Visual Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Tacita Dean exhibition reveals an artist whose work movingly explores the processes of mortality. By Bella Li.

The MCA’s Tacita Dean exhibition explores the processes of mortality

A location photo from One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting (2021) by Tacita Dean.
A location photo from One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting (2021) by Tacita Dean.
Credit: Mathew Hale

Tacita Dean at the Museum of Contemporary Art is one of a trilogy of blockbuster exhibitions running across two major Sydney galleries this summer. Unlike the Louise Bourgeois and Kandinsky shows at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which are true retrospectives, it’s largely comprised of new and recent works, many of which have not previously been shown in Australia.

These works display what Dean acknowledges is a marked lack of stylistic and formal coherence: included here are chalk drawings, photographs, lithographs, collages, found objects and films. Presented with any single piece without context, you might be hard-pressed to name the artist. It’s fitting, then, that the exhibition’s title is this name, which holds the works together.

There is a general curatorial refusal to shoehorn pieces into thematic or temporal categories. One effect is to privilege their singularity; another is to allow the artist’s preoccupations to surface more clearly. Take the “chalk room” – not an official moniker, but used by gallery staff – which contains a number of chalk drawings on blackboard and slate. Two – The Wreck of Hope (2022) and Chalk Fall (2018) – are monumental, taking up entire walls. That these drawings share a common medium is significant: what is distinctive about Dean’s body of work is her interest in mediums (a term Dean prefers to “media”) as physical and conceptual phenomena.

The politics of artmaking at play supersedes other kinds. The chalk drawings are, for instance, less compelling for what they say about environmental disaster – crumbling cliffs, melting icebergs – than for how they ask us to consider the medium of chalk, a particularly frangible substance. None of these drawings, which Dean calls “collapsing artworks”, is fixed: anyone could brush past and erase them.

The differences between chalk and film – the medium for which Dean is perhaps best known – are only of degree and kind. One of the most moving aspects of the show is seeing the signs of degradation on a roll of film – dark spots and thin lines that play across the screen in tandem with the images. The presence of the medium – otherwise rendered invisible by the speed of 24 frames a second – constitutes a “second film”, making perceptible the process of binding the fleeting image to a form that transcends its time of making.

There is only one film we are explicitly encouraged to watch from beginning to end – though arguably this instruction should also apply to Paradise (2021), which has as much narrative trajectory as can be ascribed to an abstract film of intense washes of light and colour. At 50 minutes, Event for a Stage (2015), composed of footage from a solo theatre performance commissioned for the Sydney Biennale in 2014, is the only one with set screening times.

We are told early on by the actor, Stephen Dillane, that Event is a departure from Dean’s earlier filmic portraits, which mostly depict other visual artists. As Dillane says, “this time she is trying to film a process, a craft, a profession”, “to make a portrait of the actor in his natural environment”. Here Dean investigates the medium of theatre – defined by its own particular temporality – and what happens when this medium collides with film.

We see end boards being clapped and takes noted by Dillane, and the crew behind bulky cameras, conspicuously changing reels. Frequent cuts to the actor sporting different wigs show the footage is assembled from multiple performances. The audio track, in contrast, sounds convincingly like a single take. What we experience in this presentation of “live theatre” is a curious layering of time that can only be effected by film: on the one hand, we are (apparently) shuttling back and forth; on the other, we are moving (apparently) forwards in an unbroken line.

A variation of this layering and manipulation of time is evident in Geography Biography (2023), an 18-minute “35mm portrait format anamorphic film diptych” made for a rotunda space in the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. A form of travelogue via film, it is also “an accidental self-portrait”. Geography Biography – two words that evoke space and time more broadly – uses previous film projects of Dean’s on Super 8 and 16mm, footage of Marcel Marceau (from the only non-original film here), and Dean’s found postcard collection.

This is a collage film, but not as we would ordinarily conceive it. Rather than stitching together whole frames from various films, each image is made as a “composite inside the camera” – during filming rather than in post-production – a technique that shows a dogged commitment to the accidents, happy or otherwise, of the moment of making. The method introduces new dimensions into the moving image, heightening the sense of temporal and spatial dislocation already present in more traditional forms of collage.

Geography Biography intersects with other works in the exhibition and with Dean’s oeuvre in general. See, for instance, the haunting and comic pairing of images in which, on one side, Claes Oldenburg is forever descending in an elevator, while on the other he is forever ascending, presumably in the same elevator. Oldenburg, who passed away in 2022, also appears in the drolly titled Claes Oldenburg draws Blueberry Pie (2023) – a film composed of offcuts from Manhattan Mouse Museum (2011; not shown here), another film Dean made of Oldenburg shuffling objects around in the basement of his studio.

The emotional elasticity of experienced time is clear in One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting (2021), a filmed conversation between two artists, Luchita Hurtado and Julie Mehretu, who are born exactly 50 years apart. As Hurtado says, “a heartbeat can be a year long”. A discussion about death here concludes with a cut to a close-up of flowers that is overlaid with an apparently unbroken audio track, moving seamlessly into a discussion about the artists’ birthdays. The transition is so artfully executed it’s difficult to notice you have slipped from the end of the conversation to its beginning.

This discussion of death was filmed shortly before Hurtado’s own death in 2020. In the looping of the film – as with the looped appearances of Oldenburg in Geography Biography and Blueberry – this event is forestalled: the mechanism is reset and the conversation continues. But we are intensely aware that we are watching art, not life, and that these are only ghostly animated afterimages.

Art has its own sense of mortality, bound to the mediums it inhabits: materials that may outlast the human body but are also subject to decay. In Tacita Dean the mediums assert themselves. To allow them to come gradually but persistently into the foreground requires patience and repeat viewings. You might love this sort of experience or prefer to stick a pin in your eye, but staying for the duration reveals the way an image sharpens something in the mind – a mood, a memory – while itself remaining opaque. What the image provokes is also part of the art, though it can be a half-submerged and inchoate thing, its power derived from being slightly or wholly out of focus.

Dean is fascinated by the processes and effects of time, and if she is concerned with making and forms, she is also necessarily concerned with an always looming entropy. The emphasis is on disappearing mediums: a series of photographs, The Story of the Lemon that grew Hair (1991/2014), is unremarkable until you read the wall label and realise they were shot and developed on the last roll of Cibachrome film in existence.

Every artist makes interventions into the visible and audible worlds, and Dean’s are at once highly conceptual and deeply moving, not least for what they say about certain contiguities between life and art. If one is committed to the physical medium, then one is also committed to its destruction. Looping implies strict repetition without difference, but with each loop the film degrades: showing the films unavoidably participates in their decomposition.

The figure of the circle recurs with frequency through Tacita Dean – in the circular stage and relentless circling of the actor in Event; in its dominance as an elemental form in Paradise, informed by the spatial poetics of heaven in Dante’s Paradise. But for Dean the circle is not a dupe for the static eternal: rather it is a powerful and generative index of constant change. No fixative can arrest time – nor should there be such a thing as endless life. Every medium is always “collapsing” and it is in this collapse that Dean’s art and its subjects find their most compelling and characteristic expression. 

Tacita Dean is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until March 3.


BALLET The Sleeping Beauty

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Meanjin/Brisbane, until January 18-20

VISUAL ART From the other side

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Naarm/Melbourne, until March 3

TEXTILE New Exuberance

Long Gallery, nipaluna/Hobart, until February 11

VISUAL ART Emily Kam Kngwarray

National Gallery of Australia, Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country/Canberra, until April 28

CULTURE Australian Geographic: Our Country

Perth Exhibition and Convention Centre, Whadjuk and Noongar Country, until February 11


THEATRE Alice in Wonderland

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, until January 13

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Time’s thievish progress".

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