This summer, the British artist Tacita Dean lead a trio of exhibitions, scattered geographically across three old-guard London institutions—the National Gallery (est. 1824), National Portrait Gallery (est. 1856), and the Royal Academy (est. 1786)—in a cross-city collaboration frequently (if grandiosely) declared as “unprecedented.” Unprecedented in its playfulness, the interconnected production did depart from Dean’s last major show, FILM—a high-profile takeover of Tate Modern’s then-new Turbine Hall in 2011—instead spanning Still Life, Portrait, and Landscape: three genres generally associated with painting, categories that enforce certain specific rules and relationships between form and content, and unlikely subject matter to be assigned to an active film preservationist best-known as a moving image artist.
Though right-on in temporarily relocating contemporary moving image work outside of museums of modern art, the project’s more exciting, expansive move was in its emphasis on rethinking engrained and established traditions, in reconsidering the handed-down hierarchies of genre. As an invitation to produce an accumulating 6-month project that could neatly double as both a career retrospective and overture to her latest work (the 56-minute film Antigone) this reevaluation of categorical structures was a challenge clearly of huge appeal to a versatile artist like Tacita Dean. The result—a two-way transposition of the rules of two modes of representation—welcomed comparison and juxtaposition over an organizing, curatorial practice that might, relatively speaking, seem humdrum or acceptably schematic.
Perhaps the most ambitious and curiously curated of these exhibitions was also the smallest: a succinct, symbolic riff on still life limited to just two of the National Gallery’s 66 rooms. Here, in an open-minded, grab-happy manner, existing pieces from this museum’s permanent collection (as well as several others’) were pulled from their permanency to instead sit side-by-side with Dean’s video work. Simply by the introduction of the latter, the former were somewhat let loose and liberated from core tenets of their genre: that as mimetic representations of reality—something taken as a given with a camera—their value as paintings were to be derived from their verisimilitude, or perceived accuracy. Generous juxtapositions (Roni Horn’s Dead Owl diptych) and funny, often ironic oppositions relinquished interpretive authority, and with scarce explanatory material offered, the encouraged viewer was instead given space to draw their own unique conclusions. It’s this reintroduction of chance that might mirror Dean’s approach to her work included in Still Life: whether filming two pears slowly dissolving in schnapps (Prison Pair) or a near-motionless bird singing on a wire (Ear on a Worm), her subdued scenes, in constant suspension between stillness and motion, held their viewer in similar suspense. There might be no inherent paradox in using moving image to portray still life, but Dean’s work here did still prove self-reflexive and existential—looking not just to decay and death, but to the limits of its own mode, and the materiality of the medium, to suggest her filmmaking may be less free-form than one may think. Though Dean’s raw footage captures, alternately, both stillness and motion, her single extended takes must tensely surrender to risk, ceding control to time, and cannot (as a painting, or a photograph might) protect the former from the latter.
Less ambitious in its assembly was Portrait, which did not make use of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent canonical collection but instead focused solely on Dean’s extensive work in portraiture, a genre in which the artist very capably uses the flexibility of film to allow in and remediate something of her subject’s artistic processes, to convey their personality, and to capture some essentializing thing beyond their immediate outward likeness. Something akin to Still Life’s atemporal, irreverent juxtapositions, Portrait did reflect a collaborative and intersubjective meeting-of-the-minds inherent in its genre, and though the artist’s subject would change from one work to the next, the exhibition as a whole did reversed the genre’s usual subject-artist hierarchy, offering insight into Dean’s body of work, and Dean’s approach to from behind the camera and outside the frame. There is a portrait of David Hockney, who Dean does not film painting. In a domestic scene, Dean’s mise en scène situates Hockney surrounded by his own work, her portrait structuring itself around a leitmotif of smoking, measured out to span the time of 5 cigarettes. Hockney habitually inhales and exhales his slow-burn Davidoffs, only occasionally interrupting proceedings with a cough, as a plume of particulate smoke diffuses to fill the air between them. Dean’s profile of does not proceed in taking-head style interview, with little actually outwardly happening, the viewer sits in Hockney’s presence and in an absolute consciousness of the passing of time. Then, perhaps, there is a growing realization of the genre’s morbid ties to time, documenting these artists with the work that they produce in their life and then leave behind. Painter, photographer, and sculptor Cy Twombly, who Dean regularly cites as an influence on her own work, holds his glasses—in a pose that is the obvious visual representation of a man at his own interpretive center. Surrounded by jars of paint, newspapers, and the poetry of John Keats, Twombly is depicted in a very familiar situation, an artist at constant work. It’s also true of the collection of miniature ephemera, knick-knacks and figurines found in Manhattan Mouse Museum, a film shot so close-up its lone human subject Claes Oldenburg fittingly resembles a god, his humongous hands organizing objects into little boxes, individual windows, squinting and scrutinizing as patterns of thought manifest in his careful moving around of bric-a-brac, fixing things into place, attaching meaning to what anybody else would consider minutiae.
The exhibition of the most significant size—the Royal Academy’s Landscape—placesDean in the unlikely tradition of Turner, Gainsborough and Constable. Within this genre, perhaps the most accepting and inclusive, we find both the most abstract, and most diverse grouping of Dean’s work, not solely video art but as well her famed found round stones and four-leaf clover constellation, Victorian-era school-board slates, and truly extraordinary photogravure compositions. In intimidating size and scale, an enormous format that in sublimity and spectacle recalls the cinema screen, Dean’s blackboards cleverly contrast their material (taken from the landscape itself) against an avalanche of white in a binary between background and foreground. Dean’s Quarantania, then, is especially cinematic, albeit experimenting not in duration but in depth of field. An X and Y axis is created by a bifurcating horizon line, which as well as juxtaposing above and below, creates an illusion of moving image, a kind-of continuum between the composition’s many layers of mixed materials, a glorious spectrum deciding which remain in focus, and which diminish into abstraction.
Landscape culminates in the 56-minute two-channel filmAntigone, originally proposed as Dean’s first feature film to the Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute in 1997. Antigone is not a straightforward adaptation of Sophocles’s tragedy (nor strictly a portrait of the artist’s sister, Antigone Dean) but the rehearsal of this unrealized project—bringing together actor Stephen Dillane, Tacita Dean herself, and the classicist-poet Anne Carson, who reads from her own adaptation Antigonick, staged in 2011 with Juliette Binoche and playwright Ivo Van Hove. A two-channel video projection constructing a dialogue between father and sister, Oedipus and Antigone, Antigone’s three participants meet in the very real town of Thebes, Illinois. Between scenes of their workshopping (at Abraham Lincoln’s courthouse,) and Dillane’s occasional re-enactment of blind wandering, Dean’s camera is more often aimed at the wilderness in which these characters find themselves in exile, and upwards to an impending solar eclipse. Perilously ignoring the film’s title, our implicit instruction may be to consider, first and foremost, the landscape of Thebes—the same setting throughout all of the countless rewritings of Sophocles’s three Theban tragedies, site of Polyneices’s contentious burial and ultimately a showdown between the tyrannical Creon’s present political law and the more timeless code of ethics that Antigone follows. Resurrecting these figures from classic literature is consistent with Dean’s interest in Hellenism, and they are, of course, fitting foundational material for an artist so interested in the naming of things—in lineage and predestination, in prophecy and its fulfillment.
Though Dean’s Antigone is perhaps not about order at all. Serving up symmetries, and finding affinities absolutely everywhere, Dean’s film is nonetheless evidently improvised and unedited, with Dean masking her camera’s aperture in several shots to create her own self-reflexive form of eclipse—re-using undeveloped celluloid to stumble upon unpredictable, unexpected multi-layered compositions. Where the slow and gradual, unbroken takes of the moving image work of Still Lifecut suddenly to black with an abruption that seems necessary, the assembled Antigone and its finite 56 minutes crawls toward a finish. Sprockets proudly—and self-consciously—on display, Dean’s film has a blind faith in light itself. The organizing metaphor of eclipse displays a spectrum of light levels, linking macro and micro, and form and content: the foreboding optical phenomenon and the material with which it is captured.