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Tacita Dean Tacita Dean
photo Jim Rakete
In 2013, Melbourne’s ACCA presented the first showing of the celebrated British artist Tacita Dean’s epic kaleidoscopic anamorphic film installation, FILM (2011), since its debut in the voluminous space of the Tate Turbine Hall in London. Less than a year later and Tacita Dean is returning to Australia, again at the invitation of ACCA Artistic Director Juliana Engberg in her present incarnation as curator of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, You Imagine What You Desire. On this occasion, Dean returns with another first—presenting in Sydney the inaugural live performance work of her career, Event for a Stage (2014), as a highlight of the Biennale’s middle program.

Well-known for her artisanal approach to celluloid filmmaking and with a multi-disciplinary practice that spans sound recordings, atmospheric drawings, photography, over-painted postcards and mixed media works, the transition into live performance represents a bold leap for Dean. A month out from the launch of Event for a Stage at Carriageworks, co-commissioners of the work along with the Biennale, details of its content are slowly being revealed. When I speak with Engberg about the work’s development, she explains that while it’s “very much in an incubatory phase” and represents “a real step out for [Dean] in terms of her own processes and procedures” this one-act theatrical presentation will also be very much within the artist’s own language and artistic procedures. “As a filmmaker Tacita has always been interested in all those things that combine in that process: sound, action, light, colour, etcetera. What we’re trying to do in some ways is to manifest that in reality, to capture it in its film life, in an audio life and to present it in a live format simultaneously. So it’s quite interesting.”

At the heart of the project is the live filming of a portrait of a performer on stage, the British actor Stephen Dillane, whose versatility across film and theatre will surely suit him to this unconventional role. If Dean’s rich oeuvre of understated and carefully edited film work is anything to go by, gesture, atmosphere, affect and a sense of quietude may prove pivotal over action. For Dean, the development of working in a theatre, which came about when Engberg discovered the “fundamental opportunity” that having Carriageworks as a Biennale venue partner offered in its access to a theatre space, is a chance to become more self-reflexive. As the Biennale’s press material sets out: “by exposing her own way of filming to an audience, she is dramatising the role of medium, whilst also working with an actor examining the nature of his own presence on a stage.”

While the move into a live setting gestures towards an experimental breaking open of Dean’s process in a theatrical context, the premise of a filmed portrait is also continuous with Dean’s extensive body of cinematic portraiture work culminating in 2008 in one of the artist’s most important works to date, the six-film installation titled Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS. Created from footage that Dean filmed of the American avant-garde choreographer at his studio in Manhattan two years before his death, the multipartite installation depicts Cunningham performing a near motionless interpretation of Stillness, his singular choreography for his lifetime partner John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33.” Seated in a chair, Cunningham simply shifts position for each of the composition’s three movements, Dean’s life-size projections serving to magnify the elegiac drama of his silent poses.

In her other film portrait works, Dean has made what Jean-Christophe Royoux has termed “memory-homages” to such luminaries of the art world as Mario Merz, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and most recently Robert Smithson as well as intimate studies of her own uncles and an elderly friend of the family nicknamed ‘Boots.’ Dean herself has jokingly conceded the Freudian “father-complex” at work in her practice. Yet in a more universal sense the portrait of an ageing figure captured in the disappearing medium of analogue film invites meditation upon themes of time, perception and the nature of seeing and reflects Dean’s ongoing interest in the study of memory, loss, absence and obsolescence.

Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS was presented as one of the key works in the 2009 ACCA survey and in many ways the bold venture of Event for a Stage is a product of Engberg’s long and trusting relationship with the artist. Having now worked with Dean on a number of important exhibitions, Engberg has developed a deep appreciation for what she describes as the completeness of the artist’s vision.

“We enjoy working together and I love bringing Tacita’s work to the public because it’s very generous in its delivery and because I see Tacita as a total artist in a way,” says Engberg. “The way she uses film is very painterly, she calls upon genres of British landscape work and British portraiture and even though her work is in a twentieth-century medium with a twenty-first century delivery, I see in her a long legacy of practice that I still want to be engaged with. But I also love the fact that because it is filmic her work takes us into other sorts of dimensions of encounter, it’s durational and she uses quite a sparse amount of narrative. It is I think a delectable kind of visuality that she delivers and it changes our concept of what cinema might be.”

As well as expanding the parameters of cinema and live art, Event for a Stage continues Dean’s exploration of the relationship between the aural and the visual. Beyond the four performances programmed for Carriageworks, there are plans for the work to “live on in a perpetual way in an audio life,” Engberg explains, as the ABC’s Radio National is building a platform for the audio work for radio broadcast. The timing of the live performances as a highlight of the middle program of the Biennale is another important aspect of its delivery.

“It cohabits in time our launch of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s wonderful new piece which they’ve made for us here [City of Forking Paths, 2014] which will take people on a cinematic fictional tour of the Rocks in Sydney, another filmic kind of event; again not cinema but a durational time-based piece,” says Engberg. “I’m bringing those two things together in the middle of the Biennale with a set of discussions around some of these ideas.”

For Engberg, the inclusion of durational time-based works like Dean’s Event for a Stage presents one of the biggest challenges in curating a biennale due to the constraints of the long three-month running time. Nevertheless, “I have tried as much as I can to thread those things through the program because I think real time work is extremely important at the moment,” she says. “Artists are enjoying the opportunity of taking themselves outside the gallery circumstances with quiet gestures and procedures that may not be known to a lot of the audience but which nevertheless provide important textures throughout the whole Biennale.”


19th Biennale of Sydney and Carriageworks, Tacita Dean, Event for a Stage, Carriageworks, Sydney, 1-4 May

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 54

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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