Few contemporary artists seem to embrace beauty quite like British artist Tacita Dean. For her, making beautiful, elegiac images and assembling collections of beautiful objects seems instinctual.
“I am not afraid of the sunset,” she declares simply. “I love beauty and am not afraid to depict it.”
Dean is an artist of intellectual curiosity, rigor and, as she herself has recently realized, serendipity. She expects luck to play a part in her art. At 52, she is one of the most lauded artists of her generation and, almost as importantly, an eloquent campaigner for the historic medium she loves above all others: celluloid film.
Dean and I are sitting outside a boutique screening room inside London’s Royal Academy, where her new art film, “Antigone,” is premiering. It’s her most ambitious work to date, she says, “out there in every which way.” She had long been badgered – and she mimics a nasal whine – “When are you going to make a feature film?” “Antigone,” a diptych of synchronized 35-mm films projected side by side, precisely one hour long (including four minutes of black at the end), is her response.
The filmmaker is anxious to know what her friends and collaborators think. As they come out, Dean gets out of her chair and hugs them. She is quickly assured. I catch the words “epic” and “amazing.”
As Dean sees it, “Antigone” is “all about blindness.” You enter the screening room in pitch black, feeling your way to a seat. The chief protagonist, Oedipus, is blind, stumbling around with a stick, roaming the wilderness looking for his daughter-sister, Antigone. The sun is in the process of total eclipse.
Dean has also partially blinded her camera. Parts of the frame inside the camera’s aperture gate were masked. One section of the image was exposed before the negative rewound to shoot another part. In other words, Dean was shooting blind, “like a gambler with light.” She didn’t know what her film would look like until she saw the rushes months later.
On screen, the images are split, quartered and sliced diagonally. Her camera is always still, observing. And rare for Dean, there are lots of words. Oedipus (Stephen Dillane, with long beard and dark 3-D glasses) muses by the firelight: “Where, Antigone, did I get the courage to put out my eyes?”
The fight for film
Dean has written passionately about the medium and its special qualities: “Film looks,” she tells me. “Video sees.”
In 2014, Dean moved with her husband and son from Berlin to Los Angeles and, with the British film director Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” “Inception”) helped launch a campaign to help save film as digital technology threatened to sweep it aside.
As part of their campaign, Dean and Nolan recently visited Mumbai, capital of the Indian film industry. Speaking at a press conference, Dean told journalists, “For me, it’s about the poetics of film. I am into the chemistry, into the mystery and into the magic and into the blindness of this wonderful medium.” Nolan went further, adding that digital had “failed to replicate the immersive quality of film, the suspension of belief.”
A few years ago, Dean was in anguish about the future of film. But now, sat outside her “Antigone” premiere, she seems much more optimistic. “We’re not going to claw back the multiplexes,” she wryly tells me, but she feels digital and film can now coexist. Kodak’s decision in 2015 to continue making film stock was crucial, she says.
Dean does, however, make art in other media and in all sizes – overpainting in gouache on found postcards, enlarging 19th-century albumen prints into huge color photogravure, creating giant chalk drawings on slate. One magnificent chalk drawing of a mountain range is 23 feet across and fills an entire wall at the Royal Academy. A series of new cloudscapes are, she says, “her lament for Brexit.” (She owns a studio in Berlin, and she and her family have applied to become German with the hope of securing dual passports.)
At the Royal Academy, a white cabinet is filled with her ongoing collection of round stones, some cracked, gnarled and pitted, others almost perfectly spherical, like balls in a village game of French boules. A series of white vitrines are filled with her collection of clovers – four-leaf, five-leaf, six-leaf, seven-leaf and a single nine-leaf. The clovers are scattered, long stemmed, pressed and fading in gilded light.
Dean found her first four-leaf clover, aged 7, in a lay-by near her childhood home in Kent in Southern England. She chanced on another at Sydney Airport while waiting for a flight. It had dropped out of someone’s passport. Dean showed me an image on her phone: the clover bore a partial imprint of the passport. A little bit of serendipity, again.
But of course, at the beating heart of her practice, are her films – more than 60 of them so far. Dean is enjoying a filmic triumph in London, with shows at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy. For nine days in May, when the three shows briefly overlapped, 21 of Dean’s films were showing at the same time. She is visibly thrilled by the thought.
She recently donated her entire film archive to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The new work in London includes a sparkling moving portrait in miniature, made for the National Portrait Gallery using her masking technique. In “His Picture in Little” (2017), three generations of actors, Ben Whishaw, Stephen Dillane and David Warner – all in their time celebrated Hamlets – were shot in different locations. Now, they ponder, laugh, fidget and rest as they share the same frame. The film is not much bigger than the Elizabethan and Jacobean miniatures that hang dimly lit beside it. And so, I ask finally, what links all this work? What’s the thread?
“Me,” came the reply, and Tacita Dean smiled.
“Tacita Dean: Landscape” is on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until Aug. 12, 2018.