pieter van bogaert
Time, chance and earthly matters
Tacita Dean in Mudam
for HART, 2022
(Lees verder in het Nederlands)
Tacita Dean shows new work in Mudam. It became an exhibition in two parts. On one side, she presents drawn, photographed and filmed decors for The Dante Project, the ballet by British choreographer Wayne McGregor. On the other side, the exhibition grows around a film, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, in which Luchita Hurtado and Julie Mehretu, two women belonging to two different generations, both painters, write their own piece of art history.
I should have known better. After the press opening, I launch our conversation with an unfortunate slip of the tongue: inspired by the variety of techniques that, just as in her earlier work, she’s brought to bear for this this exhibition, I address her as a media artist. My mistake. Tacita Dean is not fond of the word ‘media’. She’s explained why countless times already, but does so again, especially for me.
The word has lost its meaning, she says: ‘It no longer means what I want it to mean. Paint is my medium. Film is my medium. That meaning was lost with the widespread proliferation of digital media, which treats every medium the same way.’ She talks about technological determinism. About having to remain ‘up to date’ or else drop out. ‘The debate around film versus digital is misconceived. It’s a discussion in which only one medium seems to be able to survive, and for financial rather than artistic reasons. But film is a medium with very special qualities. The art consists in the constant discovery and application of those qualities.’ Dean uses it like she uses a blackboard. She writes with it. ‘By calling it a medium, you take the discussion out of that technologically determined trajectory.’ She claims film as a medium, for herself, as an artist. It is a question of the specificity of the medium, of the difference between seeing and looking. ‘A digital camera sees things. Everything is fully automatic and if something doesn’t go the way you wanted, you correct in post-production. A film camera forces you to look. You have to take into account the light, the distance from your subject, the lens you are using, right from the moment you start shooting. You have to make decisions constantly; not passively recording, but actively looking.’ This is why Tacita Dean doesn’t speak of media, but of mediums. In time, it became a political act. Tacita Dean is an activist despite herself.
I might have known. That activism traces back to 2011 and the work she completed that year for Tate Modern: FILM. The work was made in a state of urgency: the observation that laboratories – like the one in London where she develops her films – are closing because owners no longer find the business profitable enough. A medium – the medium, in fact, with which Dean made her name a good thirty years ago – is in danger of fading away as a result. In addition to the monumental 35mm-film installation she delivered for Turbine Hall, FILM also became a book and a website. The latter is called www.savefilm.org, and is supported by a hundred or so artists, curators, filmmakers and technicians working with the analogue medium. It is an ode to the métier of the filmmaker who both leaves room for and anticipates chance, harking back to a time when nothing was fully automatic: the pre-digital era, when film served as a conservational medium to bring landscapes, buildings, people and other things that will one day disappear, back to life.
Instead of taking a detour via the dreaded word I should have just started with where I wanted to arrive: the idea that, by working with different mediums, she also works with different times. This applies to the times in which the respective mediums originated, their histories, but also the different rhythms that her mediums demand in their production and viewing. There’s a term for that: time-based arts. But even this description often proves too reductive for works with film and sound. Tacita Dean expands the definition beyond just images and sounds that require time to view and listen to; she includes other mediums she works with – photography, lithography, drawing, painting – and the time they require to make and view.
Time is the central element in this exhibition. It’s in the title of her new 16mm film, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting. That film is about time. But it’s also present in The Dante Project. That work is about the life that continues after this life here on earth: the afterlife, living on in hell, purgatory and paradise. ‘This idea of hell makes Dante’s work incredibly timeless. We still talk about the inferno every day. All I had to do was extract the elements from Dante’s text that are still relevant today. If something is no longer relevant, that shouldn’t be a reason to ignore the text as a whole.’
No, Tacita Dean did not hesitate when Wayne McGregor asked her to create the sets and costumes for The Dante Project: ‘It’s a great subject. Neither radically new nor radically old, but just very rich, full of material.’ That too is about time: the way the pandemic, the lockdown, Brexit or Trump implicitly or explicitly permeate each new reading of Dante. It’s like her use of the various mediums: the constraints of the moment help make the work. And even when that work takes on monumental dimensions, there remains a generous attention to detail. See the images of the icy mountains she draws, upside down, in Inferno, and the words (from the newspaper, from the radio or the Internet) she incorporates, which are very visible in the museum and less in the theatre. Or look at the photograph of the Jacaranda tree that she prints in partial negative, for the wall-sized prints of Purgatorio, so that the purple flowers transform into an unworldly green canopy. At the same time, she leaves room for the unmistakably contemporary backdrop of parked cars and Los Angeles sidewalk. This oscillation between positive and negative in Inferno and Purgatorio, between then and now, between there and here, is preserved in the movement from figurative to abstract in Inferno and Paradise.
At a certain point in One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, a book with work by Luchita Hurtado is casually tossed across the table. The title of that book is: I Live I Die I Will be Reborn. That is about the afterlife, the life that comes after this life, like in Dante. Dean’s film is part of Hurtado’s afterlife – she dies a few months after shooting and a few months before her hundredth birthday.
One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting exists by virtue of a coincidence. Tacita Dean films a conversation between two women who share a birthday: 28 November. One, Luchita Hurtado, born in 1920, is in her hundredth year of life. The other, Julie Mehretu, born in 1970, in her fiftieth. Both live and work in the U.S., where they arrived as immigrants at a very young age, Hurtado from Venezuela, Mehretu from Ethiopia. It just so happens that on the same 3rd of January as Tacita Dean, they are both in Los Angeles, where Hurtado lives. They also both paint. And they are both mothers – Hurtado’s son, artist Matt Mullican, also happens to be in town that day and is present for the filming. Without each of these coincidences, the film would never have come to be. Tacita Dean stages and allows herself to be staged by chance.
The most incredible coincidence in this story is, of course, the very short career of Luchita Hurtado, who received her first major exhibition in 2016, four years before the hundredth birthday she will narrowly miss. For eight decades, she paints in the shadow of her different spouses, who are also artists. It happens to be an assistant who finds a work signed ‘LH’ among the work of her last husband, artist Lee Mullican. He inquires who this mysterious LH might be. ‘That’s me!’ says Luchita Hurtado, who until then had gone through life as Luchita Mullican. Meanwhile, the prestigious New York gallery Hauser & Wirth is selling her work, which was recently on view in solo exhibitions from the Serpentine Galleries in London to the LACMA in Los Angeles.
One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting presents a history of a woman painting in the shadows. Hurtado never painted with the ambition of showing her work. What matters is the work, the searching for and finding of an image. That’s what makes it such an appropriate subject for Tacita Dean. She fulfils the promise hidden in her name: Tacita, the goddess of silence, of what is not there, of what lies beneath the unspoken, the enigma, the hidden meaning. It is there in the word derived from her name: tacit, a complicit, self-chosen silence. As in previous work, she depicts what is difficult to express; image becomes sound and sound becomes image. In One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, it lies in the images she requires and uses to great effect to create an illusion of continuity.
Such is Dean’s own view of the passage of time. All those images of hands, gestures, objects, pencils, glasses, cups, Post-its, the tapestry, the books – all point to the material, the artisanal, the handwork in the work of both artists whom she films during their conversation at the table, as well as to those same qualities in her own work. See how she paints with light in Paradise, her film for The Dante Project. See how she works with colour and black and white, or how she creates those images – as in FILM, her work for the Turbine Hall – with caches she holds in front of the lens. How she plays with light and dark – that yellow that never seemed as sombre as in Paradise, with a colour palette borrowed from William Blake. Or how she shows images from that same film as a series of ten prints, which in the corridor connect the two parts of the exhibition. Dean’s words at the press conference, ‘Paradise is boring,’ come back to me when I see a similarity between those prints and the images of HAL 9000, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s film that, like Paradise, depicts a journey across celestial bodies. Perhaps it’s on purpose, a nod to the supercomputer that, in 1968, heralded the digital age and the boredom of the fully automated, programmed life. Those framed images from her film move from black and white (The Dante Project in one wing of the museum) to colour (One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting in the other wing). The transition is anything but boring. Rather, there’s something rock ‘n’ roll about it: how she lets the changing sunlight shine unabashedly onto her work through the museum’s windows, or how she plays with the reflections in the glass that lend the prints a constantly mutating appearance.
A similar effect is achieved in LA Exuberance (2016) and The Magic Hour (2021), images she hangs in the room around One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, lithographs of drawings of skies in Los Angeles that are mirrored in the sky that appears in the skylights. It’s the mineral quality of the drawings she makes on slates in the same room, echoing the blackboards with drawings of upside-down mountains for her Inferno in The Dante Project. These are taken up again in Buon Fresco (2014), an older work at the other end of the exhibition in which she uses a macro lens on a 16mm camera to make extreme close-ups of Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi. She shows not only the fingers, lips, eyes as the painter and contemporary of Dante saw them when making the work, but also the way time takes hold of the image. This attention to the matter of both mediums (Giotto’s image and Dean’s film) is reinforced in the presentation of the work; it’s displayed on a small screen that invites the viewer to come closer, with the sound of the 16mm projector in the background.
It all fits with the idea of timelessness, the being out of time, where things happen simultaneously in space and time and merge and take shape in chance. As if everything originates in the here and now. This is where Dean’s work fits perfectly with that of Hurtado (‘I like it here,’ she says at one point in the film) and Mehretu (who replies, ‘Me too’), who, if they don’t make peripatetic art (Mehretu’s abstract work around natural disasters, migratory flows or uprisings that take on meaning in the recorded movements) at least lead a peripatetic life (Hurtado call herself ‘terrestrial’, earthly). All a person needs are air and water, precisely the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in the collective suicide we are heading for: ‘I think we’re about to commit suicide,’ Hurtado says in the film. ‘We’re committing suicide as we speak. That’s scary. And what we need is air and water and that’s what we should concentrate on. We’re very free with water, and water here is limited. So that’s what my work is about now.’
The terrestrial, that earthliness appears again in the two canvases by both artists that Dean includes in her exhibition and that also play a role in the film. Both works start from the earth, from earthliness. In Mascara (1975), Hurtado looks from the earth (‘from the grave’, as she says in the film) to the sky, with the rocks surrounding her like a body and the feathers in the air coming together like eyes and a mouth in a face. In Hineni (E.3:4), Mehretu is inspired by Moses, who answers God’s call from heaven with a cry from earth, ‘Hineni,’ ‘here I am’.
One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting is a film that plays in a continuous loop, without beginning or end. This, too, has to do with time as well as chance: you can enter or leave whenever you like (but you know that the film lasts fifty and a half minutes, Mehretu’s age at the premiere – coincidence or not). Beginnings and endings are irrelevant here. What matters is the loop: the imperceptible starting over, the rebirth of generations and how they live on in each other. In that loop, the organization of the work begins. The limitations of the medium make the film. It becomes a question of looking instead of seeing. Dean not only has to pay attention to light and frame; she also has to consider the length of the reels (ten minutes in the case of 16mm). The spaces in the conversation when she has to replace the reels in the camera she fills afterwards with images of the surroundings. That’s where the tactile aspect comes into play, the manipulation of matter, carried through in the work of the projector that, over time, will leave the scratches on the image.
Tacita Dean. Until 5 february 2023 in Mudam, Luxemburg. www.mudam.com