Issue Number: 105
Tacita Dean in the oyster bar at Sheekey’s in London’s West End. Photograph by Julian Anderson Over lunch at a classic fish restaurant, the new Academician Tacita Dean tells Sarah Greenberg why chance plays such a vital role in her work.
I arrive at Sheekey’s to find the artist Tacita Dean RA poring over a book. On her way to meet me, she had been peering into the used book shops along Charing Cross Road when ‘a book seemed to leap out and say, “Buy me”’. It was an out-of-print autobiography of the British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar, one of Dean’s artistic heroes, and she is delighted at this serendipitous find that seems to sum up her approach to art and life.
‘I’m particularly interested in the love affair between Paul Nash [page 18] and Agar,’ the artist enthuses. ‘What I love is that I found this book by chance today – I didn’t even know it existed – and these artists made their work based on a theory of objective chance, which has influenced the way I work. Everything comes to me by chance. It’s very important for me not to know where I’m going.’
Unsurprisingly, she left the choice of restaurant for our interview up to me, specifying only that she’d like to have fish that she can’t get in Berlin, where she now lives with her partner and young son. So I picked Sheekey’s, a fish restaurant tucked in a passage off Charing Cross Road, because I thought its historic links to London’s film and theatre culture, along with its brasserie ambience, might appeal. It specialises in British seafood: oysters, Dover Sole, and classics with a twist, like Arbroath smokies served in an endive salad, which Dean orders, along with a dry Riesling, a wine she has come to appreciate since living in Berlin. I order a mix of Colchester and Rock oysters and a glass of Chablis. We share the special: wild sea bass baked in a salt crust, which seals in moisture to leave the fish buttery and tender. It proves a perfect dish for a long conversation – moreish but not too filling.
As we settle into our booth, she tells me about Craneway Event, the film she has just finished editing. Last year, the choreographer Merce Cunningham invited her to San Francisco to film his dance company in what turned out to be one of his last appearances before his death in July. Dean shot the rehearsals: ‘I was more interested in the creative process than the final product. I wanted to film Merce as he’s not as present in the performance as he is in the rehearsals.’
While Dean works in a variety of media, she is known for her meditative films that create narratives which hover between fact and fiction and leave space for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Her chosen medium is 16mm film, now almost obsolete, and her devotion to it seems like a labour of love in the face of the near ubiquity of video and digital film media. But Dean is no Luddite. ‘Film is about the alchemy of light and information. It is more human, more frail and more flawed than digital media, which are made out of numbers. And they still can’t get digital media to look like film – the blacks aren’t black and there is no depth to the image. I can’t believe we are on the verge of giving up such a sophisticated medium.’
Dean’s art depends on coincidences and unexpected connections, often exploring ideas of ‘epic failure’, which characterise works like Disappearance at Sea (1996). This film focused on the death of the round-the-world sailor Donald Crowhurst from ‘time madness’ after he falsified his position. In Berlin, she trawls flea markets for ephemera that find their way into her art, for example The Russian Ending from 2001, in the RA’s ‘Earth’. This series of photogravure prints is based on the practice, in the pre-Hollywood days of cinema, of making separate endings for the Russian and American markets – happy for the Americans and tragic for the Russians. Dean found old postcards with images of disasters and annotated them so that they look like storyboards for tearful finales. In the context of ‘Earth’s’ global warming theme, the work can be seen as alluding to man’s role in the disasters that threaten the planet.
As the dessert menu arrives our eyes alight simultaneously on the double chocolate soufflé, which we share. It is ideal for putting Dean in the mood to discuss her recent election to the RA, which at first she felt ambivalent about. In her younger days, the RA stood for everything about the English establishment she was trying to escape. But now she says that since ‘people like me’ are members (Gillian Wearing, Michael Landy, Gary Hume) she believes the institution is broadening. It still rankles, though, that she was elected as a painter: ‘I haven’t painted since I was at art school. I attended a meeting where we discussed abolishing the categories for electing RAs – painters, sculptors, printmakers, etc – I hope we do.’
She is keen to meet up with fellow RA John Craxton. ‘When I was seventeen, my family went on holiday to Crete and he lived opposite where we stayed. I wanted to be an artist and he was the first person ever to encourage me. I would love to see a Craxton show in London.’
Like Craxton, Dean finds it easier to live outside the UK. She originally went to Berlin on a fellowship in 2000 but liked it so much she stayed. ‘I thought, do I need to go home? Not really, artists don’t need to be bound.’ Initially drawn to the city’s affordability, which gave her more time and space for making art, she has also made work that obliquely relates to Berlin’s divided history. Mainly though, she thrives on the city’s rich artistic community – she shares a studio complex with Thomas Demand and is a member of the Akademie der Kunst.
‘Berlin is a fantastic place to be an artist because everyone takes themselves seriously. Somehow being British, it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I don’t have to apologise for my profession and can say that being an artist is a normal job – we play a legitimate part in society.’