Tacita Dean: Portrait; Still Life review – pensive, elegiac, ever inventive
Source:The Guardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2018-03-19 Size:
Three great actors appear on a screen not much bigger than a smartphone in a small ……

‘Like painted people of the past’: actors Stephen Dillane, Ben Whishaw and David Warner in His Picture
in Little, 2017 by Tacita Dean.Photograph: Courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Three great actors appear on a screen not much bigger than a smartphone in a small, dark room of the National Portrait Gallery. Ben Whishaw is filmed in summer sunshine, a young man dreaming, reading, or waiting for some offstage presence. David Warner shifts in his seat, a mysterious interior monologue played out in his magnificently senatorial features. Stephen Dillane retreats from the camera, or turns directly into it with all the intimacy of an impending soliloquy. Each has been a famous Hamlet in his time – but what part are they playing now?

Tacita Dean’s new film, His Picture in Little, takes its title from Shakespeare’s tragedy. It twinkles in the gloom between two cases of Elizabethan miniatures and opposite the Chandos portrait of the Bard, all the connections subtle and superb. The actors turn in and out of profile or three-quarter view – captivating, brooding, confrontational, composed. They look like the painted people of the past (Whishaw exactly resembles the young John Donne) and they might seem to be acting. Yet they have not been directed, and nor are they posing.

The screen splits and the men appear to be listening to one another, side by side, or “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”, or out in the greensward dreaming of their own true love. Dean’s film has the character of a play, building to a climax, except that there is no dialogue. And it is like a portrait – specifically the miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard, holding a man in minutely close focus – except that it moves through time. The living, breathing likeness is truly alive: but is the likeness actually true? All that was asked of the three men was that they go about their business, coexisting with Dean’s watchful camera. But self-consciousness has broken through; at least one of them is playing himself.

His Picture in Little is the smallest masterpiece in a retrospective spread across three major museums, two shows opening last week and a third in May (at the Royal Academy). Dean deserves this unprecedented accolade. At 52, she is one of our most profound and original artists – pensive, elegiac, perpetually inventive and attracted to a world on the verge of disappearance. This might be the English coast, vanishing beneath high tides; or the fruit in a still life; or the old man pottering in his orchard among apples that may perhaps outlive him. Still life, landscape and portrait, the old genres of painting, are redefined in these marvellous film works.

Michael Hamburger, 2007. Photograph: Courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Dean started out as a painter and it is everywhere apparent. She has found ways of transforming the single portrait a painter might condense out of a thousand observations by running time through a sequence of almost uneventful takes. The apple man, for instance, is the elusive poet Michael Hamburger, filmed through the branches in his orchard and the dense undergrowth of papers in his Suffolk cottage. Unusually for Dean, Hamburger speaks at some length – but only about the provenance and history of his apples, as if his own past, as a Jew who escaped Germany in the 1930s, was impossible to bring into speech.

For long stretches, Hamburger is not there at all. Dean’s camera takes in the sunlight coming and going among the trees, wind riffling the grass where lone apples lie like orphans. A rainbow appears, sudden glory, over the cottage. His hands are briefly seen, instinctively arranging three apples into a family. It is through such gentle but deeply penetrating scrutiny that Dean is able to bring this complex mind more clearly before us.

Several films at the National Gallery present artists in their late years. The Italian sculptor Mario Merz sits in his garden, a large pine cone like an attribute in his hands as he contemplates the shape of forms in space. The American sculptor Claes Oldenburg rummages through pigeonholes full of oddments – Coke bottles, buttons, plastic pop-eyes – fiddling about, reorganising, redistributing, mulling. Occasionally he dusts this small museum like an elderly janitor. The film asks you to pay attention to what he cares about, to watch how he moves this trivia about, what signals the eye might be sending to the brain. Nothing happens, in a sense, but it is nonetheless an intensely detailed portrait of an artist at work.

David Hockney, ‘put to the lens’ in Portraits, 2016 by Tacita Dean. Photograph: Mathew Hale/© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

David Hockney, put to the lens, sits and smokes and looks at the wall. He is dressed in mustard and blue, but is he in his true colours otherwise? Dean watches him as he stares out of the frame, or bends over an array of photographs that we cannot see. She is absorbed in his absorption, measuring each scene by the span of a leisurely cigarette. He sits it out through this lengthy endurance test before suddenly erupting in loud guffaws. Perhaps it is a kind of resistance to the perceived absurdity of complying with this awed homage to a modern master and his habit.

This is an intensely time-demanding show, and other visitors distractedly coming and going may not help. Nor is every work equally compelling. But hold fast to her beautifully composed images, filmed on 16mm stock, and Dean will slow your mind to her meditations. She is a kind of mystic conceptualist, enthralled by these sages, nostalgic for old film and always hymning both. The viewer is perpetually aware of the celluloid flickering and glowing, of light beaming across large and small rooms, of the clattering of projectors as the medium flows through the gallery.

“All the things I am attracted to,” the artist once wrote, “are just about to disappear.” Merz, Hamburger, the painter Cy Twombly, the choreographer Merce Cunningham – whose six-screen homage is a National Portrait Gallery high point – all died soon after Dean completed her portraits. She is a born eulogist; and of the natural world as well. Wend your way through to the National Gallery next door and here you find a quartet of so-called still lifes, not that any of them are motionless, in which fruit, birds and even rocks appear as rich and ephemeral as the light in her camera.

‘Like looming planets’: Tacita Dean’s Prisoner Pair (2008), from Still Life at the National Gallery. Photograph: Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Dean has curated a perfect show of still life paintings around them – from Zurbarán’s exquisite silver cup of water to Gwen John’s empty birdcage and an irreducibly funereal image of a hat by Philip Guston. All are memento mori, to some extent, and so are the films. This is most obvious in a work commissioned by the historically contested region of Alsace-Lorraine in 2008. Dean made a film called Prisoner Pair, a pun on the political situation but also on the poire prisonnière, in which pears are bottled in schnapps as a local delicacy.

She shows the pears in radiant closeup, their soft surfaces turning gold and silver according to the changing light. Sometimes it seems as if they are still alive, ripe fruit suspended in liquid as the camera moves around them. Sometimes they appear like looming planets, their curved surfaces pale and mysterious. Then her camera catches a beam of white light reflecting through the glass jar, and the back-to-front lettering on the bottom looks like Cyrillic script, invoking Russian cinema. They are both themselves and ghostly shadows, these pears, alluding once again to the nature of film.

On the opposite walls hangs a still photograph – or so it seems – of a bird on a wire against a high blue sky. It does not move; indeed its living existence is confirmed only by a faint soundtrack of song. And then, all of a sudden, it dives out of the frame for a worm somewhere far down below. A portrait of a life in miniature; a brief chronicle of a death foretold.

• Tacita Dean: Portrait and Tacita Dean: Still Life are at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, London, respectively, until 28 May. Tacita Dean: Landscape is at the Royal Academy, London, from 19 May until 12 August

[Editor] 姜鑫