimental Religion (#1), performed at Beaconsfield in 20085) an audio recording of Gladys Aylward preaching is mixed live with an animated image of Ingrid Bergman playing Aylward in a Hollywood biopic.

The artist has spoken of his anxiety about a loss of emotional precision once the work ceases to be based in autobiography. These fears are allayed, in this writers view, by a piece such as How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (1 Cor. 11.23-26), 20096. The observational footage taken in a graveyard is specific yet incidental, the signature use of a pop song (the Reverend Al Green’s soul version rather than the Bee Gees original) is treated with generosity, the reflective echo insistent and mirrored in the video, but, un-characteristically, preserving the entire song. This is an altogether more positive view of the human condition.

Dean’s relationship with Beaconsfield began in 1997 in conversations with David Crawforth that led to Picture in Picture and he has responded to Beaconsfield briefs on several occasions since then. In 2005 he produced three large scale projections to kick-off a fifteen-week sequential exhibition of artists films: Police & Thieves (Version), Rag Doll (Version) and Crimson & Clover (Version), so The Beginning of The End is not the first time this artist has exhibited across the Beaconsfield site. The solo focus of the current exhibition is a mid-career reflection upon all aspects of the journey within Mark Dean’s oeuvre. Four new works create a loose narrative through the conditions of their installation. Biblical themes of apocalypse, purgatory and ascension are implied by the juxtaposition of seminal snapshots of contemporary culture – weapons of mass destruction, class A narcotics, celebrity and Hollywood.

Love Missile (7″ vs 12″), 2010, combines the various mediums which Dean might typically montage in a live mix: two versions of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s electro-punk debut single, played asynchronously, a series of modified still photographs of Cruise missiles in flight and projected video footage of an ambiguous figure at dusk. Christian Disco (Terminator), 2010, borrows and modifies three seconds from the film The Terminator: a dance tableaux in perpetual motion, mediated by two looped audio recordings (“Here ends the first/second lesson”) taken from the ends of Bible readings on Holocaust Memorial Day. These complementary large scale works are informed by foyer works: Open Your Eyes (Syd/Vicious) montages an edit of the Syd Barrett song Two of a Kind with a documentary image of the Sex Pistols protagonist, Sid Vicious, barely moving, apparently in a liminal space between life and death, while the theme of flawed mortality is picked up in the audio piece, The Men Who Fell To Earth, at the exhibition’s entrance.

The Beginning of The End is the second in the Beaconsfield exhibition series Phase which proposes an archival element to the project. Retrospective Jukebox 1992-2010 allows the visitor to dig into Dean’s archive of single screen works, offering a chance to reflect on the achievements of this body of work – both aesthetic and philosophical.

Mark Dean received a Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists in 2009 and in July 2010 was ordained in the Church of England. Dean has said that, for him, the conflict between art and religion is not one of competing belief systems, but rather of different languages. He states: ‘I am interested in the relation of contemporary art and religion, but do not recognise any shared language with which to discuss this – at least, not at the level that either discipline requires. I might be wrong, of course. In any case, my work is driven by this question.’ He has also said that, contra the Modernist axiom, art is not the new religion, religion is (or should be) the new religion. Contemporary art dogma often posits a world where meaning is constructed in an absence of truth. In rejecting this view, one suspects that, as an academic, Dean is swimming against the tide (he teaches Fine Art at his alma mater, Goldsmiths College).

This oppositional position is reminiscent of the historical position of video art, when the discipline originally developed in the ‘third area’ – the dumping ground for performance and new media which were, almost by default, politicised. If there were no longer a language to enable a conversation between art and religion, this particular artist would seem to be presented with a dilemma. But despite Dean’s doubts about their relation, the demands of religion may not be so distant from the demands of art. Christianity is, after all, a religion of representation, full of symbol and metaphor. Conversely, artists, like Joseph Beuys, have often aspired to priesthood as a social function.

Artists make art because they believe in it – as an act of faith and because something experientially special happens in the presence of art, for those who are receptive – and after all, when did Cultural Theory ever mend a broken heart?


Rachel Withers, ‘Mark Dean, Beaconsfield’, Artforum, April 2011 

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 (in fact, it shows a streetlight reflected on water). Two smaller monitors screen vinyl-recordshaped 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 cross-gender identification.


Eliza Williams, ‘Mark Dean: The Beginning of The End’, Art Monthly no 343, February 2011

Beaconsfield’s dank, voluminous lower gallery space, housed beneath a railway arch, provides the perfect setting for Christian Disco (Terminator), 2010, a new video installation by Mark Dean. The film takes a tiny, fairly innocuous section from the 1984 blockbuster movie Terminator and repositions it as a scene imbued with apocalyptic fervour. It is not a recognisable moment from the film – Arnie’s relentless cyborg is nowhere to be seen – but instead a largely forgettable three-second clip showing a group of men and women dancing. Dean has drenched the figures in intense reds and blues – suggestive of psychedelia as well as modern surveillance techniques such as infrared imaging – and configured the clip to endlessly repeat. It is set to a soundtrack that mixes a section of the original Terminator score, which builds to a crushing crescendo, with two looped audio recordings snipped from the end of Bible readings on Holocaust Memorial Day. The piece is filled with a terrible foreboding, enhanced by the musty atmosphere, yet is utterly compelling.

A companion piece can be found in the upstairs space. Love Missile (7” vs 12”), 2010, combines a central film of a man silhouetted in late-afternoon sunlight with still photographs of Cruise missiles in flight, displayed on small monitors. Dean has modified these photos so the rockets appear like tiny crosses being launched into the bright blue skies. The missile theme is then picked up in the work’s soundtrack which, as its title suggests, is a mix of two versions of new-wave band Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s first single.

The exuberant music is at odds with the transcendent imagery of the central figure, giving the work a wittiness that undercuts its spiritual overtones. This playful mixing of seemingly contradictory emotions is a recurring theme in Dean’s work. It can be seen in his first successful video piece, which is also on show at Beaconsfield as part of an archive of 36 earlier single-screen works by the artist, available for visitors to browse through in the gallery’s café. Love Love Love, 1992, launched Dean’s career after it was exhibited in the Riverside Open in 1992, and went on to be featured in the New Contemporaries exhibition of 1993. The film combines home movie footage of Dean’s own childhood with occasional musical blasts of the word ‘love’. The different iterations of the word have been purloined by Dean from pop songs, though they sound eerie and strange away from their original context.

Love Love Love is an early demonstration of Dean’s knack of appropriating existing imagery and blending it with unexpected music or other film footage to create new works entirely separate from the origins of their component parts. These pieces are far removed from the largely humour-based mash-ups of film imagery that litter the internet, and are different too from the works of Douglas Gordon and Christian Marclay, who are also renowned for their manipulation of found imagery. The history and narratives of the original works form layers within Dean’s art pieces, but then take on a new significance or energy that is often personal to the artist.

The effect can be seen in another new piece at Beaconsfield, which combines footage of Sid Vicious with a soundtrack by Syd Barrett. Vicious is sitting slumped with his eyes closed while Barrett sings the song Two of a Kind, which features the refrain ‘open your eyes and don’t be blind, can’t you see we’re two of a kind’. The light, hopeful tone of the song is diminished by knowledge of the musicians’ tragic outcomes and the work seems a counterpoint to an earlier piece by Dean, which features footage of Tippi Hedren returning to consciousness in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds while being serenaded by 1960’s band the Byrds.

Dean was recently ordained as a Church of England minister, and religious imagery and ideas have run through his work since the mid 1990’s. As Dan Graham observed in his film work Rock My Religion, 1982-82, the urgency of religious feeling can often be found in music, or in art, and it is tempting to assume that Dean sees a unity between his religion and his art. In the exhibition notes, though, Dean explicitly rejects this, stating that, for him, religion and contemporary art adopt different languages. And it indeed seems uncomfortable to describe his work as ‘religious art’, for while the theme is certainly present, it isn’t overwhelming or in any way evangelical. Instead, religion seems but one aspect of Dean’s work, albeit a dominant one, and part of a larger philosophical exploration that also draws fragments from music and film in the creation of ambiguous, poetic works.

Eliza Williams is a writer and critic based in London