RA Magazine Winter 2011
Issue Number: 113
Preview: Tacita Dean RA in the Turbine Hall
As Tacita Dean RA’s FILM opens in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the artist tells Rachel Campbell-Johnston why her work is an elegy to traditional film techniques
Tacita Dean RA at the opening of FILM, commissioned for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, October 2011 Photo © Eamonn McCabe. Tate Modern has been turned into a giant soap box. Tacita Dean RA
has a message to deliver. And she takes the opportunity to turn the Turbine Hall into her platform. It is a powerful forum in which to make a point. Over the next six months, several million people will see her artwork. The Unilever-sponsored Tate Turbine Hall commission – Dean is the 12th artist to be invited to make work for the immense space – has come to be recognised as a talent-testing career landmark as much as a public talking point.
FILM, - an 11-minute looped projection, turns the far end of the enormous vault into a vast cinematic space and- is a eulogy to the medium from which it takes its title. Dean presents a fast-paced collage of cinematic techniques. She cuts, fades and splices, she superimposes and splits. She combines bright bursts of colour with monochromatic stills and documentary-style shots. Here is an escalator descending toward you, a fountain sending its watery plumes to the sky, an image of Tate Modern’s towering east window. Here is a sea of mist swirling around a mountain. Here is an ostrich egg, a grasshopper squatting, a snail on a leaf, a floating soap-bubble, a Mondrian-style grid vibrating with colour.
Dean’s montage, as enigmatic as it is mesmeric, is intended to pay homage to the all-but-defunct processes of a pre-digital age in which pictures are created inside the camera (rather than in post-production). She presents a passionate plea to preserve such techniques, now threatened by the complete takeover of digital. A catalogue of essays by fellow film aficionados – from Steven Spielberg through Martin Scorsese to Neil Young – was published to coincide with the unveiling of the piece. Dean is passionate about what she calls ‘this really beautiful medium’ and its unique possibilities. ‘I need the stuff of film as a painter needs the stuff of paint,’ she says.
The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean, 'FILM', 2011.
‘I want to show FILM as film can be – film in its purest form,’ Dean explains. She has been immersed in this medium for as long as she can remember – at least since she sat entranced in front of the 1970s children’s classic The Railway Children. Her grandfather was a film producer, and involved in the setting up of Ealing Studios. She says: ‘Film is, in a sense, in my blood’. She studied painting in the late 1980s at Falmouth School of Art, but says: ‘I never really worked with paint. I could never make singular images.’ She worked on storyboards and animations and films, which were taken first with a Standard 8 and then with a Super 8 camera.
Dean, now in her mid-forties, came of age with the YBAs, studying for her MA at the Slade with Georgina Starr and becoming friends with Mark Wallinger and Anya Gallaccio. But she never really saw herself as part of the gang. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1998, where she showed a film inspired by an amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who faked his progress in the world’s first solo round-the-world yacht race. However, Dean was pipped to the post by Chris Ofili with his psychedelic canvases incorporating elephant dung.
The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean, 'FILM', 2011. Dean is now recognised for her slow, meditative narratives. These include her 1994 film Girl Stowaway, based on the story of a young woman who stole a journey from Australia to England, and The Green Ray (2001) in which she seeks out that moment when the setting sun produces, for a fraction of a second, a distinctive greenish glow. Her recent filmed portrait, Edwin Parker, is a study of the artist Cy Twombly as he moves contemplatively around his studio. These works are as much about the craft of film-making as they are about any ostensible subject matter. The profound thoughtfulness and restrained lyricism of Dean’s work have made her very much a connoisseurs’ artist, and yet over the years,
Tate has persistently – and rightly – encouraged her talent by offering her a succession of shows. The Turbine Hall commission is the latest. ‘I was actually sitting in this very seat, a year ago, when they first approached me about it,’ she tells me when we meet in the Tate Members café. ‘We went down and looked at the space. I am not an artist known for spectacle or scale… but how could I say no?’
‘For a long period I didn’t know what I would do. When I am anxious I may appear mentally controlled but it seems to affect me physically,’ says Dean, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and who, while working on this project, has been a teetotal vegan to keep symptoms at bay. ‘But I knew that I wanted to see if it was possible to make FILM with no digital post-production,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I’m a Luddite. I’m not fetishising film. Digital undoubtedly has a whole world ahead of it. But analogue means discipline and discipline is an incredibly important tool. It requires decisions in an era when people no longer seem to rely on the moment. “I’ll fix it in post-production,” they say, and the piece loses its vitality.’
‘I never want my work to be what I imagined it would be,’ explains Dean. ‘You need to include all the things that are slightly awry.’ Not that she was prepared for the obstacles she would face in making a work in which a single piece of film might have to pass through the camera ten times. Or that the sprockets (the punched holes) that appear on either side of the strip (and which most spectators would take for granted) were so complicated to produce that for a while the whole project felt threatened. Then, at the last moment, there was a negative-cutting error that almost left the whole project on the floor.
‘I am used to working right up to the wire,’ says Dean, ‘but I have been saved by so many angels in this project’ – in this case, Steve Farman, one of the few negative cutters left in the UK, who drove to Amsterdam to work day and night on a re-cut before driving back to deliver the film to Tate Modern just in the nick of time.
There were happy surprises too, though. ‘Walking up to the screen, going so close to the grain, seeing how much movement there is, gives the whole piece another dimension, one which I never planned,’ Dean says. ‘The whole process of making it has been a very moving experience. So I hope it doesn’t just feel like a campaign. It’s a work with an emotional heart for sure.’
But what if the campaign fails? Even as she has been working on this project, the labs she relies on have closed. The future of film looks threatened unless it can find another angel. Dean leans back on the bench and looks rueful. ‘Perhaps I’ll go back to oil painting,’ she sighs. ‘Or I might write a novel.’ An artist who is as resourceful as she is will probably try both, combining them in a new and illuminating way.
- The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London, 020 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk,
until 11 March, 2012
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