Tacita Dean is back at the Tate Modern, and is bringing her FILM with her.
This past fall the Tate Modern in London opened its latest Turbine Hall exhibition as part of the twelfth commission in The Unilever Series. Each year an artist is asked to take on the enormous central hall of the contemporary art museum and transform it into a new work that will welcome visitors as the very first thing they enter into, bound to be dwarfed by. It is considered a major honor to be asked to complete the task and whatever the artist makes in this space is unavoidably going to be viewed as a major statement if for no other reason than its foreboding size—not only are you looking at it, you are standing in it—a kind of cement cathedral to be filled. And filled. And filled. Previous Unilever Series commissions have been undertaken by Olafur Eliasson, Ai WeiWei, and Louise Bourgeois, to name a few contemporary giants. When Tacita Dean was invited to create something for the hall this year however, many couldn’t help but wonder what she would do with the space considering how understated, quiet, and poetic her works typically have been in the past. A good example of a work that encapsulates Dean’s style would be a personal favorite—the performance of John Cage’s Stillness by Merce Cunningham in three movements in which Dean films Cage’s lifelong partner Cunningham seated in a chair in the middle of an empty dance studio, still and silent, creating an incredibly beautiful ode to their partnership itself. However, Dean did manage to make a statement, (even an elegiac one, despite her firm opposition to this interpretation) by inventing an encounter with a portrait of film itself. The title of FILM pays homage to her chosen medium and vehicle for expression. Late one afternoon in London, while at the offices of the Tate Modern, Dean was kind enough to answer some questions about this new work.
Sabine Mirlesse How did you begin making art? Was there ever a decision-making moment?
Tacita Dean I had to fight to go to art school. There was no decision. It was always, always, what I wanted to do. Even from being very young. I grew up in a legal family—apart from my grandfather, who worked in cinema and in the theater—so there was the connection to that but [it was a] struggle to be allowed to go to art school.
SM What is the content of the film? I’ve heard descriptions of an enormous egg to an eye blinking back at you? It sounds almost like it’s reminiscent of the Dziga Vertov film Man with a Movie Camera?
TD Basically the film has many things in it. It’s all done with masking, which is an early film technique where you use a mask almost like a stencil. We managed to make the aperture gate into a mask and and print sprocket holes on the film on either side, left and right, which are part of the image. They are permanently inside the image; in every shot of the film you can see these sprocket holes. So that is the most distinctive thing. It takes place inside the Turbine Hall, notionally, but it all comes from artifice and illusion. I managed to open the top window, and inside that top window you can see sometimes steam, sometimes a fountain, or other windows from different buildings. So there’s that, but also through masking, I tinted with color each of the parts of the Turbine Hall’s back wall. Then there are also things like a huge ostrich egg which is the only thing that obstructs the sprocket holes, and lightning, and there is this eye—these are references to Surrealism, in a way referring back to the origins of cinema. There is one image that also refers to Paramount logo, made with a three-frame mask. The whole concept was to turn the Turbine Hall into one big strip of film in a way. So that is what it feels like when you’re there. There are references to Mondrian, there are staircases, there are escalators, there are trees and waterfalls—lots of things.
SM It’s quite comedic in fact—is that intentional?
TD Yes, it is. It is about invention, which is what cinema was and still can be. So it does have that quality to it.
SM I read that you used to share a warehouse as studio space with Olafur Eliasson near the Hamburger Bahnhof. When you were first asked to do the Turbine Hall did you speak with him at all about his own experience with the Unilever series? Did he give you any advice?
TD I’m still there. Olafur is still renting the space but has moved elsewhere. To be honest I didn’t talk to him about it. The person that I spoke to was Miroslaw Balka. [Balka] just said that the year after you do the Turbine Hall is a very small year.
SM The Independent wrote recently in its review of the exhibition that:
“FILM is, perhaps, not so much a eulogy as a meditation on immortality.” What do you think of that comment? Would you agree?
TD I do agree. I didn’t want it to be a eulogy, and it’s really clearly not. It’s much more celebratory than that. Film should be immortal, but I don’t know if it will be. In a way it is very, very rapidly dying but there is an immortality in the memory of it. I mean it’s not dead yet…or I would love it not to be dead. The work is about the future of film and not the past, that is the whole point—to show how vigorous a medium it is, and how alive it is, and how it is still a means to make images you can’t even imagine if you take a digital road. That is the whole point. This film would have never been made digitally, because people wouldn’t have needed to struggle with the medium, which makes you make; it’s an adventure.
SM Can you talk about the idea of cinema-as-illusion—"making us see things that are not there", as the Independent wrote—and as you yourself mention in the Tate Modern’s film about the making of the project?
TD Cinema is about artifice. I think it always has been. That’s when it’s most powerful. Artifice is where the word art comes from, of course. When I was commissioned to do this, the one thing I knew and I felt strongly about, although it’s not really so much what I’ve had in my work before, is that I really felt that it had to be in a sense artificial—some artifice, something that was illusory and constructed. My guiding light—cinema—is about fiction. That is in a way what it is. You know, when digital starts to record real-time it’s less about fiction. Even real life on film is in some sense fiction because it was edited—if you know what I mean—because with film you have just a limited amount of time, which makes for a fiction even within what is said to be real. I’m very interested in what is artifice, and what is real.
SM Somewhat related to the idea of the way a photograph is always a kind of fiction?
TD No, that’s not what I’m talking about—because, of course, now there’s a whole flip-side of this which is fixing something in post-production. I’m talking about something more to do with the imagination.
SM Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been and why?
TD I’m not going to say the most beautiful, but I can say a very beautiful spot—when we drove from Aden to Sana’a in Yemen in the dusk; it was one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever taken in my life. It took three or four hours, something like that. Very beautiful place. I went to record sound for the Millennium Dome project I did. We recorded it in Aden and we missed the plane from Sana’a to Aden, so we had to go by land. Stunning countryside. Stunning landscape.
SM I read in an interview you did back in 2006 with Bomb Magazine that
“Everything that excites me no longer functions in its own time.” If you still feel that way, I was wondering if you might be able to elaborate on that.
TD Well, for example, film is no longer functioning in it’s own time. I said it in the quote. It’s still relevant. I’ve always been interested in anachronism—and somehow I think that I am fatally attracted to obsolescence, whether I want to be or not. It’s just the way things are.
SM What is something you enjoy about living in Berlin?
TD One of the things I enjoy about Berlin is the sanctuary it gives me. Somehow I find it a very receptive place and I’m very happy living there.
SM How many years have you been there?
SM So you’ve been there long enough to witness how dramatically it’s been changing of late—does that at all impact it as a sanctuary for you?
TD It is changing. It’s changing very rapidly. What I loved about it was the way it was making itself—that it was a city in flux. It has become [as a] city more fixed—more like any other European city. So it has stopped shifting, but I still get that sort of respite or sanctuary. I’m just very happy living there.
SM Do you think you’d ever live in Britain again?
TD I don’t know. Not at the moment, but who knows?
SM When you’re cutting the film, which I understand is something you do completely alone, do you work in silence?
TD Funnily enough, I always do work in silence. The one thing that did shift with the editing of this film was that it was suddenly much easier for me to put music on because . . . . Well, I mean, normally I’m guided by the narrative of time but with this one I wasn’t. I was working to a different meter. In a way I was lonelier cutting this film than I normally am. I did start to listen music, and it helped in a way.
The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean, featuring Dean’s FILM (2011) is on view now through March 11th, 2012 at the Tate Modern, London.
Sabine Mirlesse is a recent graduate of the MFA in Photography and Related Media program at Parsons the New School for Design. Among other journals, she writes for The Paris Review and WhiteHot Contemporary Art, and has conducted interviews with a range of established contemporary artists, ranging from Shirin Neshat, to Gabriel Orozco, to and former LACMA Curator Charlotte Cotton. Last spring Mirlesse traveled to Iceland to work on a new series of photographs entitled As if it should have been a quarry at the invitation of Samband Íslenskra Myndlistarmanna / The Association for Icelandic Visual Artists. She now lives and works in Paris.