December 8, 2023


Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

By Steve Dow
Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean, Paradise (film still), 2021, with music, Paradiso by Thomas Adès, 35mm colour anamorphic film, image courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and Los Angeles, © the artist

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

For Tacita Dean, editing, construction and chance are her art. “Film will always take me to a place I didn’t intend to go,” says the British-born artist, whose latest body of work explodes in abstracted colours while elsewhere accidentally revealing her private self.

Seated with a view of glistening Circular Quay, Dean has come to Sydney to exhibit a trove of painstakingly created work she has made over recent years, notably in analogue film, rescued from the brink of extinction beneath a digital deluge. “By renaming film as a medium and not a technology, it took it out of that discourse,” she says. “It empowered it.”

Dean, 58, edits her films in a studio in her long-time base of Berlin, while also keeping an apartment in Los Angeles, where her 16mm and 35mm works are stored in the Academy Film Archive. Her style has shifted over the past 30 years from tending towards muted colours to this “moment of extraordinary plenitude”, notes the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia director Suzanne Cotter, who describes Dean’s latest work as bursting with “exuberance that pumps you”.

Consider, for instance, the vibrant luminosity of Dean’s 35mm anamorphic film Paradise, inspired by the watercolour palette of William Blake’s drawings of Dante and Virgil moving through the afterlife realms. Paradise emerged from Dean’s collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Thomas Adès, having designed the costumes and three sets for McGregor’s ballet The Dante Project, which also included her enormous chalk drawing and her photography.

“When you hit paradise, it’s a bit boring, because sin is more interesting,” says Dean with an educated, enunciated lilt, her hair brushed back. She started the “paradiso” section of the 14th-century epic poem with monochrome and representative figures, but planetary references inspired her to go entirely abstract instead. “That’s something I’ve never done before. Yes, it’s the most colourful thing I’ve done.”

Dean experiments with the serendipitous alchemy of chemical emulsion. The “happy accident” of chance – Dean strongly believes in fate – is part of film’s interior quality. She describes filming Paradise “inside the camera”, using her invention of “aperture gate masking”, most notably put to use in her 35mm work FILM, a masterpiece of hand tinting and manual editing commissioned for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2011, with a second outing in 2013 at at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

“You have the film, you have your aperture gate,” she explains, in reference to the camera’s rectangular opening that exposes film to light. “There are 24 frames per second; still images technically moved by the projector. I invented a little mask, with 3D printing, that can create different shapes inside that aperture gate. I can shoot half the frame, then I rewind the film and I shoot the other half.”

Dean’s films thus illuminate the “unintended act”: in the 2017 work His Picture in Little, she filmed within the same frame combinations of three actors who had played Hamlet – Ben Whishaw, Stephen Dillane and David Warner – without them having assembled in real life. “There is a moment where Ben would look to the right and David would look to the left, and it happens by chance. Because it’s undirected, it’s magical.” Digital can blend people shot in different locations, but the effect is contrived, she says. “Digital would ‘arrange’ for it to be done, and it would be much more aware.”

Dean has previously said digital filmmaking “does not have the means to create poetry” because it “tidies up our society” and “leaves no trace”, a position she clarifies now: “Digital was pitched very cynically by an industry keen to get rid of photochemical as being one taking over from the other. Society benefits from having both mediums. I’m not seeking to purge this world of digital. [But] I can do things with film that people using digital would not be able to do. They would be able to copy it, but they wouldn’t be able to originate it, because it’s all about the problems of the gate and the light and how to stencil with film; it’s entirely photochemical.”

The art of Tacita Dean might be read as a metaphor for the precarity of the analogue, or the precarity of the wider world we have known. Cotter locates the poetry of Dean’s work in her editing, which forms a significant part of Geography Biography, a new film that comes to Sydney direct from its premiere at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. Audience pleasure “arises from those analogue processes of manipulation”, says Cotter. “That’s a formal narrative and a philosophical narrative, as well as an artistic one.”

But the making of Geography Biography – projected in a diptych, portrait format, onto a rounded space via two huge 35mm projectors – presented technical problems. Dean had wanted to embed outtakes from her previous CinemaScope anamorphic films in the work, but this proved too difficult. “We were trying to back-project 16mm inside 35mm,” she recalls. Desperate for material that would work technically, Dean turned to some “incredibly intimate” Standard 8mm and Super 8mm films shot in her student days, creating an “unwitting self-portrait”.

“There’s even Super 8 of me dressed up as the Statue of Liberty – naked. I had to allow myself to just let that happen, because I’m quite private in a sense; I don’t normally do the biography thing with my films. I’m usually an absent auteur.” Footage of Dean and her son Rufus as a child is included, too. Today, 19-year-old Rufus, the son of Dean and her artist husband Matthew Hale, is interning at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, encouraged by his parents to follow his artistic inclinations.

Dean’s own parents tried to quash her ambitions to become an artist, so she packed her bags and left county Kent – she had grown up in a 17th-century house on hilly North Downs and studied in the cathedral city of Canterbury – and travelled to Cornwall, on England’s rugged southwestern tip, and the Falmouth School of Art. “I didn’t run away,” she recalls, huffing a laugh, “but I definitely didn’t obey.”

Her father, the late circuit judge Joseph Dean, had studied the classics – her sister was named Antigone and her brother Ptolemy – and would have preferred Dean read English. His dim view of artists may have been coloured by the fact that his own father, the film actor and director Basil Dean, was a “bit of a rogue who didn’t have a good relationship with his children,” says the artist. “He divorced three times and had many affairs.” Her own father was a “complicated man” with prescriptive ideas, whom Dean recalls once saying to her: “How can you make films; you don’t even have a film studio.”

“It was the whole era of a sort of chauvinistic aspect of how your daughters should be,” says Dean. “To be honest, I think their destination was marriage for their daughters, unfortunately. I suppose [his generation] was terrified that we’d be freaks.”

Dean shows me through the exhibition as it is being installed. She walks slowly, with an angular gait, due to arthritis, which she has said “is part of the genesis of what I do, but it is not the explanation. Which is very important.”

I ask now if the illness influenced her to make slow art that rewards mediative engagement. “I’ll never know the work I would have made if I hadn’t got it,” she says.

“I’m very sedentary, in the sense that I can’t walk very well, and it’s a total bore. But it doesn’t stop me … I guess I’m determined. It is getting harder and harder. I really can’t stand up to draw any more. I have to find a way of dealing with that. It’s not the best thing, but I don’t know who I would have [otherwise] been.”


Tacita Dean’s survey is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney until March 3, 2024.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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