Contemplating the arrival of another festival season in Edinburgh, Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket Gallery, knew there was one work of art she wanted to show more than any other: Tacita Dean’s Event for a stage.
Dean’s 50-minute film documents a performance by actor Stephen Dillane which is both compelling in itself, and an interrogation of what performance is. “I thought it was one of the most intelligent pieces of theatre I’d seen for a long time,” says Bradley. “I wanted to see it in the context of the festival where every space that stands still for five minutes is turned into a theatre and the whole of Edinburgh is a stage.”
She invited Dean to make a show for the gallery which placed Event for a stage at the centre of a collection of her works dealing with performance and acting. She agreed, but said: “There’s something you should know”. That “something” was the trilogy of shows in London planned for the first half of 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery and Royal Academy, each examining Dean’s practice in relation to a genre – portrait, still life and landscape – an unprecedented collaboration by the three museums, and an indication of the significance with which Dean’s work is regarded.
The Fruitmarket exhibition, Woman with a red hat, part of Edinburgh Art Festival, stands as a complement to those larger shows, bringing out a strand in her practice which the others didn’t cover. Dean will also include a new work, Found Postcard Monoprints (Actors), which has never been shown before. Bradley says: “I’m grateful that Tacita is interested enough in this area of her practice to do this show and make new work for it. It’s always fantastic when an artist agrees to make a show when they are still making work that speaks to it – it shows it’s alive.”
Dean, 53, grew up in Canterbury, the daughter of a judge. She studied painting at Falmouth, then at the Slade, though her work since has been principally in filmmaking. Early shows sometimes grouped her with the Young British Artists, who emerged at the same time, but her work was always more subtle, less sensational. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, losing out to Chris Ofili, but acclaim for her work grew steadily. She was the youngest artist (at 35) to have a solo show at Tate Britain.
She resolutely eschews digital film, working in 35mm and 9mm formats, speaking of the qualities, imperfections, risks and serendipities of “real” film. Her early works were seascapes – she became so well known for them in the UK she once said she was “pickled in the sea”. In fact, her work ranges widely, as the three London shows prove, but shares the same intense, contemplative gaze. This is slow art, art which requires time.
I meet Dean at the opening of the third of the London shows, Landscape, at the Royal Academy. Crowds throng the press view, which is also the first show in the RA’s newly refurbished galleries. Sitting in a corner next to a glass case filled with her collection of four-leafed clovers, Dean looks tired, admitting quietly that she will be “relieved when this is over”. She is concerned about the clovers, which are turning yellow in the light. She says she won’t show them again.
The centrepiece of the show is Antigone, the film which has, until now, been her great un-made work. Made using a technique she calls aperture masking – covering part of the film and rewinding it to record another set of images in the same frame – it combines Sophocles, the poet Anne Carson, Dillane again, and footage of the 2017 solar eclipse. After filming in the UK, the undeveloped stock was riskily transported across the Atlantic to chase the eclipse across Wyoming.
She had no idea what footage she would have – if any. “It’s all blind. It gives great treasure, I think, if you trust in something like that, trust that all is deliberate, that what we do as human beings is always good. I’m a great believer in the non-deliberate act.” The process is instinctive. “The unconscious is my working tool, I have to trust it. The whole of Antigone is a huge exercise in the unconscious.”
When I ask her what she set out to do in Event for a stage, I know straight away it’s the wrong question. “What I thought I was doing and what I ended up doing were completely different things. But that’s the whole point of an artwork, if you know what you’re going to do, it’s not worth doing it. I had no idea about theatre. How could I possibly have known what I could do? I had four nights on a stage in Sydney and Stephen Dillane, and from that we had to create something. It just grew out of itself.”
They devised a script which Dillane performed for four nights in front of a live audience, being filmed throughout. As he performs, Dean hands him pages from a seat in the front row. He confides stories about his family, quotes The Tempest and Heinreich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, complains about the quality of the text, storms out, comes back. Dean edited all four films into one, even though Dillane wears a different wig each night.
Fiona Bradley says of Event for a stage: “What you’re seeing is an immense risk being taken – I feel that I’ve been privy to an extraordinary series of confidences. Then, at the end you think, hang on a minute, this has happened four times, the whole thing is artifice, it’s scripted. It sucks you into the space, your disbelief is suspended, only to spit you out at the end saying this is all artifice, it’s a piece of theatre, it’s lying to you.”
Yet, somehow, the illusion is not disenchanted. The magic of the performance is preserved. This is what surprises us again and again about the best contemporary theatre: even though it lays bare its theatricality, we are still compelled.
In the Fruitmarket, Event for a stage – shown on the hour, every hour – will sit alongside other works by Dean about performance and performers. Early works such as Foley Artist (1996) which constructs an imaginary film through sound, are included, as are paper-based works like The Russian Ending, which uses found postcards made to look like the closing scenes of imaginary disaster movies. A nine-metre-long blackboard drawing references The Tempest.
And a film “miniature”, His Picture in Little (2017) features Ben Whishaw, Stephen Dillane and David Warner – all actors who have played Hamlet, from which the title comes – again, made using masking so they appear to share the same frame. But they are actors without a script, actors, perhaps, at their most vulnerable.
They are, perhaps, like people sitting for a portrait, which makes this a kind of painting. I ask Dean again about time, about art which thwarts the pace of the technology-heavy modern world. She nods. “It’s the pace of film. The time is embedded in the medium, I think. It’s important to take time. People don’t take the time with painting that they should.” n
Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, from today until 30 September