Disappearance at Sea 1996 is a 16 mm colour film with sound shot on location at the lighthouse on St Abb’s Head in Berwick-upon-Tweed in northern England. Shown on a loop, the fourteen-minute film consists of seven lengthy shots captured by a static camera that alternate between close-ups of the rotating lighthouse bulbs and footage looking out to sea. As the film progresses the scene changes from dusk to nightfall, with the colour of the sky shifting through a range of yellows, reds and purples. The soundtrack features the noise of seagulls, waves and the wind, as well as the rhythmic mechanical movements of the lighthouse machinery. The film ends with a shot of lighthouse beams panning the darkened coastline as the seagulls’ cries reach a crescendo. It is displayed in a dedicated darkened room with benched seating, grey walls and a light-lock entrance. In this room, the film is projected onto a thin white wooden screen hanging on the gallery wall at a frame size of approximately 2800 mm by 1050 mm. Sound is provided through two speakers located in the corners of the same wall on which the screen hangs. The film was inspired by the story of Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969), a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while attempting a voyage around the world during which he falsified his progress. In 1997 Dean explained how she has interpreted Crowhurst’s expedition:
His story is about human failing; about pitching his sanity against the sea; where there is no human presence or support system left on which to hang a tortured psychological state. His was a world of acute solitude, filled with the ramblings of a troubled mind.
(Quoted in Frith Street Gallery 1997, p.17.)
The ‘disappearance’ referred to in the work’s title can be seen as an allusion both to Crowhurst’s death and to the sunset and eventual darkness the film depicts. Furthermore, the feelings of temporal disorientation Dean creates – the passage of time covered in the film does not correspond with real time – may be linked to Crowhurst’s own confusion at sea. In 2001 the curator Clarrie Wallis suggested that Dean’s fascination with the sea ‘can be traced back to eighteenth-century notions of the sublime, where elemental forces were viewed as emblems of turbulent and ungovernable human emotions’ (quoted in Tate Britain 2001, p.9).Disappearance at Sea can be connected to a number of related works completed by Dean in 1995–7, including Disappearance at Sea I–VI 1995, a series of six chalkboards featuring maritime sketches and labels; three postcard works featuring the St Abb’s Head lighthouse and the town in Devon from which Crowhurst set sail on his voyage around the world; the artist’s book Disappearance at Sea 1997; and the four-minute 16 mm colour film Disappearance at Sea II 1997, shot at the Longstone lighthouse in Northumberland, a location famed for the rescue feats performed there in 1838 by Grace Darling, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper.