Disappearance at Sea by Tacita Dean
NMM has been commissioning contemporary art since 1999. Our New Visions programme was initiated to celebrate the launch of Neptune Court, a major architectural project crowned by the Upper Deck, a mezzanine gallery covered by an impressive glass roof. Running around the edge of this space is a handrail and, if you look carefully, the trace of one of our earliest artist commissions can be seen and felt. Carved into the wooden rail are the words 'it is the mercy' - a statement forming part of Tacita Dean's series of artworks Disappearance at Sea.
A number of references weave their way through Dean's project as she explores the ways in which we develop fictions to fill spaces when objects, reference points and even people disappear. 'It is the mercy' directly refers to the story of Donald Crowhurst. An amateur sailor, Crowhurst attempted to solo circumnavigate the globe in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe around the world yacht race in the 41-foot trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. At the time the vessel was untested for such a journey and Crowhurst planned to develop innovative additional safety equipment. As he rushed to leave from Teignmouth in Devon on the last permissible day for the race, his inventions were still incomplete and he intended to finish them on the journey. A businessman, Crowhurst had everything to lose by entering the race - not only were all of his funds invested in the project, but he also hoped that his safety innovations would bring his future success.
Right from the start his radio reports of his position were ambiguous. Over the next few months his readings placed him at the front of the race. In July 1969 he broke off radio contact and disappeared. Two weeks later his boat was found. His log books showed complex fictions of his own journey that eventually reached the point where Crowhurst himself could not untangle his own fiction from fact. Alongside these entries were ruminations on the fate of man, with his final entry stating: 'It is the mercy'.
This ambiguous statement refers not only to the poignant tale of Crowhurst, but also to the power of the sea itself. Methods of predicting the sea's unpredictability have fuelled the development of navigational aides, from the invention of longitude to GPS systems, while the failures to tame the sea fill literature. The incredible power of this simple evocation by Dean lies in its call for us to engage with the sea as a space that stretches far beyond our control, knowledge and imagination.