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Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat
7 July 2018 until 30 September 2018
The Fruitmarket Gallery
This exhibition represents the material breadth of the work of British- European artist Tacita Dean (b.1965, Canterbury) – from drawing and print-making, to film and installation – yet at the same time it is highly focused in its thematic approach. Woman with a Red Hat is concerned with theatre, performance and the figure of the actor in Dean’s work. Through work made from 1996 to the present day, it examines the way in which narratives are constructed both on stage and screen.
The exhibition is centred on Event for a Stage (50 mins, 2015), shown in the upper gallery (see reverse for screening times). In this film, actor Stephen Dillane tests and troubles over the artifice of theatre and the role of the script, describing the collective effort of performer and audience that creates ‘the magic of suspended disbelief that is theatre’. Using pages of script handed to him by Dean, the actor steps from narrative readings and apparently autobiographical stories to recitations from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The line between reality and fiction is blurred as Dillane moves from one voice to another, alternately playing ‘himself’ and the ‘actor’ as a type. As the piece unfolds, the ‘woman with a red hat’ becomes a point of focus for the actor’s self-consciousness on the one hand, and his self-assuredness on the other.
The lines that open Event for a Stage – ‘Storm, storm, storm’ – reverberate through the imagery of the monumental blackboard drawing, When first I raised the Tempest (2016), whose skies seem to shift and billow as the natural light moves over them. Emerging from the storm clouds are handwritten words and phrases recalling lines and characters from The Tempest, like a partial, fragmented script.
Two other films are shown upstairs: His Picture in Little (151/2 mins, 2017) and Providence (51/2 mins, 2017). The former takes its title from a line in Act II Scene II of Hamlet, describing a portrait miniature. Dean’s film follows the conventions of miniature portraiture and depicts three actors who have all played Hamlet on the London stage – David Warner, Stephen Dillane and Ben Whishaw – each of a different generation. The film uses a technique developed by Dean in which she exposes the negative multiple times, masking a different section on each successive exposure, and so creating chance juxtapositions between the actors. In Providence, this technique gives rise to an evocation of David Warner’s reveries as he sits contemplatively, apparently conjuring up a hummingbird. In contrast to Event for a Stage, these short films show the actor at rest, between the moments in which he is alert to and self-conscious of the gaze of an audience.
Like these films, Die Regimentstochter (2005), named after a Donizetti opera, also foregrounds chance juxtapositions. This work arose when Dean found a collection of German opera programmes dating from the 1930s and ‘40s in a Berlin flea market. They were all mysteriously defaced by their former owner, with sections removed from their covers in what Dean saw as ‘found collages’, subsequently realising what had been cut out. In the first iteration of this work, Dean’s only intervention was to frame the programmes: here they are shown in facsimile as an artist’s book. The cut out sections act as windows onto photographs or texts, creating haunting fragmented portraits of opera singers and the narratives in which they performed.
Downstairs, another facet of the acting profession becomes evident in the sixteen Found Postcard Monoprints (Actors) (2018). These early twentieth-century postcards from the artist’s collection of found postcards, range from unknown actors to the stars of their day – Buster Keaton, Sarah Bernhardt and Rudolph Valentino among them. These images show the posturing of the actor, ready for public consumption, but now partially obscured, or perhaps embellished, by the monoprinting process. This ‘blind’ printing technique – in which the artist creates marks without knowing exactly where they will print – makes for incidental alignments between ink and image.
Such coincidence also structures the short narrative of the film A Muse (21/2 mins, 2017), which uses the masking technique described above, staging a chance interaction between Ben Whishaw (who was in London) and poet, essayist and classicist Anne Carson and her partner Robert Currie (who were in Illinois). Whishaw appears to shout down to Carson, as she and Currie spin on a children’s roundabout. This shared moment, in which each protagonist is ‘a muse’ for the other, is at once playfully natural and also entirely artificial, a conceit of the filming technique.
A more subdued tone is struck in the twenty photogravures which make up The Russian Ending (2001), which come from postcards collected by the artist from European flea markets. The handwritten notes that cover their surfaces read like snippets of scripts and film directions. Depicting disastrous and sombre scenes, from explosions to funerals, these images act as stand-ins for the final frames of imagined films. Drawing upon a convention of the Danish film industry, to produce films with two endings – a happy one for the American market, and a tragic one for the Russian market – Dean presents a series of disastrous ‘Russian endings’. The part stands in for the whole, the apparent final frame invoking the events that might have led up to it.
Likewise, in Foley Artist (1996), parts indicate the whole, with sound pointing to an entire narrative. The installation reveals the hidden performers of sound production in film – the foley artists – and the mechanisms by which sound is scripted, recorded, stored and played back. What it is missing is the visual of the film itself: the narrative of this imagined short film is told purely through scripted sound (voices, footsteps, closing doors, the wind). An usherette leaves a theatre just as actor Tim Pigott-Smith strikes up with the opening lines of Henry IV Part II, ‘Open your ears’. Walking and running through various environments, she returns to the theatre for the last lines of the play. She is at the peripheries of the drama, like the foley artists, not centre-stage, but important nevertheless. As with many of the works in this exhibition, Foley Artist lays bare the artifice of performance, whilst at the same time conjuring its magic.