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Contemporary artist Tacita Dean works in many mediums to create a varied and compelling body of work, from collections of four-leaf clovers to chalk drawings to filmed portraits of artists. In 2018, a wide array of these works was on view during three simultaneous exhibitions in London: one at the National Portrait Gallery, one at the National Gallery, and one at the Royal Academy of Arts. Taking those exhibitions as a starting point, in this episode Dean discusses her working methods, her approach to her subjects, and the importance of language for artists and filmmakers.

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Tacita Dean at Frith Street Gallery
Tacita Dean at Marian Goodman Gallery


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

TACITA DEAN: I can’t know where I’m going like that. I have to not know what I’m doing. Otherwise, it doesn’t hold me. It doesn’t hold my interest.

CUNO: In this episode I speak with artist Tacita Dean about her work and recent exhibitions.

Earlier this year, the British artist Tacita Dean had three exhibitions in London: at the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art, and the Royal Academy of Arts.

The Portrait Gallery exhibition featured Tacita’s film and photographic portraits of artists and friends. The National Gallery exhibition included examples of her films juxtaposed with still-life paintings selected from the Gallery’s collection. And the Royal Academy exhibition included her chalk landscapes drawings and her new film, Antigone.

I recently sat down with Tacita to discuss these exhibitions and the works they comprise, and her thoughts about the nature and value of film as a medium.

Thank you, Tacita, for coming into the Getty for this podcast. First tell us about how it came to pass that you had these three exhibitions in London, more or less at the same time.

DEAN: What happened was that I was invited to do an exhibition by the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, at the same time that Tim Marlow, who is the senior curator or director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, asked me.

CUNO: Did each know the other was asking you?

DEAN: No. So because I had both of them asking me and because they’re both sort of unlikely institutions, in a way, for an artist, contemporary artist, to some extent, so I asked— I suggested to Nick[sp?] about whether or not to collaborate between the two exhibitions. And they’re both young and energetic, to some extent, as kind of curator-directors. So they liked the idea.

They, at the same time, did a joint purchase of my film Portraits of David Hockney, that I filmed here in L.A., which was their first collaboration, the first time.

CUNO: How was it they did a joint purchase? I didn’t know the Royal Academy acquired. Because you’re an RA, that is, a Royal Academician, or just do they acquire generally?

DEAN: I don’t know if they acquire just RAs or not; it’s a good point. But they have a collection. They do. And so does the National Portrait Gallery. The Portrait Gallery had never had film before. I’m the first film person. So it was their first collaborative— to show a relationship across the two institutions.

CUNO: And even at that time, at the very beginning of this conversation about the two exhibitions, did you determine, of course, that portraits would be at the National Portrait Gallery?

DEAN: Well, no, the portraits was clearly gonna be portraits.

CUNO: Yeah.

DEAN: And it was Nick Cullinan’s idea. Said, “Well, you know, this is portraits. Why don’t you do landscape at the Royal Academy? And why don’t we ask the National Gallery to do sill life?” Because in a way, I have works that fit into all there categories. But of course, to make an exhibition or three exhibitions about genre in this day and age is a sort of odd call.

But it actually gave me the structure in which to make these three exhibitions, which were, you know, on paper, possibly a bit megalomaniac.

CUNO: Yeah. They were intended, I guess, in the initial conversations, to be on view at the same time, but that the Royal Academy—

DEAN: Yes. The Royal Academy had to postpone because their building wasn’t finished.

CUNO: Now, in your essay that opens the catalog for the three exhibitions—’cause it’s a single catalog for the three—you ruminate about a small watercolor by the early twentieth century artist Paul Nash. Describe the watercolor for us and tell us why you chose it as the first image in the catalog.

DEAN: Well, the watercolor was acquired by a friend of mine called Robin Vasden[sp?], who showed me a picture of it. And it’s called Cumulus Head. And he told me it was a portrait of his wife, Paul Nash’s wife, Margaret Nash.
You know, it’s clearly a head with curls; but it could also be a bust. You don’t have a sense that it’s alive. It could also, in that sense, be a still life. And then of course, it’s in a landscape of clouds. So it plays on the definition of these genres, which was quite important to the exhibition as a whole. Like, what constitutes as landscape? What constitutes still life or, you know, portrait?

Becasue I had in my exhibition, things that were— You know, like my work Majesty, which is a portrait of a tree called Majesty. Is that a portrait or is that a landscape? You know, it plays with these definitions, you know, what really constitutes these genres in the twenty-first century.

CUNO: You’ve been described as a collector of cosmic wonders. Such wonders in the exhibition might include your collection of four-, five-, six-, seven-, and nine-leaf clovers; or your collection of naturally-formed round stones. So in the collection catalog, you wrote of the flints that surrounded your childhood home in the North Downs, and you say that an arrangement of a single flint has endless permutations and unlimited identity.
So does this, what you’ve described, apply generally to your work—the chalk drawings of sunburst clouds, for example; or even the film portraits of artists, the way you examine them closely, as if their faces and studios have endless permutations of unlimited identity?

DEAN: Yeah, I don’t think identity is a fixed thing at all. And you know, with the flint, the two films I made and Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting, which was in the still life exhibition, which was a study of one stone of Henry Moore’s flint collection. Although it appears to be many different, because of the versatility of this incredible object.

Something in me likes to study something in detail, you know, from the perspective of many, many personalities. And, you know, I’d say the same of what I do, too. I’ve never made singular forms. I’ve never been able to make a singular thing, really. You take that even to film, which is, of course, sequential. You know, many, many frames make up a second of film. And even when I was an art student, I couldn’t draw one thing. It was always a pair or a series or—So in that way, I’ve never been one for singularity, if that explains. I mean, it’s a difficult thing to sort of transcribe to everything. But I do know when I make a film of an object or a person, I am interested in a nuance that can escape, you know, normal documentation, I guess.

CUNO: But the first two examples I gave, the clovers and the stones, are things you found in nature and have— And in their accumulation by you, they have both relationship and they have sequential development. And so what distinguishes those which you exhibited as if they were—and I suppose you’ll claim they could be—works of art— What distinguishes them from things that you make?

DEAN: Well, that’s an interesting question ’cause it says, what is a work of art? So by showing my four-leaf clover collection, is that a work of art or just a collection? For me, it is my collection. Putting it in the context of an art museum makes it, to some extent, a work of art. But it will always only be my collection. You know, it has no commercial value, it is my collection; it’s not something I would ever sell.

But putting it in the context of an exhibition makes you think about— it was more to do with what is a landscape? You know, how can you depict a landscape? Can you depict it through a part of it, rather than a depiction of it?
And this is very much in the Paul Nash tradition, by the way. Because he used to, you know, pick up things in the landscape. And his action of picking it up, which was this sort of Surrealist or British Surrealist idea, made it into an art object. That was his proposal. So he used to pick up objects and stones, also, and photograph them, of course. But by picking it up, he felt that he had given it a purpose and a function. So it’s a very strange— ’Cause you’re in kind of, of course, uncomfortable territory because, you know, a clover collection is not really a work of art, necessarily; but you know, at what point can it transform?

And it can transform and it informs a bigger idea. And in the context of that exhibition, it was, you know, putting the whole of the idea of landscape into a bigger— a universe than just depiction.

CUNO: Yeah. Is it too much to say that you, by continuing to find four-leaf clovers, or six- or seven- or multiple-leaf clovers, or these round— extraordinarily round stones, that they are touchpoints for you? That in the process of it, it triggers something that you then follow through with in your works of art?

DEAN: [over Cuno] Well, the thing is, is that, you know, I found my first four-leaf clovers when I was about seven or eight years old. Okay, so I find some clovers. And then I realize I just can find them when no one else can, right? And I write to the Guinness Book of Records and say, you know, “Have I got a—? You know, I’ve found seven.” And they write back saying, “No, somebody in Ohio has found 63,000 or something.” And I’ve got that letter, dated whatever it is, 19-you know-seventy-something.

And so I was already conscious of it in a wider situation, than something you know, that I was already making it into a collection as a child. And then that’s something I’ve carried through life. And also, my father used to find round stones and give them to me. His were never round enough for me, really, but—

So that was an early connection with what the flints were, too, with this whole project. Which you have to remember, I was showing this in England, having not lived there since 2000. So it brought up some kind of atavistic ideas of what connotates home and how much home is the landscape, I suspect in my head, to some extent.

CUNO: Yeah, yeah.

DEAN: But what is very pertinent to the collection of clovers and round stones is my methodology, which is something of the same. Relying on—I call it a sort of objective chance trajectory—which means that I allow chance to happen in the way I’m directed. And I think that’s very connected to the clovers. The way I can scan a field and see a clover when, maybe it’s just being good at observation or whatever. But of course, as soon as it’s a symbol of luck, there’s a lot of kind of stuff around it.

But the way I graze a field to find a clover is pretty much how I graze to make things in my films and in other ways, too. So I see a great connection in it, allowing luck and chance to intervene in what I do. You have to be open to things happening.

CUNO: So you work in different mediums—film, photography, and drawing, for example. What determines the medium that you wish to work in in any particular instance?

DEAN: I work on everything simultaneously. You know, they’ve been parallel languages for me from the beginning. I mean, from the very beginning, I was making a film, I was doing a drawing, all simultaneously. Which is why I’m not a filmmaker, per se. I’m definitely an artist.

CUNO: Is the medium triggered by the subject?

DEAN: Well, everything comes from a different place, and so I can’t give you a generic answer to that. You know, with Gaeta, which was the series of photographs I made outside Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, which is in Southern Italy, that was a photo essay. And it came about because I’m a huge fan of Cy Twombly’s, and Dia Art Center used to do these talks of artists talking about artists, mainly in their collection. And I asked to talk about Twombly, which was a surprise to everyone at the time; they thought I’d talk about Smithson. But because of their connection to Menil, they let me do it.

And, I mean, I remember that lecture was with total agony, you know. I got completely lost and I couldn’t bear to ever listen to it. But they gave a recording of it, down the line, to Cy Twombly for— as a possibility for me writing a text for his show at Tate Modern some years later. But somehow, when I could write it, it was easier.

It was when Cy turned eighty, so there were a lot of shows. So it was just after they asked me at Tate, they asked me at MUMOK, in Vienna. And I said, “I can’t write twice, but I’d love to do a photo essay of his studio.” And that’s how it came about. So that first appeared in his catalog for MUMOK. He selected the photos with me.

And then much, much later, I was offered the last Cibachrome paper, which is how you go from a transparency to a photographic paper. In Switzerland. It was this— So I bought this paper and I decided that the work I always wanted to do is to make images of these slides I’d taken in Gaeta. And that made me think about making the whole— all the photographs in the way I did, which is what was shown at National Portrait Gallery.

CUNO: We should probably say that Gaeta is a place where Cy had a house and a studio, and where he accumulated a number of things that were meaningful to him, in the same way that you accumulate stones and four-leaf clovers.

DEAN: He has— he had— he had a big stone collection.

CUNO: Oh, yeah.

DEAN: So there were a lot of stones in his studio. It was a most beautiful place.

CUNO: Yeah, very beautiful, yeah.

CUNO: What makes you make a filmed portrait?

DEAN: Well, again, every reason is different. With MUMOK, which is where I’d done the photo essay, in turn, I had my own exhibition there. And he’d forged a very close relationship with the curator there, Achim Hochdörfer. And so I was working with Achim on my own exhibition, and he suggested—

Well, people always give me some suggestions; I don’t always take them. But he suggested that maybe I try and go meet Leo Steinberg, to make a portrait. And I said my heart’s desire was to film Cy. And so we accumulated this situation where I was going to film Cy in Lexington, and then Leo. But then Leo kind of— He was ninety and trying to write his last work with the ultimate deadline, you know.

And so he only could give me an hour, in the end. So that’s why I ended up also filming Claes Oldenburg, because he was also doing a show in MUMOK. I mean, it’s just as simple as that. Achim [inaudible] about Claes Oldenburg. And I met him and I wasn’t sure. Because there usually has to be something there. And there was, and so I ended up filming Claes Oldenburg for Manhattan Mouse Museum.

But it took the whole day for me to get to the point where he lost his self-consciousness and started to just get lost in dusting his objects. And at that moment, I knew I had a film. But I’d filmed all day doing lots of other things.
CUNO: The two works about Cy, the sequence of photographs, accumulation of photographs, and the film, are quite similar, in the sense in the film, he’s restless, he’s restless, he’s moving about. He’s moving about things that he’s accumulated, he’s gathering things and reading them, picking them up.

DEAN: Well, no, the most important thing about that is that I don’t think there are many artists who can be watched working in the obvious way. So all these kind of films of artists working tend to be— I don’t know. I mean, I can’t do anything un-self-consciously, if someone’s watching me. You always feel like you’re just playing the role, at that point.

So I think what’s important about that film with Cy is that he just actually sits and he’s working in another way. He’s working—which I think is very, very important—he’s working by doing nothing.

CUNO: He’s doing more than David Hockney does in his film.

DEAN: He’s doing less, I think. You know, he’s doing the same, in a way, in a different way. I mean, David, looking at his work when he smokes. When he thinks, he smokes; when he paints, he doesn’t smoke. I wanted to film him smoking, so the two were apart. With Cy, he— I really believe this very strongly. He was somebody who would just sit and think and accumulate, in order to have this encounter. You know, his work is always a bit about encounter.

CUNO: One of the most beautiful filmed portraits in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was the Michael Hamburger film, in which there’s the sound of the wind blowing through the trees and the crispy autumn leaves that have a kind of bone-shaking, rattling sense about them. And how it was that he just looked and moved about this small, unkempt garden. Tell us about that and about him.

DEAN: Well, you asked where all these films come from. I was asked to be in an exhibition about Sebald. It was about East Anglia and Suffolk. It was about Rings of Saturn, which is where it’s set. And in Rings of Saturn, the book, there’s a whole chapter devoted to him turning up at Michael Hamburger’s house.

And I love that book and I’d read it many, many years before I was asked to do this exhibition. And it so happened that Michael— I remember having a conversation with Jane Hamlyn, who runs my gallery in London. And years ago, she’d told me that Michael was her uncle. And so when I was asked to do this thing about Sebald, I immediately thought about Michael and that chapter, because it’s a very powerful chapter in the book, too.

And she told me that Michael had collected apples. You see? Another collector. And it was one of those things, ’cause you see, I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what I’m gonna do. So when I turned up with Michael, you know, we did talk a lot about Sebald.

And it was only in the editing that I realized I needed to make the film all about apples. That wasn’t the idea initially. He was talking about his friend Max Sebald and blah-blah-blah. And then he was in his orchard and then his apple store. And the film developed out of the fact that I just thought that there’s something so profound in this poet who calls himself so clearly a British poet, with such a strong German accent dealing with all these apples that came from elsewhere, and what constitutes a British apple. And I just thought it was a beautiful analogy, really, not only to the Sebaldian ideas, but also about Michael. And then I was blessed, in the sense, that it had this incredible wind the day that I filmed, and the rain and the rainbow. I mean, I didn’t wait for months for a rainbow; it was just the day that I filmed. And the wind was like, you know, what I always think of as blow-up wind.

The thing about Michael’s house is that it was literally one room deep. It was a series of cottages that were joined. So, you know, you got such a sense of the outside encroaching the inside, even to the extent that it sort of literally is. So it took on this kind of beautiful quality, I think.

CUNO: You know, in memory, these films all seem to have been silent films, although I betrayed my love of that rattling sound of the leaves and the trees in the Hamburger film. But there is, of course, a great film portrait of Merce Cunningham performing 4′33″, which is silent in the sense that there’s no instrument playing, but it’s the sound that fills the room around him and— And David Hockney, of course, he’s sitting, as you describe him. You hear the sound of the—[makes sound]—you hear the inhale and exhale of smoke as he’s smoking. You’re conscious, obviously, of the silence and the presence of sounds, that you don’t need to write them into the script; they’re there, [inaudible].

DEAN: Well, my name means silence. I think I’ve always been very drawn to silence. John Cage said silence is the sound of traffic. So I love that. In the Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS, which is six films of Merce performing to 4’33”, you get the sound of traffic from the dance studio in Bethune Street, and the sound of a bit of the piano from next door and— And it’s very important, that. I mean, I could’ve actually made it silent, but somehow it had to be that silence, that specific silence.

CUNO: You make films that sort of slow people down into looking at things. And the silence compounds that slowness or contributes to that sense of slow, slow, long duration.

DEAN: But you know, the irony is is that I record, obviously, wild sound, I call it. The actual sound, to some extent. But my soundtracks are— I actually delight in doing them, because I put in many things that are, in a way, pointers to a certain sort of atmosphere or time of day, that are not necessarily there. So you know, like a dog barking or a sort of kind of a lazy kind of bike in the distance. I mean, there’re actually some things that I add.

CUNO: I never knew that.

DEAN: No, because silence is as much artifice is image. People don’t think about it in the same way. Maya Deren said this beautiful thing: that certain sounds signify that it’s afternoon. You know, the sound when it’s cloudy is different from when it’s not cloudy.

Sound is incredibly powerful. Perhaps more powerful. Because the atmosphere you’re thinking is very much donated by the sound. The wind in the trees, the— You have at Michael Hamburger that sense of kind of slightly rotting England. A lot of that is in the sound, actually.

CUNO: In the making of that film and the other films, how do you add the sound to it? Or when do you add that in he process?

DEAN: [over Cuno] Well, I mean, the thing is, is that often, I have to go to artifice to create the reality.

Alright, so I shoot on film, photochemical film or negative. Often, the cameras are noisy things. So I record sound digitally. You know, I’m not afraid to use digital as a tool. But then when I cut my films, I put the sound back into analog. I make 35 millimeter magnetic track, especially if there’s any voice, so that I can cut on a cutting table. And then once I’ve cut it, it gets fed back into a digital format and I remake— I cut the whole thing and then add all the sounds and work with a sound guy in London, who I’ve been working with since he was a boy, actually. Great guy. And James Harrison. And then it goes back into analog. It’s really complicated. They’re very, very lovingly made, in that way. The attention to detail is enormous.

CUNO: Let’s get to the length of your films. The Hockney is sixteen minutes long; the Hamburger’s twenty-eight minutes long; the Twombly’s twenty-nine. How do you determine the length of your films?

DEAN: Well, it is what it is.

CUNO: What it needs to be.

DEAN: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s clear. You know, there are disciplines within the film, and sometimes I have to work with that, like reel lengths. You can’t have an eternal amount of film. So, you know, you can only have a certain amount on a roll before you have to have a second roll. Spool length. And I remember before, that was a huge issue for me, so that I could have them shown. ’Cause they’re shown in galleries, so I can’t have a reel change.

You know, for example, Banewl was sixty-three minutes. That’s about the total eclipse of the sun on Cornwall in 1999, when it was overcast. My original idea was to make it real time. But sixty-three minutes was the very, very edge of what’s possible to show on a single reel. Even then, I had to get special reels with a smaller core. So sometimes practical things to intercede.

You know, the Green Ray was two and a half minutes, ’cause it’s the length of one film roll in Madagascar. Diamond Ring, twenty-seven seconds, ’cause that’s all I had. You know, sometimes I will do things like Mario Merz is eight and a half minutes because I liked the idea of it being eight and a half because of Fellini. But that would’ve meant just, like, knocking off, like, four seconds here or adding four seconds there, because it was heading that direction anyway.

CUNO: You seem to acknowledge the making of the film in the— in your films. There’s always this kind of textured evidence of their having been made. It gives you that real sense. And I want to attribute some of that to the sixteen [millimeter] film format that distinguished it from video and digital, and your insistence about working with film. So talk to us about that and the difference between film and video.

DEAN: Well, there’s a lot of differences between film and video. But the one you’re talking about is something that its physicality is very clear to you. Film is very, has depth. It’s literally a physical surface with several layers of emulsion on it. Which means that it is quantifiably a physical thing, material thing.

Beyond you know, what it looks like, is that it’s made utterly differently. Everything’s about time. You have either a three-minute roll or you have a ten-minute roll. Then it runs out and you have to put a new one in. And that brings about editing, which is very, very powerful because it means that you have to— forced into making decisions. And that’s a big thing. I think nowadays, I always make the analogy that, you know, film looks but digital sees, because we could be videoing this, and it would just be watching us in the corner.

But there’s no way you could do that with film ’cause film is very active. You have to really worry about all its elements. You have to worry about the light, you have to worry about the focus, you have to worry about it running out. You know, that has a huge impact on the making of it.

And another thing, which relates to what we’ve just said, is that you record film silently; you can’t record it with sound. That’s what a clapper board is. A clapper will give you the sync. So you know, when you hear a clapper, you see it when the wood hits the wood. And then you hear it, and that’s how you sync a film. So when you first watch your rushes—and I think this is completely underestimated—is you’re watching them in silence. And that gives you the freedom to imagine a completely other thing for the sound. And with digital, of course, it comes together. You watch them together, sound and image.

Ant then that’s just for 16. But 35, all the films, Antigone and JG and Film, they’re all made— can only ever be made on film, ’cause they’re all using the aperture gate masking system I developed. You know, which is multiple exposures in one frame. Which, you know, brings in a whole other vocabulary.

CUNO: What is optical sound that you used in the Twombly film?

DEAN: All my films with sound are optical because funnily enough—and this is very beautiful—but sound on film is read by a lightbulb. An optical-head lightbulb, as opposed to a sound head, like a magnetic track. So it’s actually read by light. Sound is read by light in film.

CUNO: Wow. But now you distinguish between mediums and media. Tell us about that.

DEAN: Well, I’ve realized that the future of film has, in a way, become quite a semantic issue, because the language is being bastardized. So in order to kind of fight back and keep some of the language—

Yes, the correct word for a medium— Artists use mediums. And the plural is Latin is media, of course. So it’s always been media. But that word now no longer has any power, in relation to artistic mediums. It’s lost it, because media is the media, of course, the press. But it’s also digital media. So in order to retain the power of the materiality of artistic mediums, I’m pluralizing it.

And it began with Rosalind Krauss, actually, as a whole movement. It gives back power to artistic language, because media doesn’t mean anything anymore to artists. Mediums, if I say I have two mediums, you understand me. But media somehow has lost its focus. In a way, it’s a kind of claiming back language this way, too; not just always it going in the other direction. It’s more powerful to say mediums, I think, now. And I think I’m not alone; many people think this now.

CUNO: Mm-hm. So you insist on using and fighting for the availability of photochemical film. Tell us about that.

DEAN: Well, I mean, the eclipse of film, to use that word rather than demise, came about super rapidly. So, I was asked to do the Turbine Hall exhibition atTate Modern, in 2011. And at the beginning of the year, I had the show in MUMOK, where I’d made my film about Cy, which was Edwin Parker, and Manhattan Mouse Museum, which was about Claes Oldenburg, and GDGDA, which was about Julie Mehretu.

And so those three films were in my lab in London, which was Soho Film Lab. I live in Berlin, I lived in Berlin, and I arrived in London, got on the tube, and I had a phone call from the lab manager, saying, “We’ve been closed down. That’s it. They’re closing it down forthwith, now.” A friend called it medium eviction, overnight. It was really like that.

So he went out on a limb to get these films finished in that forty-eight hour period, I mean, when it was already closing. We had to do a mad scram to get all my negatives out of there, and other artists. I mean, this lab furnished artist’s negatives from all over the world. It was amazing. So it was a profound panic. And this was February, 2011. And I wrote an article for The Guardian about it.

This was the threat to 16 mil at this point. Then I had to go to the opening of my show in Vienna. I always, I remember it very, very clearly because I remember having a total panic attack about what I was going to do for the Turbine Hall, which is very public and very big. And then at that point, because of what happened with the lab and— I realized I had to make it about film and, you know, why it’s so important to keep film as a medium, available to artists and filmmakers and history and, you know, and also members of the public, ’cause it’s— You know, think what’s been made on film.

So anyway, I ended up making film in Turbine Hall, and also making this book, which has got eighty-two, eighty-one people writing about the importance of film in the analog age. And by the time that was opened in October 2011, we had a big event for the British film industry in the Turbine Hall, in February 2012. By that point, it wasn’t just 16, it was all film was facing eradication. And then I started, and got involved with Guillermo Navarro, who’s a Oscar winning DP. And he was trying to get UNESCO to recognize it as a cultural heritage thing.

And I basically gave over my whole year to trying to save film, at that point. And then I came to Getty and I remember telling you, sitting next to you in Berlin, actually—was because I needed to bring this argument to Hollywood, to the industry. And that’s when I met Christopher Nolan, and that’s when we did this event here, Reframing the Future of the Film, which was unbelievably important, actually, in history.

I mean, people talk about the Getty event now as this sort of moment. Because it was the first time we brought all users of film around one table, which meant entertainment and industry, as well as art, as well as preservation. And most importantly at this point, the CEO of Kodak. Because they were the only makers of color negative in the world, at this point. And he got up onstage here, in this very building, and said, “You know, we’re all in for film.”
Everyone thought that Kodak was bankrupt and they were gonna give up. And they were gonna give up. Very, very close to the edge, we were. But now they’re back on track, and many of the best films that you’re seeing are made on film. And we still have a problem persuading people to project on film, but it’s, we’ve definitely come back from the brink. And that language, which was so pervasive and aggressive, which was an either/or—we had to choose digital or film—that’s sort of dissipated.

And so beautiful things have happened. Kodak now call it a medium. And that came from art. You know, that came from me, in a way, because I said it’s not a technology; it’s a medium. And if you say it’s a medium, mediums don’t go obsolete. That’s what I mean about it being semantic. You re-empower the language. We had to take it out of that technological language and say actually, it’s a medium.

’Cause for me, it is a medium. In art, we understand it. So by giving the language of our world to people like Chris in the industry, you know, using words like medium specificity. And just trying to bring that back into works of art made on film is very, very important. Nobody can show my work digitally, under any circumstances. And I’ve had to weather that.

I’ve had to be dropped from many exhibitions because of that. If you stick to your guns and fight for that, you do eventually get traction. But it was a perilous period we’ve been through, a really perilous period. We’re not safe yet and there’s a lot more to do. I’m trying to slightly recede from it, But there’s still so much to do. You know, I need institutions to do better than they are, by the way.

CUNO: Yeah, I got it.

DEAN: No, just— No, no, not just the Getty. You, I mean, you hosted that very important roundtable. But in terms of showing film as film and— you know, and showing slides, a slide work as a slide work. And even if you digitize it, which they all do now, but forcing correct labeling or trying to show an example of one film. We’re still not quite at the point where it’s kind of quite got through. But it’s much better than it was.

CUNO: Yeah. Well, let’s change the topic slightly.

DEAN: Yeah.

CUNO: Tell us about your childhood. [they laugh] Your father was a lawyer who studied classics at Oxford. Your sister is named Antigone; your brother is Ptolemy; and your name, of course, is Tacita, after, I assume, Tacitus. What was your childhood like?

DEAN: Can you answer that question?

CUNO: Mine’s pretty simple, but—

DEAN: My father was a judge, actually, which is why ending up in the courtroom was so ironic.

CUNO: For the film Antigone.

DEAN: Yeah, I didn’t even realize. I didn’t make that connection, until suddenly, yes. So what was my childhood like? Oh, I don’t know.

Rural, in a way. I mean, when you’re inside of it, you don’t know. But the BBC just made this program about me and they spoke to people. They spoke to my sister. And I think the perception was that we were actually quite neglected. But I hadn’t realized, ’cause I didn’t really think that. But I think my father was a kind of difficult older man, remote man, that worked in London. My mother was probably a bit out of her depth. But in this huge crumbling house in— very beautiful house in Kent. And I used to just roam about. Sent to boarding school when I was twelve.

CUNO: Well, speaking of schooling, what about your schooling and when it was in your schooling that you thought of becoming an artist?

DEAN: Well, I was always determined to be an artist, from a very small age, actually. I was the child that had the easel when I was nine, you know? But then it became more difficult, as soon as I wanted to take it seriously. You know, my father was an academic. And his father was a film director; that’s what he understood as what film was, actually, was more like him than—

CUNO: Were you able to, in art school, pursue any medium?

DEAN: Well, I was a painter. And I wasn’t a painter; I mean, that was the point. I mean, I was in the painting department and I had in my biography, trained as a painter. It didn’t mean anything. There was no training. I was in painting departments in undergraduate and postgraduate, and I was a deviant. I couldn’t make canvases; I couldn’t do all that. So I was always the badly-behaved painting department student.

To the point that in the Slade, I had to say, to get in, that I would never make a film or anything like that. They said this to me [inaudible], “Can we be assured that if we let you into painting, you will not make a—?” You know. I said yes. Lied.

And then the painting department was moved to the old Woburn Institute galleries in Woburn Square, the old Courtauld Institute galleries, actually. Above the Warburg. And they were on the fifth floor, with these Hessian walls. And I found that quite difficult. So my second year, I actually moved to the ticket office. So I cut myself off. Which was one of the nicest place[s] I’ve ever worked in my life.

CUNO: On the ground floor, you mean.

DEAN: Yes. So everyone used to pass me when they came in, to go on the lift. And I used to go to the media department quite a lot. And it was called media department then.

CUNO: Yeah. When did you move to Berlin? And why did you move to Berlin?

DEAN: I had a DAAD in 2000 and just stayed.

CUNO: That’s a grant or fellowship.

DEAN: Yeah, the Deutscher Akademinst[sic].

CUNO: Is there something about the city and the life in the city that attracted you?

DEAN: Yeah, it was amazing.

CUNO: Or that kept you there?

DEAN: The city was making itself. It was very unformed. It was very cheap. No institutions that really functioned, actually. I loved being European.

Which I still love being, sadly. I call myself British-European. You know, I made them write this in the press releases for these shows, not that it made much difference.

It was radical. There was just, like, more time in the day in Berlin. It was quite strong. And also it was partly because I didn’t need the context of London to feed me, because I was an outsider of it. So it was easy for me to just go and live in Berlin and there were so many different things happening. I met a great printer, I met a great publisher, I met all these people that became important to me.

CUNO: So three years before, then, in 1997, you were invited to Sundance Institute’s feature film lab program. And you went, and there you met such venerable screenwriters as Frank Pearson, of Dog Day Afternoon; and Stewart Stern, of Rebel Without a Cause. And I’m raising this because I want us to talk about Antigone, your film. And what was it like talking with those screenwriters about films and screenwriting? And did that experience lead to the scripted and literary film Antigone? And was Antigone a departure for you, in terms of the importance of the script in the film?

DEAN: Well, I mean, completely and utterly. For a start, I’d just had an exhibition in Philadelphia. I’d barely ever been to America, by the way, at that point. So ’98 was my exhibition, so I was working on this exhibition in— with this director in Philadelphia. And he was asked by Ken Brecher. Because he asked Patrick Murphy if he knew any artists, because they wanted to widen their—you know, in Sundance, he’d just taken over being the— whatever his title was in Sundance lab—if they knew of an artist, just to sort of widen the variety of the sort of intake for the lab. And Patrick suggested me. I mean, I was super young, but I worked in film and I think that was what it was.

But I didn’t work in film in any way connected to cinema. I suddenly got this fax saying did I want to, you know, go to Sundance to make a feature film, or do I have an idea for a feature? I didn’t, you know. I’d never thought in that direction whatsoever. But of course, an exciting thing to get at, you know, that age. They said, “Well, can you come up with a script idea, you know, over the weekend?” ’Cause I think it was quite late.

And I literally just thought, Antigone. You know, this thing that had just been obviously preoccupying me probably since birth. Which is my sister’s name, as you said. But this bit between the end of Oedipus Rex and the beginning of Oedipus at Colonus, where Antigone and Oedipus disappear into the wilderness for an amount of time which is unknown, before they reappear at the beginning of the next play.

He’s blind, of course, and lame. You know, even when I was at Falmouth, I’d been doing Antigone and Oedipus drawings. So it’s just fascinating to me, the name and then learning what that was and what it meant, that story. Her name. She’s my older sister.

So I wrote that and I wrote this whole thing. Literally one side of paper. And they took me. And I was just thrown into, catapulted into, a whole glamorous world of cinema and these amazing, amazing people that I spoke to, incredible people, who sort of had the sensitivity to realize I was an anomaly.

And I had these incredible talks. And the one I remembered with recourse to any notes, and I’ve never forgotten, was with Stewart Stern. And the whole idea of, you know, why did it take so long? The whole idea of forgetting. And it just stuck with me. And when I came back from that, I was quite determined to make a feature film. And then of course, I’m not that person, in a way, and it became my unmade project for twenty years. You know, I made it in other ways. I made a gravure called Blind Pan; I made this film trilogy called Boots. And there was something about the lameness and the blindness and—

And then I’m here in California. You know, and I get invited to do these three exhibitions. ’Cause in a way, that film is landscape and portrait, and to some extent, still life. So I thought, well, maybe I should just make this film that I will never— Partly also because it has to be made in film and I’m here and how long in the future will I be able to make my work? In terms of the medium, in terms of film.

So I just thought, okay, I’m gonna do it. And I went about it with utter blindness, just like Oedipus, actually. And then I realized that there were so many levels of blindness in this film, because there was my blindness, which was massive. And then of course, Oedipus’ blindness. And at a certain point, I have a very old friend who’s an eclipse watcher like me. And he said, “Do you know that there’s going to be this eclipse in 2016, ’17?” Yeah, the great American eclipse. And at that point, I just knew that had to be the center the blindness of nature.

CUNO: But at Sundance, what did you work on, the script itself?

DEAN: I observed everyone else doing their scripts. I couldn’t write a single word of mine. Not a single word. I still haven’t written a single word.

I’m not that person. I can’t— I work so blindly that I— And this is what I realized. ’Cause of course, the last twenty years, everyone has said, “When you gonna make a feature film?” As if that’s the sort of crowning glory. But I can’t know where I’m going like that. I have to not know what I’m doing. Otherwise, it doesn’t hold me. It doesn’t hold my interest.

CUNO: So the script is entirely Anne Carson?

DEAN: It’s not even a script. There is no script.

CUNO: Oh, really?

DEAN: I mean, there’s her poem. So I wrote to Anne, who’s a friend from Berlin. I knew her from Berlin. She’s American-Canadian. She’s Canadian, but she’s American. Poet and translator and playwright. And I said, “Listen—I want to make this film, the Antigone, about this bit between two plays.”

And she goes, “Oh, I’ve already done it. I already wrote something.” And I just thought— ’Cause nobody goes there. It’s so obscure. And she had. She’d written TV Men, which was this bit about Antigone and Oedipus. So I asked her if I could use that. And then I didn’t know how I was gonna use it; I just thought, my God, that’s so much of a coincidence, I have to use that. So that’s when I said, “Will you read it?” And she said, “I can’t come to Greece in that time.”

There’s so many practical things that interfere the whole time. My cameraman could only between February this and [inaudible], you know. So all these sort of dates, these false deadlines kind of intervene. So that’s when I Googled Thebes and saw that there was one in Illinois. There’s nothing in Thebes but the courthouse, and then there’s this sort of very sad and depressed trailer park on the floodplain. Total Trump territory. “Make America Great Again” signs everywhere. A a really old railway bridge. And the courthouse, it just looks out onto the Mississippi. And in it was, you know, Abraham Lincoln’s first— where he’d first practiced, and it’s full of books and paintings, and it’s decaying. And just, the word— And then I’m in a courthouse. You know, that’s what I mean, my father was a judge.

But I didn’t seek it from that way in. It came from a different direction. So many things happen like that to me that are quite uncanny. But the biggest one of all is the relationship between Antigone and Oedipus, and Oedipus meaning swollen foot. And then now, you know, I clearly have arthritis and I clearly have a swollen foot. And how uncanny is that, in a way, that my sister’s name has led me in this way?

So yeah, it’s riddled with coincidences. And the process of making the film, the multiple exposures in one film frame, is [a] very, very important part of it, because it’s also the blindness of the medium. You can’t see what you’re doing. You’re making it in the dark room of the camera.

CUNO: Yeah. What about the actor Stephen Dillane? How did you meet him and what qualities did he have that made you want to cast him then as Oedipus?

DEAN: Well, he’s not playing Oedipus, he’s dressing up as Oedipus. We always made that very clear. There is no role to play.

I made a film with him called Event for a Stage, which was a live performance for the Sydney Biennale. And it’s a wrestle, a bloody fight, between him and me, about art and theater and self-consciousness, which I made into a film. And so we’d worked together already. And part of the reason I made this film is that we began to talk about it. That was another one of the reasons I felt kind of emboldened to make it.

Also part of the Antigone is the discomfort with narrative. What constitutes narrative? Why can I not make a narrative film? And in the end, the only script in the whole film is when I try to write that fireside scene, which is like, in the end, three lines. And I wrote that with Stephen.

But apart from that, everything else is put together in a collage way. You know, there’s Anne’s poem, Stephen had written a text on, you know, that appears. And then there’s a bit of Sophocles. And then there’s this conversation in a roll of film, which is Stephen dressing up as Oedipus asking questions, on one side of the film, which is filmed in Cornwall, England. And then, you know, the film put back in the can, and the can carried all the way to Thebes, and where Anne answers the questions on the other side of in the film frame.

And it’s all done with us sort of trying to time it correctly. But film is inexact. There’s no time code, of course. So there’s a strange kind of uncanny gap between the question and— You know, he’s blind, she’s not, it sort of works. And it kind of works in a very interesting way, in a way that you probably couldn’t do if you did it deliberately, ’cause for me, it’s all about the non-deliberate act, to some extent, film, you know? And you know, the way a medium takes you in a direction that you don’t always direct, or that the artist doesn’t always direct.

And Francis Bacon talks a lot about that, actually, about the paint will guide you. And it will take you in a way you did not know, you wouldn’t have consciously known how to do. And then you suddenly realize it’s doing it better than you. And it’s a sort of surrender that I think artists rely on quite a lot with their medium, and— And that is definitely the case with film.

And then the final part, which is the courtroom scene, which was just such a unknown, terrifying thing, was that I had Stephen and Anne there for a day together in Thebes. And I had the courtroom, and I had no idea what to do. And then I had these masks, you know these strange masking in the gate, which is like a diagonal or a parabola. And so we just stuck the masks in and I tried to get them to talk about the ideas behind Antigone and—

And that whole day was absolute torture. Torture for everybody, I think. It was freezing cold. And I really thought it was never going— nothing was gonna come of it and it was [an] extremely extravagant waste. But in the end, it’s fascinating what did come from it, because of course, you’re filming. You don’t know what part you’re filming ’cause your camera looks like a camera; but it turns out you’re just filming somebody’s legs, you know, or whatever, or bits of conversation. If you have a kind of a free-moving conversation and you don’t know what’s being filmed and what’s not, what happens is a cementing of action that’s happened inside the camera that you cannot anticipate.

And it’s amazing what that gives. At the same time, it can produce terrible things. And most of it was cutting room floor. But the synchronicity from one part of the film frame and the other part—

I mean, you have to remember— this is— probably blows everyone’s mind, ’cause they don’t quite understand it—but you have a piece of film, and you have a lens. The light goes through the lens and it goes through an aperture, which is a window, which is what makes the film frame. And for twenty-four times a second, makes a filmstrip. If you put stenciling inside that aperture, which is what I do, it means I can film the top left-hand triangle, blocking out the other part of the film frame with a stencil; and then rewind in darkness and then film the other bit.

But you don’t know what’s on the other bit at all. It’s an unknowable connection. And the whole film is made that way. Antigone, I got much more miracle than disaster. Often you get more disaster than miracle. We’re getting better at it.

CUNO: Yeah. The film ended up precisely an hour long, right?

DEAN: I’ve made it one hour long, because it’s actually fifty-six minutes and then I cut in four minutes of black. And a false academy leader. Academy leader is the countdown with film, which goes, you know, twelve to— with a pop on three. Boop. There’s a thing called the china girl on the academy leader, which is usually a woman with a color bar, which you won’t see normally when you watch cinema because— well, partly ’cause you’re very unlikely to be watching prints anymore.

But were you watching a print, it was a way of the lab testing to see the color was working. She was called the china girl. Because my sister’s not in the film, I decided to make her the china girl. So I had these academy leaders made at Photochem, with my sister as the china girl. So she is in the film.

And then black. And the reason it’s black is that the two films are synced to the frame. We managed to find some amazing young guy—he’s twenty—who managed to sync the two film projectors to the frame. That means that no one goes near it, ’cause mechanically, you can’t sync it to the frame very time you lace it up. It’s impossible. So I had to make it completely automated.

So I had two film projectors, you know, and it’s Cinemascope, as well. And the film is on a loop system. It runs for an hour, of which four minutes are black. And it turns on at nine a.m. and it turns off at seven p.m., on the gallery hours. And no one goes near it.

CUNO: I saw it in the gallery, in the Royal Academy. And there were about a hundred chairs or so, as I recall, so it was—

DEAN: Or less, I think, actually.

CUNO: And people sat for the hour. So do you intend for it to be shown in galleries exclusively, or do you expect it to be shown in a—

DEAN: I can’t show it in the cinema.

CUNO: They don’t have the equipment?

DEAN: You can’t do two…

CUNO: Or the will.

DEAN: …two screens. I mean, that’s the point. That’s when I ultimately defied the idea of it being a theatrical work or a work for cinema, is I completely sabotaged that by making it binary, two screens. At that point, it can never be shown in a cinema or in a theater. It has to be shown only installed, which was the final kind of Sundance surrender, that I am never, ever gonna make a feature. I don’t think I can ever make a feature film.

I don’t think— you know, the only reason was, in the end, I rented a cutting table. And it so happened that the one that I had was a dual-head one, with two little screens on it. I’d never worked with one of those before. For a long time, I just ignored the one; I was working with just the left side. And I was really, really struggling. And then I just suddenly realized, you know, this is all about left and right; it’s all about binary; it’s father/daughter, left eye/right eye, blindness, sun/moon; that it had to be two. And as soon as I made that decision, I made it impossible for it ever to be shown in the cinema.

CUNO: So what’s next for you?

DEAN: Well, the ballet.

CUNO: Tell us about the ballet.

DEAN: It’s a Royal Opera ballet that they’re doing in 2020. It’s a new commission with Wayne McGregor, the choreographer; and Thomas Adès, the composer; and me designing it. The first part of it is just being sort of premiered in Los Angeles, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in July this year.

CUNO: And your contribution will be costume, sets?

DEAN: Yeah, it’s the whole costume design.

CUNO: Film at all?

DEAN: Well, I’m gonna bring in film in London, but I’m not gonna do film here; it’s too complicated.

CUNO: Well, Tacita, thank you for your time on this podcast.

DEAN: No, no, it’s a pleasure talking to you.

CUNO: It’s great, always great to talk to you.

Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art & Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

TACITA DEAN: I can’t know where I’m going like that. I have to not know what I’m doing. Ot...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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