Tacita Dean: Film as Painting
The British artist, who is currently showing at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is known for her series of film portraits of famous men, including Merce Cunningham, Mario Merz, Michael Hamburger and Giorgio Morandi. Andreas Reiter Raabe talks to her about painterly qualities, light, colour and affection.
ANDREAS REITER RAABE: You show your films almost entirely in art contexts?
TACITA DEAN: That’s an interesting question. I do have one film that can be shown in the cinema: The Uncles. It’s an eccentric film about my two uncles talking about the British film industry. One of my uncles is Winton Dean, son of Basil Dean who effectively started Ealing Studios, which was very important for the British cinema. The other is Jonathan Balcon, the son of Michael Balcon who made Ealing Studios famous with the Ealing Comedies. It’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t really tell you much. It’s a film about two old men sitting talking. And the film I made with Merce Cunningham Craneway Event can be for the cinema as well. Generally I don’t show my films in cinemas because I cannot control the way they are shown, the scale of the screen, the light, the height and to some extent the audience. My works are installed as one installs a sculpture or a painting.
REITER RAABE: After the success of Craneway Event were there requests for you to do a film for the cinema?
DEAN: No, although I have been asked if I wanted to make a feature film before. As an artist I can control my work. I have my cutting room here and I like cutting my films alone and making decisions alone.
REITER RAABE: So in a way you have a classic studio practice.
REITER RAABE: Your early works, the blackboards, were like film scripts or storyboards.
DEAN: Yes, they play with that. Working with chalk, I could change the image over and over again and therefore appear to make movement. From the very beginning as an art student I worked with the concept of the film frame in some form or the other. I’ve really never been able to do a single image, so I’ve always worked in sequential images, everything always had a narrative. That’s why I was very dysfunctional in the painting department at art school.
REITER RAABE: Coming back to the blackboard drawings, did you have Joseph Beuys, or Rudolf Steiner in mind – who used drawing for didactic purposes – when you made them?
DEAN: No, not at all. The blackboard drawings are not didactic, they are not at all in the Beuys tradition. They came from something very simple. When I was at the Slade, the postgraduate painting department was moved into the old Courtauld Galleries in Woburn Square and the walls were covered with hessian. Because I always worked on paper rather than canvas and needed a surface to lean on, I put up two hardboard (Masonite) panels one above the other and painted them white. One day I found blackboard paint at home and just painted the boards black and started working with chalk instead. The blackboard became a permanent feature in my working space. I began recording the changes and applied to the New Contemporaries and got in. I proposed a project with the blackboards whereby I would change them in each venue, and they gradually became more and more about cinematic space. Underneath you could see the old drawings coming through, and suddenly I was dealing with perspective and cinematic narrative and action. So that’s how they began, very related to cinema and far from Beuys.
REITER RAABE: The reason I asked is because I always thought your films were very painterly. First of all the colour is unusual and always warm, and focused and unfocused parts interchange. Also, the way the films are screened, their size and scale and the way they are cut, it’s like a picture.
DEAN: I think I’ve always described them as closer to paintings than to cinema, because they are, in fact, depictions. They depict things; people, buildings, places and are not really narrative in the sense of cinema narrative.
REITER RAABE: Yes absolutely, the Hamburger film sums up a lot of what I’m talking about. There is a constant interruption, or rhythm. Looking at your other films, light – especially natural light – seems to be extremely important for you. If I just recall Fernsehturm, The Green Ray, Mario Merz. Is it usually autumn when you shoot?
DEAN: It’s often autumn. With Michael Hamburger it was important because of the apples. It’s not always autumn, but it is always in a transitional period between day and night or night and day.
REITER RAABE: Is this because you use Technicolor, or old film material, or do you work on the grading a lot?
DEAN: No it’s standard 16mm film material but I work on the grading a lot. I love Kodak, it has very warm colours. I often cut out the green, or take the green down. Most of cinema is actually very green, and I’m the opposite, I go for the warmth. And then of course I always choose situations where the light is very important. The light is always a character. Especially in Craneway Event. It’s so much about the light, in fact, the light is on equal footing with the dancers.
REITER RAABE: Is there a certain reason why you are concerned with the temperature of the colour? I mean, it makes it look a bit unreal, and what’s the difference to most filmmakers when it comes to light?
DEAN: Funnily enough they don’t push it, when most people pack up filming for the day, that’s when I start. For example, do you know my film Kodak?
REITER RAABE: No, but I know the images. Is it kind of a monument to the disappearance of the practice of producing films? Because they had to close down while you were shooting the film?
DEAN: Well, just afterwards, but when I went there to film no one knew how close it was to closing. I have this uncanny thing with filming things and then they disappear.
REITER RAABE: Artists often work with the disappearance of things, and this can look like nostalgia.
DEAN: It’s not nostalgia. I get accused of that all the time … It’s really difficult to explain why it’s not. I think because it’s a depiction of the reality, it’s not like harking back to some other time.
REITER RAABE: I read the text you wrote on Cy Twombly. He deals with disappearance, and times and things that are gone, and the sadness of beauty. Maybe this is where the misunderstanding of nostalgia comes from, because the sadness of beauty is very important in your work; it’s about the volatile and the momentary, it’s about transience, is it about time and decay as well?
DEAN: Yes, the sadness of beauty is really a good thing to say, because that’s in a way mayb ewhy I’m attracted to Twombly so much.
REITER RAABE: I loved your photographs of his studio. To be honest I liked them much more than his own. I have always loved Twombly’s work, but I always found his photographs a bit too artificial in every sense, too unfocused, the printing technique too old and nostalgic.
DEAN: It depends, well I actually don’t like the way they are signed on the front, that’s the thing that bothers me a bit, but his early photographs of Rauschenberg’s studio are beautiful.
REITER RAABE: Is it balancing or equalising to do your work on static things like trees or stones opposed to film where it’s a moving image? Your films are usually made at the end of the year, there are usually no leaves on the trees … so they are about the end in general.
DEAN: It’s practical too (laughs) with the painted trees. … they have to be bare because I have to see the branches of the tree not just its leaves.
REITER RAABE: But when you separate them from their natural surroundings they become like sculptures. For me trees are generally great sculptures, but this makes them even more sculptural.
DEAN: Since I have come to Berlin I started to collect postcards. I didn’t do that so much in England, the first postcards of trees I painted I called Deformed Trees.
REITER RAABE: And you don’t enlarge them?
DEAN: No, they are postcards.
REITER RAABE: What about the enlargement of the stones in your last show in Berlin?
DEAN: That’s different; they are made from my own negatives. When I had the show at Schaulager in Basel (2006), – the curator, Theodora Vischer said, »you have to fill that colossal wall«. And then you start thinking how. One thing that is very underestimated and very important in art is contingency, things happening as a result of the situation. So what I decided to do was to make these three huge trees, and one of these is of course the biggest oak in England, it’s called Majesty, as is the work.
REITER RAABE: You began doing this in Berlin not England. Did leaving your country help you see things you like there or think about them differently?
DEAN: I particularly wanted British trees, so it could be. There is a possibility that I’m making more works about home because I’ve left it. Before I came to Berlin I used to go away to places like the Caymans or Madagascar, and somehow I didn’t make things parallel to the young British art movement where everyone was very much dealing with themselves and their urban selves, there was me going off to far places and being a bit different.
REITER RAABE: I always wonder about it when I see your films. In a way you even wrote about this in your text for Mario Merz in your show at the Trussardi Foundation in Milan, which was disarmingly honest. You said something like he didn’t really want to be filmed, that he reminded you of your father, and through the process of filming him you realised he had nothing to do with your father. Over the years you have made a lot of films, or almost all your films about old or dead male artists, poets or writers like Beuys, Morandi, Cunningham, Merz, Hamburger, Twombly, Oldenburg, Broodthaers …
DEAN: Now when people look back it looks like all I’ve made are films about old or dead artists. It’s not a difficult one to answer. To me it feels very clear. In 2002 I was working on a show in Düsseldorf where the curator, Rita Kersting, was very excited because she had discovered where Marcel Broodthaers’ studio had been, and was trying to get access to it for me. Around the same time I was invited to San Gimignano for a different exhibition. Marisa Merz was also invited and she was there with her husband, Mario Merz. I remembered meeting him four years previously and had been quite fascinated by his resemblance to my father. So I sat there observing him. I had my camera with me and was desperate to film him but everyone said I shouldn’t ask, Then he said to me, »I hear you make beautiful films« so then I asked, »Can I film you?«, and he said »Yes, but no speaking«… it was my last afternoon, and it had to be then, and there was a storm coming in and the light …
REITER RAABE: The light is amazing.
DEAN: Yes, but I’m such a bad technician, my microphone was pointing up into the trees, that’s why you hear the cicadas. But because my filming is so incompetent, it becomes more essential in a way, more primal.
REITER RAABE: I absolutely agree, and it’s very authentic, he almost looks like a sculpture; he becomes sculptural.
DEAN: He knew what he was doing. He was known for being opinionated, but for me he just sat there and made himself into a physical sculpture. Parallel to this, I filmed Broodthaers’ studio, my film, Section Cinema. I remember when I went to the memorial of Mario Merz, that one of the Arte Povera artists said »Ah, you are the artist who has made films about Marcel and Mario«. But for me, the films came out of different situations and in that sense were unconnected. Later, I was invited to Darmstadt to document Block Beuys before they removed the hessian from the walls. Michael Hamburger came about through a project about W.G. Sebald. So all these old men come out of different situations.
REITER RAABE: Maybe its a bit too pedantic, but since you are a woman I was wondering if there is a female artist you find equally interesting, or if this is just purely an accident?
DEAN: I’m not looking for subjects, they just happen. I really don’t want to know too much about what I’m doing. As soon as I sit there and think who would be next, then it won’t work, so I kind of wait for something to break through and then I trust in that. Yes, it’s also weird that they all start with »M«. I don’t know why. With Merce Cunningham, for example, I had no pre-thought about it but spontaneously proposed it to the woman from the Manchester International Festival. And as I said Michael Hamburger came through Sebald and the chapter in his book, Rings of Saturn, which is about Michael.
REITER RAABE: That’s such a beautiful film, the colour of the apples, the wind, the light. Especially the moments when he is just sitting there.
DEAN: Those are amazing moments, I know, powerful. And I couldn’t believe how quickly he died, because that wasn’t expected. All these old men have had good deaths, Mario Merz goes into the kitchen to get something to eat and passes out. Michael is sitting in his chair and that’s how he dies, his wife left in the morning to do the shopping, comes back and he is dead. Merce doesn’t go to class, just says goodbye to everyone and a week later he is dead. No long sickness, active until the end.
REITER RAABE: As an artist I think that there are always things I don’t want to know too much about. Like with the Kodak film, you felt the urgency to film it because you know it will disappear if you don’t. Or that film Bubble House that happened accidentally. You drive past, it looks uninhabited, and if you don’t film it now, it will look different in a few years.
DEAN: It was the same with Giorgio Morandi. I was taken to Morandi’s studio by people from the Trussardi Foundation, who were very excited because the studio had just moved back to where it originally was, and wasn’t yet open to the public. I couldn’t resist as I have always loved Morandi’s paintings.
REITER RAABE: I read some great things he wrote about his isolation and the strengths of it. What a weird artist life.
DEAN: Well I think he was gay, and he was left-handed. It’s amazing what hasn’t been written about him. The thing is, I’ve come to the point now where people come up with ideas for me. I’m getting a reputation for making films of old male artists. I’m sure there is some psycho babble about a father complex.
REITER RAABE: So you feel that you need to like the things you work with?
DEAN: There is a side of me that likes drawing and making things but I also want to make the films. They are created out of a deep chaos because I always film too much and decisions are only made once I’m alone in the cutting room. For example with Michael Hamburger there was a lot of material, a lot of discussion about Sebald, but in the end I made the decision to make the film just about Michael’s relationship to apples. In the end it had to be like that.
REITER RAABE: I didn’t want to talk about nostalgia, I was searching for a word related to »romantic« …
DEAN: Adrian Searle said sometimes he couldn’t remember if things were from his memories or if he had seen them in my films (laughs). It’s actually a very nice thing to say.
REITER RAABE: I have had the same experience with Mario Merz, or the Hamburger film. I guess that’s a cross remembrance, like the wind, or him holding the apples. Something I relate to through other people as well.
DEAN: (Laughs) Yes, the wind was so lucky. In England everyone calls it the Apple film, it was the apples more than Michael people remember in a way.
REITER RAABE: Did he like it?
DEAN: He wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.
REITER RAABE: I’m not surprised, there are moments when he is sitting there that are very intimate and could make you feel uncomfortable about being filmed, but I particularly like these moments, they are like a real-time moment.
DEAN: He didn’t know that, for example when he fell asleep, we were filming him through the door. He was slightly irritated by that. But it’s very tender, I’m always very tender with my old men.
Andreas Reiter Raabe is an artist and lives in Vienna.
Tacita Dean, born in 1965 in Canterbury, England. Lives in Berlin.