Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Tacita Dean

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Tacita Dean

Article excerpt

Andy Warhol would probably have been surprised to learn that his 1964 film 'Empire' had given rise to an entire genre. This work comprises eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building during which nothing much happens. Warhol remarked that it was a way of watching time pass or, you might say, the Zen of boredom. Much the same could be said of the films in Tacita Dean's two exhibitions, Portrait and Still Life at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery respectively.

The most ambitious of these, 'Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS' (2008), on show at the NPG, is composed of six separate films, each five minutes long, of the late dancer and choreographer enacting a balletic version of Cage's celebrated (or notorious) composition 4'33'' (consisting, of course, of a silence lasting for that interval). Cunningham -- who was by then wheelchair-bound -- interprets this by being almost entirely motionless.

So far, you might think, so minimalist. But in one way Dean's work is almost baroque. The biggest gallery of the exhibition is filled with six large screens, on to which are projected moving images of this motionless, aged man, shot from multiple angles. The whole piece piles paradox on paradox. To see it, you move around the space, while he barely shifts. Dean is devoted to the medium of 16mm colour film, now as outmoded as oil pigment. So the only sound is the quiet whirr of projectors.

'Portraits', another of her works at the NPG, consists of 16 minutes of David Hockney in his studio, doing what he spends a lot of time doing: smoking, contemplating, musing on his own pictures. Again, nothing much eventuates. Hockney puffs away and at one point laughs at his own thoughts. You are watching him thinking, perhaps reflecting on the cycle of 82 portraits he had just completed, reproductions of which hang on the wall behind (one depicting Dean's young son).

Of course, traditional portraiture is created by an artist observing someone sitting doing nothing much. Dean is presenting the observations from which a Velazquez or a Freud would make a final selection -- the raw footage, as it were.

Dean has joked that she has developed 'a thing about old men'. Hockney was 78 in 2016 when 'Portraits' was made, Cunningham 89. Other subjects of her filmed portraits include the octogenarian Cy Twombly, who potters around his own studio, reads a letter and goes out for lunch (Coca-Cola plus a turkey sandwich), and the critic, poet and translator Michael Hamburger. …

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