Tailspin (2008)


English artist Christine Wilks has put together a combination of sounds, text, and visual images (sometimes animated, sometimes static), to tell a story about a girl Karen and her relationship with her father. The father wanted to be a fighter pilot in England during World War 2 when the “Spitfire” was being used predominantly as an interceptor for home defense from enemy bombers. Unfortunately, because of deafness in one ear he never became a pilot his, “Dashed hopes crushed.” Karen’s father was an air fitter instead and witnessed firsthand the heroic work of the fighter pilots, as well as the horrific death of at least one pilot on the ground trapped in his cockpit after an explosion: “Thank God for his dud ear.”

Karen compares her father’s frustration with his deafness, and “dashed hopes” to the preemptive tactics of the Spitfire pilots. He “spits fire” at her children when they are playing too loudly and aggravating his Tinnitus. He shouts a lot in his exasperation, with muffled shouting noises recorded to play with the texts. He never listens to Karen, even when she tries to convince him to get hearing aids: “Her argument shot down in flames.”

By oscillating through the series of different situations and anecdotes, Wilks puts together an effective impression of the ongoing tension between Karen and her father. The texts shift from memories of Karen’s father as an air fitter; Karen’s childhood memories of flying kites, looking at birds with her father, or watching war movies; arguments with her father about dealing with his deafness; uncomfortable home scenes with Karen’s children and her father; and subsequent fears of Karen’s for the negative impact of her father’s outbursts and anger on her own children.

The use of disconcerting noises, such as sirens, a man screaming, bombers diving, chaotic video-game sounds, etc., contribute to the feelings of tension when viewing the screens. These alternate with a few “blue sky” backgrounds which are very calm and tranquil, contrasting starkly to the agitating sounds. Video-game-like characters move hectically and mechanically across some screens, supposedly representing Karen’s children. In addition multiple Spitfires fly or dive or crash. Diagrams of ears and hearing aids also make an appearance in many places. All of these visuals and sounds function together to build the story and create the overall atmosphere of the work.

The final words of the piece are: “Hang onto deafness for dear life.” Karen has come to the conclusion that her father is using his deafness to self-protect and “deaden the fear” of facing the painful realities of his life’s disappointments, his shame (“A fighter pilot is shame free, that’s a hero”); and at least one horrific experience of watching a pilot die. This denial is instrumental as his coping mechanism. But Karen’s father is not the only one in denial as Karen convinces herself that her father’s angry shouts will not damage her children. What surfaces in the progression of the work is the tragic sense that Karen is denying her own damage as a consequence of her father’s behavior. Like father, like daughter: “Turn a deaf ear, maybe it will go away.”