Tacita Dean - Portrait
What is a portrait? Could it be a representation of a person in whatever form, visual or not, photographic or not, still or moving? This is only one of the complex questions Tacita Dean attempts to tackle in her exhibition Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.
Running concurrently with another, smaller scale, exhibition of both Dean’s films and art works curated by her at the National Gallery, Portrait is the first exhibition in the history of the NPG devoted to 16mm film – its history, its physicality and the sheer beauty and slowness of analogue in a world obsessed with the ease and speed of digital. It explores Dean’s relationship with the medium while evoking memories of her previous work in which she filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with a huge projection of her rolling film in 2011.
As soon as the viewers enter the space, they are presented with a choice – straight ahead there is a video of David Hockney smoking obsessively. They can sit down and watch in silence, or near-silence due to the sound of the projector, which arguably fills the space and manages to mute the voices of exhibition goers, even on a busy Sunday afternoon. The film is projected, or rather reflected as it is projected from the back on one surface, which bounces off and reflects on to a thin sheet of acrylic, from behind. This minimal curatorial decision is what makes this exhibition stand out for me – unlike other projections, it allows the audience to walk to the screen, get as close as they want, without casting any shadows on the surface. The projector is very much present in the room – it can be seen and heard, also felt and experienced due to the fact that the NPG have chosen not to put any restrictions in place, such as a cordon or an alarm system. This is absolutely astonishing as anyone can slice the film, if they feel so inclined. I would argue that it is a risk worth taking as it imbues the work with authenticity and aura, but also accessibility and interactivity. As Walter Benjamin claimed, aura is the experience of distance no matter how close the object is, which is particularly accurate in this case. The acrylic sheet is suspended in mid air, almost hovering, which works strikingly well from a visual perspective. The thinness and fragility of the material used for the screen serves as a metaphor of the nature of celluloid film – it can be damaged very easily, even during processing. Hockney is portrayed as an old man in silent meditation enjoying the one thing he probably prefers to painting – smoking. Dean switches between extreme close-ups where you cannot tell he is a painter unless you know who he is and recognise his iconic round glasses, and broader shots of the man in his studio surrounded by his art works. Throughout the years Dean has discovered that being a portrait artist requires the ability to put your subject at ease. One of the most successful ways to get the sitter relax, she reveals, is to get them do whatever they like most – Hockney is smoking, Michael Hamburger is proudly showing his apple orchard, and Mario Merz has been eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream minutes before being filmed.
Unlike Tate Modern, for example, where one room leads to the next, the NPG is structured quite differently. In this exhibition space, the main corridor leads to rooms that are cul-de-sacs, rooms on their own without any doors or windows. This architectural detail emphasises the fact that all films are separate works of art and can stand on their own without necessarily being a piece that you can walk past in transit simply to go to the next room. A room cannot be ignored because if you’re there that means you’ve made the choice to be there. When the viewer decides to move to the next part, they can turn left or right in the large corridor at the gallery, which presents photographs from the studio of Cy Twombly, with only one exception – a photograph of Giorgio Morandi’s studio, which is up to the audience to spot. While Tacita Dean was filming the artist, she decided to take images of his studio surroundings too, which poses the question whether the documentation of the working creative environment alone is enough to serve as a portrait of the artist without presenting an image of his face. It is an interesting dilemma and one I would argue is presented time and time again in this exhibition – the limitations of the traditional portrait. From back in the 15th century when only the royals and the extremely wealthy could afford to have their portraits painted and their status was explicitly acknowledged in the image by the use of grand interiors, fashionable garments and lavish meals, up until Thomas Ruff’s deadpan Portraits – his extremely detailed passport style photographs of his classmates – portraiture has battled with the accusation that by definition it can only picture the exterior while doing almost nothing to reveal the inner world of the sitter. Dean has gone to great lengths to overcome this obstacle by using a medium not traditionally associated with portraiture – video brings sound and movement to the picture as well as its own distinctive characteristics of the 16mm roll. With its beautiful, muted colours, blemishes on the roll and lack of hyper-sharpness or cutting-edge technology, film and its rawness full of soul and character is brought to the fore in this space.
There is not much happening in the Twombly film, or any of the films for that matter – he puffs, he blinks, he stares at an object outside of the frame. Nevertheless, it is deeply touching and evoking stillness, quietness, silent contemplation. David Warner, Ben Whishaw and Stephen Dillane have all played Hamlet on a major London stage and Dean has put them together on a single roll of film. Being a technical virtuoso, she managed to film them all on the same roll at different locations, even different countries – this speaks volumes of the immense capabilities of film, collecting separate entities into a single piece being one of them. In the room that happened to be my last, I was absolutely mesmerised. It shows the dancer Merce Cunningham performing to his life partner and collaborator John Cage’s seminal piece 4’33”. The sound comes from the cars driving below his studio and it’s complemented by the incessant noise of the film projector, amplified by the number present in this room (over 5). Its a complex installation of big and small screens, arranged to form almost a maize within the room. There are mirrors in the film itself and this time the viewer finds himself inevitably casting shadows on the screen, thus unintentionally becoming a participant in the piece while being an inactive observer at the same time. The cast shadows get smaller, but sharper the closer one gets to the screen, echoing a photogram.
In a way, moving image, just like photography, is a memento mori in its essence – it presents us with a series of moments, or a singular slice of time in the case of photography, that has already passed. Prisoner Pear by Dean shows two identical pears dissolving slowly in schnapps. Beautifully simple, yet poignantly thought-provoking, it makes one consider his own mortality. As acknowledged by Dean and demonstrated by her five photographs of Leo Steinbeck’s writing hand (which, she did not realise until printed and arranged, form a perfect diagonal line), Portrait is about the serendipity artists have come to expect from film and embrace it with delight. The physical properties of film – its grain, light, imperfections, sound, even silence – are the main subject of interest in this exhibition. It’s a medium that’s sadly disappearing and it becomes more and more difficult to work with due to supply and processing shortages. This generates an intricate relationship between death being at the core of what film and photography is, and the slow death of the medium itself as the world is moving towards a slick and fast-paced digital perfection. Sparked by her own curiosity and ostensibly voyeuristic, what Tacita Dean has done in a nutshell is not only showing us a hidden side of well known public figures, but also revealing the alchemy of light, form and colour recorded on a roll of celluloid in a world that’s obsessed with pixels, bits and ones and zeros.