Rewind: Tacita Dean

Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2006. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

By Juliana Engberg

Tacita Dean’s large survey exhibition at ACCA in 2008, including film portraits, landscape works, Berlin projects and films regarding phenomenon and film alchemy, offered Australian audiences an opportunity to update their knowledge of Tacita’s prodigious output – an interest ignited by the first survey I made with her for the Melbourne Festival in 2001. 

In this first survey exhibition, we concentrated on mostly film works – Bubble House, Teighmouth Electron, Disappearance at Sea, Fernsehturm, Bag of Air, Sound Mirrors, the epic Banewl, and others.  For the second, more substantial survey edition at ACCA in 2008, we presented a mix of media – prints, altered photographs, found items and film works.  The 2008 survey enabled audiences to witness the expansion of Tacita’s visual language, as well as appreciate the consolidation of many of her favorite themes, including time and history, which she investigated in a number of ways and through a range of subjects.

Tacita Dean, Michael Hamburger, 2007. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

The exhibition included three film ‘portraits’.  Michael Hamburger, a 23 minute film of the poet and translator of Sebald’s novels was a study of belonging, time, friendship and mortality presented through the metaphor of the apples grown by Hamburger, and through a sequence of very still filmic images of place – his orchard, apple barn, study – and phenomena – light, darkness and a rainbow.   Tacita’s film work seemed to make a deliberate effort to slow time for her subject, whose mortality was reaching an end. Tender and private, Michael Hamburger, demonstrated Tacita’s continual interest in the intersections of history that are performed in the interpersonal.

Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2007 was a spatial choreography of 6 films on screens in which the audience’s movement was activated in contraposition to the seated stillness performed by the renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham, who only altered his position 3 times in the slightest of ways.  This collaboration between Tacita and Cunningham was both a homage to Cunninghams’ life companion, composer John Cage, and a new interpretation of his avant-garde sound classic 4’33”.  STILLNESS was a double portrait of Cunningham/Cage and an investigation of time, space and content, multiplied and continuous in Tacita’s loops, acknowledging a companionship everlasting.

Tacita Dean, installation view ACCA, 2009. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Presentation Sisters – a study of an order of Nuns in Cork, Ireland, captured the daily routines and rituals of the last remaining members of this small ecclesiastical community. With a patient and gentle regard for the rhythm of the hours of the day, plotted through the ethereal light that travels through the lives and rooms of this order, Dean emphasized the aspects of quiet devotion, internal contemplation and external dedication that defined the Sisters' spiritual and earthly existence.   Once more time was explored – developed through small rituals – washing, meal preparing, ironing, cleaning – silence was palpable, and light transcendent, alchemical and transformational.  The arc of the day was measured by light from the brightness of the early morning to the ebb of the twilight.

These aesthetic considerations were extended in Kodak, a more abstracted vision of celluloid film passing through its processing mechanisms – filmed just before the closure of the Kodak plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France.  In this work Tacita’s keen eye for translucent colour made the mechanical magical as the film stock spooled and traveled, refracting and reflecting as it went through its last motions.

As well as these film works and several more, the survey included works on paper, altered photographs and prints.   Massive photographic works of dolmens (prehistorical stones), in which Tacita erased the background with blackboard paint to release the stones so that they became a floating gestalt, continued the investigation into time, in this instance through the geological phenomenon of material compression.  These works were joined by a series of her trees, similarly made iconic and dimensional through the process of background erasures.

More recently, in 2013, ACCA presented Tacita’s FILM – her major commissioned work first seen in the Tate’s Turbine Hall series.   At a time when film as a medium is threatened, FILM, was conceived as an epic homage to the analogue processes of celluloid cinema.  Unexpectedly turning the presentation of film into a vertical reel format, this awesomely scaled work reinvented and rescued the techniques of hand-made special effects and montage to reveal the artistry in film-making. Tacita brought our attention to the beautiful, auratic qualities and historical uses of light through film and highlighted the special effects made possible by hand tinting, manual editing, and scene-making, to produce a grand, yet detailed distillation of film and its aesthetic qualities.  

In 2014 ACCA, with filmmaker, Emma Sullivan as coordinator, joined with Tacita to launch the website SAVEFILM.ORG in the hope of securing support to preserve film and its unique aesthetic language.  Please click here to sign the Save Film petition and learn more about the effort to keep film viable. 

Tacita Dean
6 June – 2 August 2009    


Juliana Engberg is Artistic Director of ACCA.