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Anne Tallentire

By Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith.


Since the late 1980s Anne Tallentire has produced work in a range of media that includes film, performance and Installation.

She has worked as a solo artist and as one half of the collaborative team work-seth/tallentire. Any assessment of the evolution of her practice over these years must acknowledge the concept of 'translation' as a fundamental and unifying concern.

Translation may be defined as the act of removing something from one context and relocating it in another. It is a process largely designed to transcend difference, but one which nonetheless can often result in highlighting it even further. While the most common context in which translation has currency in contemporary life is interlinguistic, earlier meanings relating to the transfer of persons or property from one location to another are also pertinent to Tallentire's oblique explorations of the complex nexus of labour and language, activity and meaning.

Tallentire was born and reared in County Armagh, but is a long-time resident of London. As a result she is naturally attentive to the sociopolitical significance of borders, and to the symbolic potential inherent in the act of delineating or erasing visual markers of territorial separation.

Much of Tallentire's work in the late 80s and early 90s was born of a fascination with inscription and mark-making, on the one hand, and with the mechanics and metaphoric import of physical displacement, on the other. This is particularly evident in a signal early work, The Gap of Two Birds, a Super-8 film first shown as part of a performance/installation at The Showroom, London, in 1988. The title of this piece is derived from a rough translation of a Gaelic placename.

The installation featured four medium-sized sheets of rectangular glass placed some distance apart on the gallery floor, on each of which was printed one of two words, 'North' or 'South'. The action performed over five hours consisted in laying sheets of white paper over the glass, making various markings on them in charcoal, then distributing these sheets among gallery visitors or hanging them on lead hooks along a gallery wall.

Four grainy black-and-white photographic images were also laid on the glass depicting what the discerning eye might just about recognise as a holiday camp, a church, a mill wheel, and a collection of keys. This imagery was at once sufficiently generic to be vaguely familiar to most metropolitan gallery-goers, and sufficiently specific to invoke the fiercely contested landscape of Tallentire's native Northern Ireland.

Throughout the duration of the performance and subsequent installation a video monitor placed on the floor played a six-minute, black-and-white film, shot by the artist with a hand-held camera, in which she hesitantly negotiated a rough, mountainous landscape. This deliberately degraded film begins with a close-up of an open hand, which then makes several vain attempts to grab water from a pool. The camera proceeds to track the artist's faltering steps as she traces a path through rocky terrain, intermittently offering a view of the middle distance in which mountain peaks recede into the mist.

The film ends with a tantalizingly brief close-up of the artist's face as she quickly turns her head toward the viewer, whose gaze glances off the forehead and right eye of a face lightly whipped by wind-blown wisps of hair. This posed but elusive romantic heroine remains as unknowable as the shrouded landscape. Person and place alike evade the capture of a totalizing vision, with its attendant implications of conquest and colonization. As so often in Tallentire's work, the viewer is left with a memory of glimpses and gaps, of dispersed fragments and unsteady transitions.


Translation is an inevitable aspect of life in the age of postcolonialism and globalization.

The process of translation, however, produces its share of incomplete transactions, failures of communication, false friends, intercultural inequities and untranslatable, culture-specific residue. In a succession of works that simultaneously employ and render problematic certain advances in communications technology, Anne Tallentire has exposed the limitations of that technology and emphasized the fractured and precarious nature of the community or communities it aspires to foster.

Inscribe(1994 and 1995) is a work in two instalments, each of which took place in two different venues in two separate countries simultaneously. For Inscribe I (1994) the artist performed a series of simple, quietly theatrical bodily actions to camera, such as covering her face with her hands for a few minutes, in a BT building in central London. This footage was instantly transmitted via ISDN to an audience in a Telecom éireann building in Dublin's city centre. It was interspersed with other, pre-recorded material: apparently random video footage of a car journey through the City of London, the casual but restless scrutiny of various architectural details and pieces of street furniture. The following year Inscribe II took place in an empty office block in London's Square Mile and at The Orchard Gallery, Derry, situated close by that city's historic walls.

With the aid of ISDN technology, once again, a quasi-ritualistic, durational action - purposive, but seemingly meaningless - was performed in one venue and transmitted to another. On this occasion the artist washed a small section of gallery wall in front of a live audience in Derry, while the assembled viewers in London witnessed the event live on-screen.

Tallentire's stated intent with both of these events, located for the most part in buildings not generally accessible to the public, was ' to perform a space of alienation', but also to involve 'both the artist and the audience in a mutual act of communication and viewing'. In Inscribe II, for example, images of the London audience viewing the screening of the Derry proceedings were transmitted in real-time back to Derry, thereby allowing the audiences in both locations to communicate with each other during the course of the performance.

These exercises in real-time reflexivity in some ways evoke structuralist-materialist film's exploration of the basic mechanics and properties of its specific medium. They also recall minimalism and post-minimalism's concern with the nature of the artwork's formal interpellation of the viewer, certain early works by Dan Graham spring immediately to mind.

Tallentire, however, is at pains to emphasise the specific historical, geographic, cultural and political background of this work. It was produced in the immediate wake of the IRA bomb that devastated the City of London, and at the very beginning of what was to become the Northern Irish Peace Process. 'It's good to talk', jobbing-actor Bob Hoskins jauntily and repeatedly informed millions of viewers in a popular TV ad for BT at the time.

Yet, despite its ostentatious deployment of advanced communication technology, Inscribe seems in retrospect to have been characterised just as memorably by minor technical hitches and inevitable stops and starts. The work was notable for its uneasy perception of the relations between centre and periphery, and for the bemused uncertainty of the sea-divided, mutually estranged community it so briefly and tentatively brought together.


Anne Tallentire's perception of the simultaneous importance and vulnerability of a sense of community in an era of rapid globalization is complemented by her enthusiasm for close artistic collaboration.

Formed in 1997 work-seth/tallentire officially registered a previously informal collaborative practice that had begun in early 1993 as a result of John Seth's and Tallentire's shared interest in exploring questions of history, colonialism, and identity within the particular context of contemporary fine art practice. Tallentire had previously made a collaborative work - Forbidden Heroine (1986) with fellow performance artist Alanna O'Kelly, and River (with Joanna Szarfarz) at The Utska Art Centre in Poland, 1994. However, it was with John Seth that she developed what she describes as 'joint actions'.

Seth and Tallentire developed between them, over a number of years, in works such as trailer (1998), Dispersal (2000), Manifesto (2001) and Spool (2002), an improvisational working process designed to explore what they describe as 'the relationship between live action and the mediated image' through the suggestive juxtaposing and interweaving of actions, objects and imagery.

The self-consciously gapped and fragmentary nature of Tallentire's practice, and the view of the world it offers incrementally to the patient and attentive viewer, highlights the extremely partial ,nature of experience and of vision in general. The forms of attention required of the ideal spectator by most of her films, performances and installations differ considerably from those we generally bring to bear on the more mundane aspects and details of everyday life. This is despite the fact that it is often precisely such generally unconsidered aspects and details that are singled out by her work as worthy of our attention.

Instances (1999), Tallentire's installation at the Nuova Icona Gallery in Venice as Ireland's representative at the 1999 Biennale, comprised a series of films in each of which she performed a particular action. These actions included the artist manipulating a small wooden table made by her grandfather, putting on and taking off a pair of old dress-gloves, or prising open a section of wooden flooring in order to examine what lies beneath. In one film she could be seen carefully laying out an array of burnt sections of wood, while in another she deposited heaps of broken glass on the floor and then spread it out with her black-booted feet.

The film projection Instances/dawn, was shot from a fixed position offering a view of a section of gritty London landscape dominated by a lone tower block. Filmed as dawn breaks over the city, it presents us with just over a half an hour of epic mundanity during which nothing much happens: a nearby fence swims slowly into focus; an apartment light blinks on half-way through; the sound of bird-song is heard, as well as the occasional thrum of early-morning traffic in the distance.

A certain fascination with that indeterminate, liminal time when night shades into day is also evident in Company (2004), a film in which the camera strains to focus on two indistinct figures at the sea's edge, somewhere along the Suffolk coast. Their movements, which oscillate between the inexplicable and the commonplace, are punctuated by the flaring of one figure's hand-held tilly-lamp and what may or may not be the flash of a cigarette-lighter. While the work's title is, tellingly, borrowed from Samuel Beckett, the scene depicted also dimly recalls W.B.Yeats's idealized icon of traditional labour in 'The Fisherman': 'a man who does not exist/A man who is but a dream'. Company both extends the investigation of seemingly purposeless labour of Instances and anticipates a more recent series of films featuring the figure of the inner-city worker.


'The ordinary practitioners of the city live below the threshold at which visibility begins. They are walkers whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read it.' - Michel de Certeau

If some of Anne Tallentire's works invoke a fragile sense of community, others focus on the relatively isolated figures that move imperceptibly through our civic spaces, variously attending to society's needs, great and small. Her most recent body of work, collectively titled Driftworks (2002-) are slow-motion, silent meditations on the unregarded drift and flow of human life and labour. More specifically, these works concentrate on the figure of the lone downtown worker whose generally thankless job it is to maintain the material fabric of the deep-city environment. These videos may be combined and arranged in various configurations depending on the exigencies of the specific exhibition context.

The intensity of concentration with which these anonymous workers pursue their tasks is in stark contrast to their routine and putatively menial nature. A well-equipped window-cleaner hanging in a safety harness, with his back to the viewer, works his way methodically across the glass-fronted façade of an office-block. An industrial-sized sweeping brush ploughs with improbable grace through the dirty sludge of a waterclogged pond , propelled by workers whose Wellington boots are all we see of them. A bright yellow stop sign is carefully painted on a tarmacadam road by a roadworker who is similarly invisible from the knees up. A shadowy, faceless worker is filmed performing some inscrutable task in the sickly green glow of ambient street lighting.

The more obvious autobiographical implications of Tallentire's earlier work may have receded since her decision in 1999 to remove herself physically from the arena of performance. Yet her critique of the totalising nature of vision, and her interest in the problematic power of communications technology continue to inform these latest works. The terrorist and the illegal immigrant are just two obvious figures whose interest in evading the increasingly pervasive technology of surveillance may be taken to be self-evident. Both categories have been associated with Irishness.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for any individual, community or sub-culture to remain below society's threshold of visibility. Yet the power a given individual or community may exert over the particular ways in which they are rendered visible vary enormously. Questions of visibility and invisibility, of representation and self-representation, remain at the heart of Anne Tallentire's art. Such questions are crucial in a culture ever more willing to condone the invasion of privacy in the name of the public good, and the curtailment of basic human rights for the benefit of national security.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic, occasional curator and Lecturer at University College Dublin.

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