There are five parts to Tacita Dean’s comprehensive show of drawings, photography, and film, all of which constitute an allegorical self-portrait of the artist. But it’s a self-portrait à l’anglaise in which she the artist explores facets of her English self: nature, portrait painting, and theatricality. An aesthetic expatriate, Dean lives in Berlin but spent some 18 months in Los Angeles, where she discovered clouds.
Surprised that those clouds were not connected to rain, but were instead the mysterious result of wind, she decided to represent them. At first she used chalk on a blackboard. The result is “Concordance of Fifty American Clouds,” spray chalk, white charcoal pencil, and gouache on Victorian school slates. The inevitable association, one that takes Dean’s extraterritorial clouds back to England, is John Constable, whose cloud studies (ca.1822–23) constitute a dramatic unmooring of painting from the representation of nature. To call Constable an abstract painter is to abuse language, but the cloud paintings metamorphose nature into pure art.
Dean follows suit, but she grounds her cloud works in language, specifically A Complete Concordance to Shakespeare, which provides epigraphs or titles for almost every drawing. Thus Yond’ same cloud cannot choose (2015) takes its cue from The Tempest, act 2, scene 2, where Trinculo, about to stumble on Caliban, assumes he will soon be soaked by rain. The association between Dean’s image and Shakespeare may be merely a matter of chance, but her swirling cloud, her monochrome sky seem somehow prophetic. An illusion, of course, but a reminder that “reading” clouds is an attempt to turn nature into a book of secrets open only to adepts. This sense of mystery and the sublime—the ephemeral cloud against an infinite sky—characterizes all of these slate drawings, perhaps Dean’s most beautiful work.
The film components of the show are travel pieces, visits to artists. Perhaps the most striking is her Buon Fresco (2014). Dean, using a macro lens, focuses on Giotto’s Saint Francis frescoes. Putting herself and us in the same position as Giotto as he was working on them, she gives us a strange insight into the mechanics of Giotto’s work. The effect is, again, to pass into a kind of abstraction—we literally get lost in the details—even though we know there is a narrative unfolding on the wall.
Portraits (2016) is a 16-millimeter film lasting 16 minutes, showing David Hockney smoking. The fact that he actually smoked five cigarettes and that we experience them as one reminds us of Van Dyck’s Portait of Charles I in Three Positions (1635–36). It takes more than one cigarette to make a Hockney. “GAETA, 2015 – fifty photographs, plus one” is fifty photographs Dean took in Cy Twombly’s house and studio in Italy. Twombly participated in the selection of images, so the array constitutes an homage to him and the end of an era: the prints were made on the last available Cibachrome photographic paper.
The final component of the show, Event for a Stage (2015), constitutes Dean’s experiment in theater. This was a live performance at the 2014 Sydney Biennial. There were four performances on consecutive nights, which Dean filmed and edited into this 50-minute film. Here she is artist, director, and participant, but what links this film to the drawings and other films is the notion of Dean as a solitary artist haunted and helped by tradition. The actors move back and forth before the audience with Dean behind them, in front of them, alongside them, experiencing the anguish of the mediation in all art: to express something the artist needs a medium, and at some point, the medium expresses itself.