Review: Tacita Dean at ACCA
6 June 2009 - 2 August 2009
I have had a background interest in Tacita Dean’s work for a number of years now, from the first time I saw her mesmerising films of the revolving restaurant in East Berlin's Television Tower, and the giant concrete sound dishes on the Kent coastline up to her chalkboard drawing series The Roaring Forties which I saw at the Tate Britain earlier this year. Dean’s works are tremendously visual experiences with intriguing subjects. I especially appreciate her fascination with the materialty of her works; the grainy veracity of film, the emotional warmth of the projector’s yellowish lamp. The ephemeral, working-out space of the blackboard and the implied history in the ghosts of rubbed out marks. Her works are rich with ideas, rich with meaning.
So I was looking forward to seeing this show and I have to say that it is probably the best presentation of art that I have seen at ACCA. I have always found the galleries at ACCA ill-designed, the main space is too large, forcing the work shown in it to be too theatrical and those centred doorways turn the smaller galleries into a thoroughfare, preventing them from ever really becoming discrete rooms. This time the gallery has been completely restructured so as to provide a sequence of separate galleries and theatres which not only give space for each body of work to be seen and appreciated on it’s own but there is also elaborate soundproofing so there is no spill over of sound from films in adjacent rooms. The flow from one room through to the next becomes a meandering journey through dimmed and darkened galleries which means you can really lose yourself in the show.
So I have to say I really enjoyed the experience of seeing this show and I did spend a long time looking at it but I’m not convinced that all the work was as interesting as it looked. In the first room were some very large scale prints of rocks mounted on strips of blackened paper. These were bold and stark and looked like asteroids floating in the void. On the wall opposite was a grid of 25 gravure prints which together made up a single image of a landscape, a ravine in the foreground with a lake or inlet in the centre and dramatic clouds at the top. This work, enigmatically titled T+I had a textural roughness to the image, a gritty grainy arty old world print quality with occasional scrawls of hand writing, word such as, Dispute, Blind Folly and Brightening Up. Was it weather as allegory of the artistic process? I started to wonder what the words meant and then I stopped. Most of the writing was not legible which inclined me to think that the aesthetic of handwriting was more important than the words themselves so I enjoyed the work as a monumental Romantic landscape and tried not to wonder if it’s inclusion was due to the ease of shipping 25 small panels from Berlin to Australia. In the corner of the room was a small and exquisite rear projection of a total eclipse over a pastoral idyll.
The 6 screen film of Merce Cunningham (a dance choreographer) sitting still to John Cage’s infamous 4’33” of silence was another spectacular installation with a wonderful levitating invisible screen. It’s probably not the most laboured one liner in Art history, I can’t say, I haven’t seen everything but as a joke it was a gentle, good natured one which saluted the significance of the two contemporaries. As I tried to find a spot to stand where I wouldn’t cast a shadow on any of the screens I found myself enjoying the continuous mechanical purr of the projectors. It’s a dreamy sound, all those whirring cogs and sprockets and accompanied by six views of an elderly man it all began to feel a touch nostalgic and this feeling was only just beginning. From here on in everything seemed to be wistfully tinged with the brownness of age. That brownness does has a genuine warmth and readily elicits sympathy but it can become too much, like absorbing heavy metals it seems innocuous at first but over time it builds up and becomes toxic. Even the carpets and sound proofing wall cushions had a smell of the past, like hessian and old rope.
The past is Tacita Deans domain. She is the Historical Investigator Artist and accusing her of affecting nostalgia is pointless and perhaps irrelevant but nostalgia is there in abundance and it did eventually make me feel a bit queasy. All those brown photographs and brown pages, a piece of 16mm film framed and presented more like a relic than an artefact. The film “Kodak” documenting the manufacturing of film was as solemn and reverent as a Catholic mass and equally as dull and inexplicable.
The film of the poet Michael Hamburger was for me, the highlight. It seemed to best balance Dean’s aesthetics with her desire to create an historical artefact. It employed a mix of beauty and tedium that was reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker; lengthy shots of musty interiors, stacks of books, butterflies and flowers, a faint scratchy violin in the distance and when there were occasional interjections of narrative with Michael Hamburger reminiscing about apples and his deceased friend, Ted Hughes, I felt I knew much about him already and I was at ease in his presence, in his home.
Tacita Dean’s work is as languorous and heavy as it is tasteful and artfully presented and because of this contrast I kept asking myself if I was being impressed by the right aspects of the work. I found some of the works to be visually lean and yet each room is stunningly composed. It is an impressive show and the palpable fascination she has for her areas of investigation is one of the hallmarks of a fascinating artist.
© Tony Lloyd 2009
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