Tacita Dean: the mirage of the self

Tacita Dean: still featuring actor Stephen Dillane from 16mm film Event for a Stage courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery

“Semantics is the future for my art”. Tacita Dean’s unequivocal statement of intent at a public RA event in September should not really have been a surprise. Over the past 30 years her art has avoided text altogether and instead revelled in the fuzzy, warm aesthetic of celluloid film. But like many mid-career artists she has rebelled against the artworld’s expectations and begun a different tack, exploring language through her art. Her first foray in this chapter is a work of performance art. This might have set alarm bells ringing but in her  hands it is refreshingly free of the discordant notes typical of this genre. My antipathy towards the narcissism of many performance artists has been well aired in previous posts but this artform is ideal for Dean. As if to comment on her own aversion to personal disclosure, her cameo appearance in her new film is so indistinct it is easy to miss it. She sits in the darkness of the front row of the in-the-round auditorium handing out the script one page at a time as needed by her captive performer, the actor Stephen Dillane. The sheets fall discarded on the floor. People often want to provide us with their prescribed script  for us and we forget sometimes that we are permitted to invent our own.

The 50 minute film, Event for a Stage,  featured in her exhibition LA Exuberance at Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square until 4 November is a revelatory experience. For some commentators is an exploration of the actor’s craft. They emphasise the open struggle between Dean and Dillane as two artists trying to comprehend each others disciplines. What we see is an actor striding the stage fractiously philosophising about the nature of the performance he is tasked to deliver by the scriptwriter. At a deeper level this film explores something more profound: the nature of the self and the actor in all of us. It is perhaps inevitable that we should fasten tightly to a belief in the existence of an authentic self that lies at our core persisting through all life’s vicissitudes. The contrary view is that our self is simply the sum of the roles we play in our various interactions. Authenticity is an illusion.

On four consecutive nights during the 2014 Sydney Biennale, Dillane’s performances were filmed from two cameras on the same bare stage but with strikingly different beards, wigs and face makeup. These distinct performances are spliced together so that the film presents the performer constantly rotating through these surface personas while his delivery of the script remains intact with remarkably uniform intonation patterns across the four nights. The prismatic nature of the self is immediately invoked. This idea has a close parallel in Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel Moon Tiger when her protagonist Claudia Hampton describes her life as a “kaleidoscope”. She says: “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water”

This modus operandi gives Dean a glorious opportunity to explore the importance of language. At one point the splice cuts the delivery mid-word. The word chosen for this honour is dis/enchantment. The enchantment she may be referring to is the way we conjour an unselfconscious authenticity despite presenting ourselves in a consciously executed role tailored to the context. The disenchantment is the nagging sense that our act is false. This idea is elaborated when Dillane quotes from Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre”. The arms of the marionette will continue to dance of their own accord after the puppeteer’s initial spin, giving the illusion of self determination. Similarly humans have the illusion that their actions appear spontaneous but are in fact the result of inertia deriving from some internal or external trigger. Von Kleist committed suicide within a year of writing this.

The range of texts in Event for a Stage contrasts with the usual paucity of words in Dean’s films. In Portraits,  David  Hockney, chain-smoking  while cogitating in different corners of his LA studio, is intensely examined through five static takes each long enough to puff through a single cigarette. The silence is eventually broken in the closing minutes with a guffaw and the salutation “bloody enjoyable -smoking!” As in Dean’s previous studies of ageing artists we get a sense of human mortality before the fading of the artistic flame. It gives an allure to smoking that Hockney would surely approve of. It appears an essential adjunct to his thought processes but it is noteworthy that he never smokes when he is painting. He must have a massive raft of genes protecting him from the carcinogenic risk he is exposed to! This 15 minute film was not as boring as it sounds as we get to catch the micro level activity of the burning cigarette and the smoker’s behaviour. But it lacks the emotional depth of her 2007 film portrait of the poet Michael Hamburger where she succeeded in melding his creative world  with the natural world of his rural cottage retreat.

Dean’s work has been a source of great intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure over the years.  Her future path looks inviting as she sets out in a new direction.


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