Tacita Dean

by Jonathan Griffin

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Tacita Dean, Antigone, 2018, © Courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

It was around 2014, says Tacita Dean, that things got really bad. When she moved from Berlin to Los Angeles to take up a guest scholar position at the Getty Research Institute, she was contemplating the very real possibility that not only would she be unable to make her art in the future, she would not be able to view it either. Nor would she be able to see the work of countless other artists and filmmakers who, like her, shoot their work on celluloid and refuse to have it digitised or presented in anything other than its native medium.

Dean’s battle to save film from obsolescence had gained traction in 2011, when she presented a celebrated Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern titled, bluntly, FILM – a colourful cascade of images shot in studio on 35mm film and collaged in-camera via a complex masking system, projected upright at the end of the hall. The work was, ostensibly, a portrait of its own medium. Earlier that year, the Soho lab that had for years printed all her films abruptly announced it was ceasing working on 16mm, and Dean took the high-profile Tate commission as a chance to speak out in defence of her medium. The tide was slow to turn, however, and the mainstream cinema industry’s stubborn adherence to what it sees as the economic efficiency of digital technology refused to slacken. Both 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures soon announced that they would stop producing film prints of their movies.

“Ground zero”, Dean says, was an event she organised at the Getty in 2015 with film director Christopher Nolan and Kerry Brougher, the Director of LA’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The event was called ‘Reframing the Future of Film’, its forward-looking title a rejoinder to all those who considered celluloid to be a technological relic, its devotees nostalgic. Film is a medium used by artists and filmmakers, Dean insists, not only a technology used by an industry. “You would never say to David Hockney that he couldn’t use acrylic. You wouldn’t force an artist to use a medium that they didn’t want to use. It’s just unconscionable.” When Jeff Clarke, the new CEO of Kodak, stood up at the Getty and told the audience, “We’re all in on film!” Dean claims people actually cried. “Losing Kodak, that would have been it,” she says. “We would have lost the understanding.”

Dean and I are talking in a nondescript café in Santa Monica, close to the home where she lives with her partner, the artist Mathew Hale, and their son Rufus. She admits that she did not expect still to be in California in 2018, and she retains a home and studio in Berlin. But LA has been good to her. She received an invitation to archive her entire film catalogue at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a process which is time-consuming but critically important, and her campaign savefilm.org has gained ground thanks to her proximity to influential members of “the Industry”. She also loves working in her spacious LA studio, where she has recently been absorbed by a series of drawings of clouds made in chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil, and she has been making lithographs with printmakers Gemini G.E.L. who are based in the city.

Dean is in the midst of preparing an unprecedented trifecta of major exhibitions across three of London’s most venerable galleries: the Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the National Gallery. This unique institutional collaboration came about when Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the NPG and curator of FILM while at Tate Modern, invited Dean to do an exhibition based around her portrait films. She has used 16mm film to picture subjects who are, more often than not, elderly men, from the Italian Arte Povera artist Mario Merz, in 2002, to her fellow Angeleno David Hockney RA in 2016 (the NPG and RA have jointly acquired her film of Hockney).

Cullinan learned that around the same time he approached Dean, the RA’s Artistic Director Tim Marlow had also invited her to inaugurate the Academy’s new Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, one of a series of spaces opening in May to mark the RA’s 250th anniversary. Instead of fighting over the artist, whom both agreed was richly deserving of a major exhibition in the country of her birth, they decided to collaborate, dividing Dean’s work into genres classically associated with painting. Dean would show work related to landscape at the RA, and to portraiture at the NPG. Furthermore, they brought a third institution in on the deal – the National Gallery – where Dean’s exhibition (a mix of her own and others’ work) would explore another painterly genre: the still life.

Each of these genres has arguably more relevance for its host institution than for the artist, who rather than working within such definitions has generally sought to complicate them. In the mid-18th century, the founding President of the Royal Academy, Joshua Reynolds, was a proponent of a hierarchy of genres that held history painting at its noble summit. Later Academicians J.M.W. Turner and John Constable famously elevated the genre of landscape to a new respectability, a position it has retained within British art ever since. As the Academy celebrates its 250th birthday, Dean’s critical engagement with this tradition struck a chord with fellow Academicians, who are looking both to the institution’s past and its future.

Dean explains that Majesty (2006), a huge overpainted photograph Dean took of the ancient Fredville Oak, suggested itself after she found a trove of old Japanese postcards of the Forest of Fontainebleu, then started researching the Fontainebleu Oak and old oak trees more generally. The Fredville Oak – one of England’s largest and believed to be 800 years old – happens to stand not far from where Dean grew up, in Kent.

An awe-inspiring snowy mountain landscape, The Montafon Letter (2017), which consists of nine blackboards joined together, over seven metres wide, came from the artist wanting to use spray chalk to depict an avalanche. The technique was disappointing, and she resorted to traditional chalk. As with many of Dean’s drawings, its surface incorporates hand-written notes (intended to be largely indecipherable) some of which relate to the anecdote that inspired the title: a sequence of avalanches in 17th-century Austria that buried some people, then buried the priest who went to officiate at the site of the burial, then – finally – unburied the priest, still alive. Dean says in some ways it’s about Brexit, which she finds devastating, and about hope – “hope that the last avalanche will uncover us”.

Dean’s subjects typically arrive via a winding road of research full of unanticipated diversion and accident. She is motivated by curiosity, by her not knowing rather than by her predetermined intention. “I’ve always liked her lateralism – the way she comes at things,” Tim Marlow tells me. “If there’s a straight path between one point and another, she’ll question why it’s necessary to take that journey, and will find a different way to it, and will find interesting things along the way.”

Dean admits to wanting to challenge the cultural dominance of painting, a dominance that these three August institutions have all historically maintained. Ironically, it was in the category of Painter that Dean was elected, in 2008, as a Royal Academician. “I have never been able to make a canvas in my life. I was in the painting department at the Slade but I was utterly dysfunctional,” she says. Early in her time there she came across a tin of blackboard paint and applied it to a board, using chalk to make ethereal, notation-strewn drawings that emerged from – and, when wiped down, disappeared back into – darkness. To this day, her blackboard drawings are never preserved with fixative; to try to fix them would be to destroy them. Her frequent use of gouache (noted for its opacity) over black-and-white photographic prints (her own and others’) and found postcards is a technique that is as much about erasure as it is about permanent inscription. Her grainy 16mm film “depictions”, as she calls them, of people, objects and places in some instances evoke – as with her luminous still-life Prisoner Pair (2008) – what some might call a painterly touch through their rich colouration and soft texture. When they are back-projected in a gallery, they assume the presence of paintings, Dean says, “just in a different sort of frame”.

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Discussions with Marlow around the subject of landscape led her to revisit an idea she first developed 20 years ago. (The winding road often loops back on itself.) The resulting film Antigone (2018) is an hour-long, twin-projection 35mm film, which will form the centrepiece of her exhibition at the RA. After gaining early recognition with semi-narrative 16mm films, such as The Martyrdom of St Agatha (1994), she was surprised in 1997 to be invited to Utah, to participate in the prestigious Screenwriter’s Lab at the Sundance Institute. Hastily, in application, she wrote a page-and-a-half-long treatment for a feature film based around the missing period between Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, when the blind and lame Oedipus is being led through the Theban wilderness by his faithful daughter Antigone, who, of course, is technically also his sister. The idea came to Dean, in large part, because her older sister is called Antigone. “I’ve always been fixated on quite how my father could have named his first-born Antigone. It’s such a hard name!” she exclaims.

The Sundance Lab was utterly inspiring, and Dean came away with notebooks full of advice and encouragement from cinematic legends – such as Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel without a Cause, Frank Pierson, writer of Dog Day Afternoon, and Millard Kaufman, writer of Bad Day at Black Rock – but no script. In 1998, she was nominated for the Turner Prize, and her priorities drifted away from dialogue-driven narrative filmmaking, but the Antigone and Oedipus idea persisted. Its influence showed up in subsequent works, most notably her 2003 film Boots, in which an elderly family friend – her sister Antigone’s godfather – moves through a faded Portuguese mansion, recounting invented memories that he improvised in response to the villa’s history. The man, who died soon after the film was shot, was known as Boots because he wore one orthopaedic boot. He was also blind in one eye.

Since her twenties, Dean has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and she refers to herself, unpityingly, as “lame”. It would be to completely misapprehend the circuitous lines of meaning in her work, however, to draw direct parallels between either the characters of Antigone or Oedipus and Dean herself. But suffice to say, she is compelled by the intersecting points of significance between her personal biography and the ancient and timeless shapes of this classical narrative. More than anything else, she is guided by coincidence. When she came to know the Canadian poet Anne Carson in Berlin, a few years ago, and revealed to her the outline for her great unmade film, Carson responded that she had already written a poem about the very subject, published in 1997, titled TV Men: Antigone (Scripts 1 and 2).

Dean asked Carson to participate in her film, in which the poet appears as herself, a kind of chorus figure. The actor Stephen Dillane plays Oedipus, pictured on Bodmin Moor wearing an enormous grey beard. Here might be an appropriate moment to mention that I have not seen Antigone and, indeed, neither has Dean, since, at the time of writing, the film is currently with the negative cutter and, because of its twin-projection format, is impossible to preview in its entirety. Dean tells me that she will not see it, properly, until it is installed at the RA in May.

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Working “blind”, as she calls it, is virtually a mantra for Dean, and one that manifests in diverse ways. First and foremost, she considers film a blind medium, in that one does not get to see the images one has captured until the film comes back from the lab. Dean has doubled this blindness by working – as she did in FILM and later in JG (2013) – with specially cut masks which are inserted inside the camera like stencils and which expose only a part of the frame at a time. The undeveloped film is then rewound, and an inverse mask allows a different image to be recorded onto that unexposed area of the frame. Sometimes these masks are quite elaborate, such as the shape of a foot in Antigone, but more often the effect is simply to split the screen. The results, however, are far from simple: because film is a time-based medium, the interplay between the images is subtle and entirely unpredictable. Dean used the technique in a miniature 35mm film portrait, included in the NPG exhibition, titled His Picture in Little (2017). Here three actors who have all played Hamlet – Ben Whishaw, Stephen Dillane and David Warner – were filmed separately by the artist, just being themselves, out of character and undirected, on different parts of the same roll of film. When she received the processed film, Dean was astonished by the “sublime synchronicity” of gestures and expressions that coincided, telegraphing across time and space inside the camera.

Blindness, too, is involved in Dean’s process of trusting in what she calls “unconscious guiding forces” and the munificence of chance. Anne Carson was unable to travel to Thebes, in Greece, where Dean had planned to set much of her film. So Dean Googled ‘Thebes’, and found another one in Illinois. When she arrived with her cast and crew, she found nothing much in Thebes except an old courthouse, now a historical site. She was filming inside the building before her collaborator, Cate Smierciak (whom Dean calls “the queen of the mask”), noted that both she and Dean are daughters of judges. It had not consciously occurred to her. “The whole story is about judgement, in a way,” Dean says.

“Am I superstitious?” she then asks, snooping at my list of questions on the table between us. “I am. I’m always touching wood.” She pulls out from around her neck a thong tied to a sliver of timber. It was a gift from the Antigone crew: wood from Yellowstone National Park, where Dean travelled to film the solar eclipse that took place over North America in 2017. An eclipse, says Dean, is “the ultimate blindness of nature”. She had filmed the effects of eclipses before; most notably, in 1999, she captured the gradual effects of the disappearing sun behind the clouds over Burnewhall dairy farm in Cornwall, titling the 63-minute work Banewl after the Cornish pronunciation of the farm’s name. In Banewl and Antigone, the eclipses progress in real time, lending the films their cosmically paced structure. Dean had already shot on parts of the masked film, which she transported at considerable risk to Wyoming. “I would have been destroyed had the sun not come out,” she says. “There was no chance of reprieve. I needed the symbol.”

Celestial movements, classical mythology, medieval place names, ancient trees, elderly men: it is easy to surmise that Dean is in thrall to the past, and committed to recording it on a medium that is, itself, viewed by some as antiquated. The assessment is entirely misguided, as those who know Dean and her work well will swiftly tell you. “I think we have a misunderstanding about what something that is contemporary can be, and needs to be,” her close friend, the painter Julie Mehretu, tells me. “Anything that’s forward-looking has to look backwards, in a way.” It is not those elderly men’s pasts that Dean records with her camera, but their present; a present that is now held in perpetuity. As Nicholas Cullinan has written, “Where some see fossilisation in the subjects captured by her camera’s lens, I see revivification, every time the projector is switched on and these images are summoned back to life once more.”

Film is essential to Dean’s project because it is a medium steadfastly tied to the now: the veracity of the moment recorded in the camera, unalterable by crafty post-production techniques, then chased past the flickering bulb of the projector by whirring motors. Those solar eclipses unfold in real time, as we stand and wait in the gallery. “Tacita’s work physically changes me,” says Mehretu. “I always have this deep physical sensation when I’m watching her films. It is a totally profound contemporary experience.”

I suggest to Dean that, in the long run, the timelessness of her themes and subjects might actually serve her art better than some of the self-consciously contemporary (and now dated) work made in the 1990s by her YBA cohorts, a gang that she was never fully allowed into for that very reason. “I don’t care about the long run,” she says. “I care about now.” She’s right, of course. Her devotion to a medium which she considers to be inseparably wedded to principles of honesty and truth is both a political position and a timely one. “It’s a shitty age,” she says. “Everything has gone out of control. The bad people are winning, and they’re doing it through every sort of duplicitous, mendacious means. At least you can have some honour in what you do. Whether you think it’s old-fashioned or not.”

First published: RA Magazine, March 2018