This essay on Tacita Dean appeared in the Guardian.
At 11 minutes long, Tacita Dean‘s film Prisoner Pair (showing at the Common Guild gallery in Glasgow) is a svelte précis of certain tendencies in the English artist’s haunting and haunted oeuvre. In 2008 Dean was commissioned to make a work in or about the historically contested region of Alsace-Lorraine, and she responded with a type of still life: a close-up study of two bottled pears suspended in schnapps and subtly decaying in sunlight. The film’s title depends on an obvious pun but also on the name, poire prisonnière, given to such novelty liquors as are still produced in Alsace, parts of Switzerland and the Black Forest. The work itself is an intimate and almost whimsical portrait of two bodies (two territories of sorts) that rhyme with or mirror one another and seethe quietly with life even as they’re immured behind glassy frontiers.
Like much of Dean’s art, Prisoner Pair broaches vast topics – nature, history, decay and the seductions of nostalgia – with apparently modest means: the simple passage of light across the surfaces of things. Born in 1965 in Canterbury and educated at Falmouth and the Slade, she has since the early 1990s been making work (notably in film) that stands out among her generation of British artists for its formal elegance and emotional poise. If Prisoner Pair is not immediately of a piece with her longer films, which often place human figures in resonant landscapes and historically charged architectural settings, that’s partly a matter of productive mistiming. Dean had originally hoped to film the harvesting of the pears in Alsace – their buds are bottled on the tree and the fruit grown inside – but, having missed her moment, focused instead on the textures of the finished product. The result is a film that is all light and flesh and minute drifting particles.
Other contemporary artists have produced film or video updates of the traditional nature morte – Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life of 2001 offers an accelerated view of a decaying bowl of fruit, for example. And Dean has made films before that look intently at objects and surfaces; herDarmstädter Werkblock of 2007 documents the walls and carpets around a permanent installation by Joseph Beuys. Prisoner Pair is not so much a consciously painterly move (for one thing, the film is shot from several different vantages) as an exploration of the metaphoric potential of its subject. At times the mottled pears resemble ageing, maybe dead, flesh, looking as if they’re entombed or in suspended animation. (Dean buried the bottles first for added patina, so that the glass itself seems subject to some dark organic process.) From other angles they look like planets – quite specifically, the mysterious milky world in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris – that now and then erupt with small puffs of fermentation. Still, in spite of the meanings and references that might attach to these tender, ghostly twins, it is mostly the light you notice as it agitates the fruit inside with its flickering or burnishes the glass with a golden glow. (There are many golden glows in Dean’s films. As Rex Harrison says in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1967 movie The Honey Pot, gold is the colour of time.)
Had Dean managed to film the Alsatian pear harvest, it might have looked something like an especially entrancing passage from Michael Hamburger, the 2007 film with which she acknowledges Prisoner Pairhas some affinities. In the earlier work, Dean filmed the poet and translator at his home in Suffolk, a year before he died. (The piece was commissioned in part as a response to WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – in that book, Sebald’s narrator travels to the home of his friend Hamburger, whose life, uncannily, he feels he has himself lived.) Michael Hamburger is filled with typical Dean motifs – the textures of old walls and old hands, lingering shots from inside windows, half-open doorways that give on to brightly lit and empty rooms – but it slowly organises itself around its subject’s relationship with his orchard. We see Hamburger naming and caressing the species among his windfalls, recalling an enthusiasm shared with Ted Hughes, plucking apples from his trees while late flowers nod and lazy insects buzz around him in the dog days.
All of which ought to confirm that Dean risks a formal beauty and deploys a melancholy palette that in her case easily cohabits with irony, rigour and complexity. The art critic Jörg Heiser has floated the term “romantic conceptualism” to describe what an artist such as Dean does, with her knowingly oblique and sometimes subtly frustrating approach to her subject matter, and her commitment to the beautiful way she frames it. Her continued use of 16mm film, instead of the high-definition video that is everywhere now among artists who work with the moving image, is essential to the way her works are made and shown: the whirring, hot projector is often a semi-sculptural presence in the gallery. This too leaves her open to accusations of aesthetic nostalgia, but after nearly two decades of making films Dean is presumably past caring; the rhythms of shooting, processing, laborious sound design and film editing (done by Dean herself on an old Steenbeck at her Berlin studio) are part of an artistic practice that has a relentless coherence.
That said, much of her recent work seems to be about age, decay, loss and nostalgia in more straightforward ways than her early films would openly admit. Or rather, the timescales being canvassed were on the face of it more devious and odd in the works made a decade or so ago. Consider a film such as Fernsehturm from 2001, filmed at the revolving restaurant atop a 1960s TV tower that she had first visited on a trip to East Berlin in 1986. Like several of the artist’s other subjects – Berlin’s now-demolished Palace of the Republic, the pre-radar “sound mirrors” at Dungeness, Robert Smithson’s drowned and resurgent sculpture Spiral Jetty on the shore of the Great Salt Lake – the tower embodies past and future at the same time. A good deal of Dean’s art mines this sense of a future anterior, of technological, utopian or artistic dreams that have gone to ground only to surface again as relics of a time to come that we can no longer imagine.
In one sense, the series of meditative film portraits that Dean has been making in the last decade – of which the vegetal memento mori ofPrisoner Pair is in a way a peculiar offshoot – expresses a much simpler chronology of decline or passing. (The same might be said of Kodakfrom 2006, a work of frank mourning for which she filmed a Kodak factory in France with some of the last-manufactured reels of the company’s black-and-white 16mm film.) For some time she has been engaged in a sort of aesthetic romance with the image of an artist or storyteller near the end of his life – in an interview with Marina Warner in 2006, she joked that she had developed “a thing about old men”. Among the earliest examples was Boots (2003), a three-screen film installation that follows the aged character of the title (a family friend of the Deans, so named for his orthopaedic footwear) around an empty art deco villa in Portugal. Boots tells stories as he goes about what might have gone on in the house, reminisces about his affair with a woman named Blanche, and muses that the place seems to have drifted off into another time. It turns out that this portrait of melancholy recall is really no such thing – the old man is inventing (or maybe half inventing) history as he limps between the sunlit rooms, projecting us into a time that never was.
Boots had been preceded the year before by Mario Merz, a study of the Italian artist sitting beneath a tree in summer heat and contemplating his own mortality. (Merz did in fact die not long after the film was made.) In 2004 Dean made The Uncles, in which two of her elderly uncles recalled their fathers: Basil Dean and Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios. And in 2005 she completed Presentation Sisters at a convent in Cork: a muted collective portrait of the few nuns left and the domestic rituals with which they filled the days. But the best of these portrait films are surely the two works Dean made with Merce Cunningham in the last years of the choreographer’s life. The first, 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), is a still life of sorts. It shows the frail but poised Cunningham seated in a chair in a dance rehearsal space, performing static interpretations of Cage’s famously silent work.
The second, Craneway Event (2009), is among Dean’s most dynamic and spatially ambitious films. It records three days of rehearsals by Cunningham’s dance company at a disused Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California. (Cunningham had originally asked Dean to document the resulting performance, but she preferred the unpredictable rehearsal and its lack of music.) This is a film about movement: the 14 dancers careering between three sprung stages, the way a pelican flexes its wings in San Francisco Bay, the stately passage of ships past the building’s huge windows. But at the centre of all this energy is the still point of Cunningham himself: aged 89, conserving his energy and restricted to his wheelchair, but entirely focused on the dancers and the possibilities of the space. Dean’s portrait of him is all about timing, about Cunningham’s knowing when to give himself up to fatigue, when to urge his young dancers to work as hard as he does or to trundle himself out of shot when he gets bored.
It’s into this lineage of portraiture, strangely, that we ought to fit Prisoner Pair. Because quite apart from the dazzling array of textures and light effects that Dean manages to tease from a macro lens and a couple of muddy schnapps bottles in a London garden in summer, and bearing in mind the pears’ ripe and fleshy reminder of vulnerable bodies, this is a film about concentration (ours and the artist’s) and about survival. The trapped pears are fragile living things consigned to a sweet and potent afterlife, caught behind glass like museum specimens but still redolent of all the time between their budding and their maturity. In that sense they resemble Dean’s aged portrait subjects, but also in this: watching them, the greatest mystery for the viewer is how the artist has managed to imprison them in the first place and turn greying flesh into filmic gold.