“Ascending the stairs in a nondescript building off the city square, you were amazed to see extraordinarily vivid, large-scale renderings of rivers and mountains rendered in chalk on blackboard by Tacita Dean.”
Tacita Dean is a British European artist born in 1965 in Canterbury. She lives and works in Berlin and Los Angeles, where she was recently the Artist in Residence at the Getty Research Institute (2014/2015).
Adrian Searle qualified Dean’s work as carried by a sense of history, time, and place, light quality, and the essence of film itself. The focus of her subtle but ambitious work is the truth of the moment, the film as a medium, and the sensibilities of the individual.
Dean is best known for her work in 16 mm film, although she utilises a variety of media including drawing, photography and sound. Her films often employ long takes and steady camera angles to create a contemplative atmosphere. Her anamorphic films are shot by cinematographers John Adderley and Jamie Cairney. Her sound recordist is Steve Felton. She has also published several pieces of her own writing, which she refers to as ‘asides,’ which complement her visual work. Since the mid-1990s her films have not included commentary, but are instead accompanied by often understated optical sound tracks.
Especially during the 1990s, the sea was a persistent theme in Dean’s work. Perhaps most famously, she explored the tragic maritime misadventures of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur English sailor whose ambition to enter a race to solo circumnavigate the globe ended in deception, existential crisis and, eventually, tragedy. Dean has made a number of films and blackboard drawings relating to the Crowhurst story, exploiting the metaphorical richness of such motifs as the ocean, lighthouses and shipwrecks. Re-turning to her attraction with the sea, Amadeus (swell consopio) was made for the Folkestone Triennial (three-year art show) in 2008.
The nature of Tacita Dean’s unstillness is rather particular to her. She doesn’t believe in digital. It is the world of analogue filmmaking, with its reels of films turning and turning on rackety spools mounted on to hefty, garrulous projectors, that she loves, and which she has consistently championed, and perhaps even helped to bring back from the brink of near extinction by being so vocal about it.
‘Still Life’ is one of three Tacita Dean exhibitions across major London institutions this spring (‘Portrait’ at the National Portrait Gallery and ‘Landscape’ at the Royal Academy are the others), but it looks like the National Gallery got the dregs. This isn’t really a Tacita Dean show at all, it’s three Dean films in amongst some paintings and photos she likes. She’s picked a huge Philip Guston vision of a hat, a Walter Sickert work of a dead hare, some Roni Horn owls, a Paul Nash landscape and some old paintings of food and death from the National Gallery collection.
Of her own work, one shows pears decomposing solemnly in schnapps, another a bird on a wire and the third depicts an object that belonged to Henry Moore. There’s nothing wrong with any of the art here, but there’s nothing right with it either. The good thing is that the show forces you to look long and slow at the works, to breathe them in and think about how a still life can encompass so much meaning, how it can sway between life and lifelessness, how it can capture a huge amount with so little. But is it any better than any other still life display at the National Gallery? Not really. And in its choice of works, layout and approach it just ends up as a confusing hodge podge of absolutely fine paintings that will leave you nothing but underwhelmed.
Tacita Dean is clearly not interested in adhering to the boundaries of art genres, which is a great thing. But then you can’t help but wonder why these institutions have bothered to separate the work out into genres in the first place. Wouldn’t one huge, all-encompassing show about this massively influential artist have made more sense? You want to see major institutions taking bold steps, but this feels off-balance.
Eddy Frankel, “Tacita Dean: Still Life review”, Time Out.