Danielle Dean: Out of this World

Mercer Union, Toronto, Canada
13 Apr 2024 - 15 Jun 2024

Danielle Dean, production still from Hemel, 2024. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

Danielle Dean, production still from Hemel, 2024. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

Drawing from archival records and materials like film and advertising, British-American artist Danielle Dean produces bold environments to ground and enliven her research-based projects. Her multidisciplinary practice examines historical representations and contemporary conditions of labour, racialized identity, and popular culture through projects that are often produced collaboratively with community members whose experiences bring crucial perspective to the work.

Commissioned for her solo exhibition Out of this World, Dean’s new film is a portrait of Hemel Hempstead, where she was raised and unfolds as a personal essay on the town’s history as a planned community under the New Towns Act of 1946. Titled Hemel, the work’s central reference is a 1957 sci-fi horror B-movie shot in town about the arrival of a non-human entity that infiltrates the minds of residents and endangers life with a toxic black slime. Playing a composite character based on herself and the movie’s detective protagonist, Dean’s extraordinary vantage brings together real and imagined worlds, both past and present.

Filming in 16mm with an ensemble of non-actors and family, Hemel blurs fiction and documentary to expand a critical reading of the colonial overtones in the original movie, while recasting its visual language to consider the race, class, and labour dynamics of a small English town in the post-Brexit context. As she excavates recent events, historical archives, and personal histories that have transformed Hemel Hempstead, an encroaching dark flood, a growing shadow, a rising plume of smoke build layers of mystery throughout the work. Rows of identical housing, uniformed workers, and emptied lots signal an eerie tone within the mundane, drawing connections between the post-war ideals of the development corporation that established the town, and the mega-corporations shaping life and industry today.