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The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (exhibition): Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 12 Aug 2018, 19:53

The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (exhibition): Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat

To have no screen between the part he play’d

And him he play’d it for, …

(The Tempest cited Dean (2018) – and placed in the mouth of The Actor as part of his script)

Art is what makes life more interesting than art

(Dean (2018) – and placed in the mouth of The Actor as part of his script)

Having missed three major exhibitions of Dean’s work in London this year, I thought a self-consciously focused and small exhibition of her work during my Festival visit would be no substitute. I cannot know if that is correct, but I do know that this exhibition needs no comparison with any other and that Dean’s work repays massively any interest you take in it. The Fruitmarket’s exhibition is superbly and sensitively curated and need take second place to no other because of this.

At its heart is a 50-minute film piece called ‘Event for a Stage’, from which the two quotations above derive. They are sufficiently indicative that Dean’s reputation is based on deep reflection of the materials, media and modes of contemporary art and their reflection in pre-contemporary aesthetic thought. Of the latter there is the late play on by Shakespeare. ‘Lie there, my art’ is another quotation from the same play containing themes pregnant of the role of rest from self-consciousness, fiction and a search for the authentic behind artifice engraved on the still When I First Raised the Tempest (2016). The neglected Romantic playwright and marionettes’ script-writer, Heinrich von Kleist, is another.

As Dean makes clear, you can only value art when it explores the paradoxes that make it both like and unlike, perhaps even essentially so, life. Art is both itself, its prescription and its ‘post-scription’. Her stills The Russian Ending (2001) toy with this idea, in making problematic the role of text and image in photogravure. Text both prescribes and critically comments as an afterthought, and it is difficult here to know which act it represents as you read it and with necessity integrate that reading into your visual experience – capturing how meaning is planned and determined in the art in the first place or revised in the second. The still of Sheffield really haunted me for that reason – almost because it dares the visuals it marks to be feel different than that which they appear to be for us and to radically resist such revision.

Many pieces are about the process of making art and meaning in life. Some are about looking for an artist to give one meaning – a lovely short film in which the only script is Ben Wishaw calling on ‘Anne’ (the playwright-poet-classicist Anne Carson) who is framed in an entirely different space to recognise and validate him. She doesn’t and can’t. He is locked in an entirely different framework of script.

But if ‘art’ in effect is to make ‘life more interesting than art’, then art needs to be constantly challenged to include and work with and against its own limitations. Shakespeare knew he was playing games by asking actors to talk about the ‘parts’ they play. He couldn’t have, but Dean can, play the same game with the varying meanings of ‘screen’ in the Shakespeare quotation above. A screen is one of the membranes ‘Event for a Stage’ sets between actors and audiences, actors and their own lives. Dean emphasises that ‘screen’ remediates her ‘event for a stage’ by splicing it from at least three different live events in which the same actor plats the same part but in different wigs (including no wig), make-up and clothing. The contact with being mediated is all we have. If mediation screens us from the things that hurt in life, is also, like all membranes, bears the fragile limit of its own ability to protect or ‘screen’ us from harm. At one point – another pun – screen is described as a ‘film of protection’.

One point where this impinges is in the constant duplicating of the role of audiences. We are the audience not only of an actor but an audience and our role as audience is itself exposed to rupture. We watch the audience assemble as we assembled. We see them seen as they feel themselves to be unseen (and un-see-able behind a film of protection). How will they / we react to the actor leaving the theatre – refusing his role, or even not knowing what it is.

And thus, the artist.

This is just my unrestrained, uncontrolled thoughts. See it for yourself. Have your own.

All the be


Dean, T. (2018) Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat Edinburgh, The Fruitmarket Gallery.

Publication contains the script of ‘Event for a Stage’ as well as samples from the major stills and film work in the exhibition.

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