Exhibition Review

Tacita Dean: LANDSCAPE, PORTRAIT, STILL LIFE. London

‘Landscape,’ ‘portrait,’ ‘still life’: unlikely, untimely, even burdensome words with which to frame exhibitions of contemporary art, or so one might presume. And yet these are the titles given to Tacita Dean’s unprecedented trio of shows in London, staged collaboratively by institutions with names just as redolent of history as these traditional genres of painting: the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy.1 If contingency and anachronism are among Dean’s signature preoccupations, so too is the power inherent in names and acts of naming. Understandably so, for with an elder sister christened Antigone the artist had, from the very first, reason to reflect on how fateful or encumbering such acts can be. And as her art has developed, Dean has surely often been struck, as some of her most astute interpreters have been,2 by the almost premonitory consonance of ‘Tacita’ – invoking silence and the Roman goddess of the dead – with the work by which she has made her name.

Encompassing film, artist’s books, drawing, objets trouvés (from four-leaf clovers to flea-market postcards), photography, print and writing, Dean’s art is fêted not just for its beauty and rigour, but also for its care for that which is slipping beyond the world’s reach, whether through neglect, obsolescence or mortality, as well as for its insistent quietness. The fact that photochemical film, an intrinsically mute medium, is essential to Dean’s work – and the fact that she is now synonymous with a concerted effort to save the form – deepens the providential connection between her singular name and her singular practice.

The gambit of organising the exhibitions according to genre did not, it seems, originate with the artist but with Nicholas Cullinan, the Director of the NPG. Dean clearly embraced this approach, both as a way of organising her extensive oeuvre and as a rubric under which to debut some important new works. But each exhibition also resisted, or sidestepped such conventions, underscoring a commitment to mediums, rather than to genres, as central to her art. LANDSCAPE, PORTRAIT, STILL LIFE afforded welcome opportunities, therefore, both to appreciate the deep art-historical resonances of Dean’s work and to glimpse anew what makes her a challenging, even radical, contemporary artist. An artist, moreover, whose work is more wilful, playful and pleasurable than has generally been acknowledged, even in the many critical encomia to it.

Playfulness with and across genres is evident in each exhibition. In PORTRAIT some fifty photographs of objects and notes cluttering Cy Twombly’s Gaeta studio (Fig.2) – ostensibly still lifes – obliquely portrayed the animating presence whose quotidian existence they index. The constellation of images that make up GAETA (fifty photographs plus one) (cat. no.16) was supplemented by the inclusion of a small, irreverent photographic self-portrait. Taken in a mirror in the studio of Giorgio Morandi, its uncatalogued appearance in the show, like Dean’s in the image, intimated a sense of mischievous imposture. In Edwin Parker (2011; no.15), Dean’s film depicting Twombly as he goes about his habitual, creaturely life in his studio and its Lexington surrounds (which is titled, notably, after his given name), the portrait is as much of place, atmosphere and light as of a historically important personage. Dean’s well-documented interest in filming men of her father’s generation in their fragile old age was further represented here with films of Mario Merz (no.20; Fig.1), Michael Hamburger (2007; no.17), Merce Cunningham – as he synced a performance of physical STILLNESS to John Cage’s 4’ 33” (2008; no.12) – and Claes Oldenburg (filmed in 2011 cleaning his Manhattan Mouse Museum collection; no.19). Impish, unrepentant David Hockney joined them via the 2015 film Portraits (no.21), smoking five cigarettes in his Los Angeles studio, its walls adorned with his portraits of others, including one of Dean’s son. These films, augmented by one of the artist Julie Mehretu at work on a vast, complex, computer-mediated painting, had a powerful collective presence in the gallery, not least through the chorus of whirring projectors required to bring them to life. Each offered in its own right a deeply affecting sense of specific creative lives, of spaces dwelt in, and of time’s passage; together they constituted above all an impassioned portrait of analogue film as a medium.

That film is for Dean a living, still-changing thing was emphasised by two new works, both made in 2017: Providence (no.13), with the actor David Warner (who appeared in Alain Resnais’s remarkable 1977 film of that name), and His Picture in Little (no.22; Fig.3). Both these works apply the patented aperture gate masking technology that Dean developed in 2011 for Film, a work commissioned for the Tate’s Turbine Hall. This labourintensive technique allows her to separately expose different sections of the frame on the same roll of film, in effect blindly collaging together disparate times, places and events in camera. Editing, an art for which Dean has a rare genius, is thus made partly coterminous with shooting film. That this exposes the process of filmmaking to chance, even to failure, is part of its attraction for Dean, who writes of the ‘sublime synchronicity’ which sometimes emerges in these works.3 His Picture in Little made such synchronicity manifest. Its subjects are Warner (again), with fellow actors (and fellow noted Hamlets) Stephen Dillane and Ben Wishaw. Though each appeared before Dean’s camera in isolation, once united on film their gestures, smiles, and glances seem reciprocal, communicating without contrivance. This work, back-projected as a miniature – a striking instance of Dean’s precise handling of scale and format in the installation of her films – was shown outside the main body of the exhibition, in a room of exquisite sixteenth-century portraits by Nicholas Hilliard and others. The film matched those painted miniatures for jewel-like perfection, but did so in an elongated landscape format, and by portraying those who perform the art of portrayal. These subtle departures from portraitures past are no accident, one suspects.

Dean’s enviable gift for surprisingly and convincingly juxtaposing works of art was reconfirmed at the National Gallery. There, the STILL LIFE exhibition combined films by Dean with judiciously selected historical works and some by notable contemporaries, including Thomas Demand, Roni Horn and Wolfgang Tillmans. Through deceptively simple formal and thematic choices Dean assembled two rooms of compression and intensity, leavened by palpable delight in the arts of depiction. There was, for instance, a gathering of birds, with Horn’s two-part Dead owl (1997; no.50) joined by Jacopo de’ Barbari’s early sixteenth-century Sparrowhawk (no.48), Gwen John’s A birdcage (House in the landscape) of the 1920s (no.52), and Dean’s azure-skied Ear on a worm (2011; no.51), depicting a bird on a wire and hung high on the gallery wall. A nineteenthcentury Chardin copy (no.34) rhymed with a Twombly photograph (2011; no.43) – both depicting loaves of bread. A sixteenth-century head of John the Baptist (no.44) made the acquaintance of Demand’s Daily #13 (2011; no.43), which had in common the representation of plates.

Like STILL LIFE, and her 2005 curatorial project An Aside before it,4 the Royal Academy’s LANDSCAPE show included work by Paul Nash, an important touchstone for Dean’s own alchemical take on England’s terrain. His Cumulus head (1944; Robin Vousden; no.1), is – as Dean notes in the catalogue – at once a portrait (of Nash’s wife), a cloud landscape and, at least by allusion, a still life of a carved head set in a landscape. A totem of sorts for her catholic approach to the whole project, Nash’s cumulus is echoed in the Academy’s pristine new galleries by Dean’s own recent spray-chalk clouds, annotated in the manner of the blackboard drawings she formerly made of ships and sailors mired in stormy seas. The clouds, floating on found school slates, are ethereal, wispy, lovely things, but their inscriptions are sometimes portentous, with contemporary political earthquakes not far from the surface: Bless our Europe and Where England? (2018; nos.3.1 and 3.9) are among the titles of these works, resonating with Dean’s pointed self-description as a ‘British European’ artist.

Her imposing overpainted photograph of the aptly-named tree Majesty (2006; no.4), served to bridge sky- and landscapes, while bringing the exhibition emphatically back to earth were vitrines of her ongoing Round stone collection (no.8) and her Four, five, six, seven, and nine leafed clover collection (1972–present; no.5). Quarantania (no.7), a new colour photogravure work, conjures up a metaphorical terrain for the temptation of Christ during his forty days and nights in the wilderness, echoing the classical allusions to Oedipus’s exile that mark the earlier Blind Pan (2004; no.9), also shown here. The Montafon letter (2017; no.2), a huge new blackboard drawing of a mountain avalanche, added a different sense of how landscape might disclose epic, even sublime, events.

The centrepiece of LANDSCAPE, however, was Antigone (no.11; Fig.4), a new film by turns ravishingly luminous and thornily awkward. Recalling Dean’s earliest obsessions as an artist – including with the fated, freighted names of Antigone and Oedipus – the work has been discussed in numerous interviews and texts over the years as her great unrealised project. Her formative experience at a scriptwriting lab at Sundance, Los Angeles, in 1997 is crucial to Dean’s account of the work’s long gestation. There, and for two decades thereafter, she could not find a way to pursue a project concerning the undramatised transition between Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, in which the blind, lame protagonist is led through the wilderness by his daughter / sister. The refusal of narrative, dialogue or script, has seemed fundamental to Dean’s oeuvre, of a piece with its formal restraint and with her eschewal of melodrama. It comes as some surprise then, that Antigone has emerged featuring an actor – Stephen Dillane, again – and even a script (of sorts), courtesy of its appropriation of an Anne Carson poem. An hour-long diptych of synchronised 35mm anamorphic film projections, Antigone uses aperture gate masking to collage together footage of Bodmin Moor with Thebes (Illinois) or to move between the bubbling mud of Yellowstone Park and the sublime celestial event of a total solar eclipse. Dillane’s Oedipus wanders alone, in Beckettian limbo, although Antigone Dean’s voice addresses him at one point, a suggestion of the guiding hand that will lead him to his destiny. The film also shows the artist and her collaborators engaged in deliberations over the work’s subject-matter and form: rather than a dramatic narrative, it is a portrait of artistic process and blind searching that emerges from these scenes.

Having brought Antigone to fruition, and done so in a strikingly experimental manner, one wonders where Dean’s searches will take her next. Might her symbolic return to the primal scene of Sundance, to the scriptwriting lab from which she could yield no script, augur a change in her approach to filmmaking, or is Antigone a conclusive refusal of conventional ‘cinema’? Dean has made the striking suggestion that her masking technique blinds the camera’s lens. Rather than pandering to Freud’s Oedipal subject, as feminist critique long ago argued mainstream cinema does, Dean makes her camera embody Sophocles’ Oedipus, adding blindness to the lameness always present in the sense that in Dean’s hands it does not dolly, zoom or pan. She even suggests that the double projection in Antigone, which prevents the viewer from luxuriating peacefully in the plenitude of the images, is likewise a gesture of blinding. When both screens show eclipses in progress this becomes palpable, and throughout there seems to be an invitation to another kind of looking. There may not yet be a name for the resulting genre of film, if indeed ‘genre’ is a term that can describe it. It is uniquely Dean’s for now, and her name will be bound to it, even as the work relinquishes some of its renowned tacitness and understatement along the way.

BY DOMINIC PATERSON

1 Catalogue: Tacita Dean: LANDSCAPE PORTRAIT STILL LIFE. With texts by Tacita Dean, Juan Gaitán, Alexandra Harris, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Lea, Ali Smith, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. 232 pp. incl. 200 col. ills. (Royal Academy of Arts, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, London, 2018), £24.95. ISBN 978–1–910350–87–4. The catalogue is accompanied by Selected Writing and Complete Works and Filmography. By Tacita Dean. 304 + 288 pp. incl. 450 col. ills. (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2018), £39.95. ISBN 978–1–910350–88–1.

2 See, for example, J.-L. Nancy: ‘Eternal taciturn return’, in exh. cat. Tacita Dean: Seven Books White, Paris (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville) 2003, n.p.; and M. Warner: ‘Tacita Dean: light drawing in’, in T. Vicher and K. Grogel, eds.: exh. cat. Gehen (walking), Basel (Schaulager) 2008, pp.15–28. See also Hans Ulrich Obrist & Tacita Dean: The Conversation Series: Volume 28, Cologne 2013.

3 T. Dean: ‘His Picture in Little’ in Dean, op. cit. (note 1) p.166.

4 T. Dean, exh. cat. An Aside, London (Hayward Gallery), 2005.