Tacita Dean's major retrospective at Basel’s Schaulager in 2006 was called “Analogue,” a title entirely appropriate for an artist who, in an era of ubiquitous digital technology, employs 16mm film as her principal medium. Film, with its fragility, technical complexity, and threat of obsolescence, aligns with her preferred subjects as well: Dean is fascinated by the passage of time, and by how relevance, importance, and even truth can disappear with the ticking of a clock. Perhaps as a consequence she is fascinated by human frailty (evident in her poignant film portrait of Italian artist Mario Merz, made shortly before his death in 2003) and also by folly and the vainglorious. One of her best-known works, Disappearance at Sea I (1996), refers to the story of the tragic amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who attempted (and failed) to win, through careful timing and fastidious false log-keeping, first prize in a round-the-world race without ever leaving the Atlantic.
Dean, who was born in Canterbury in 1965 and trained originally as a painter, has enjoyed enormous critical success. Disappearance at Sea I won her a Turner Prize nomination in 1998, when she also had a solo show at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. In 2001 she had another at Tate Britain, and in 2006 she won the Hugo Boss Prize and the attendant solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Since 2000 she has lived and worked in Berlin, where the architectural relics of the collapsed communist regime have clearly struck a sympathetic chord, appearing in films such as Fernsehturm (2001) and Palast (2004).
Her latest work is a six-screen film installation, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007, on view at Dia Beacon through September 1. In it Cunningham performs a new choreography — sitting still in a chair — to Cages infamous silent piece, 4’33” (1952). On the day the piece was unveiled last month, Dean spoke to ARTINFO about Cunningham, her portrait of him, and its relationship to the rest of her work.
Tacita, your work is often about things slipping away with the passage of time. To what extent is it also about death?
Of course it’s all about that to some extent, but then again, it’s not at all. I’ve been quite interested in older people recently, but the work hasn’t all come out of one place. Every single film was done for a different reason. Mario Merz was very much about observing him in San Gimignano [in Tuscany, where both artists had been invited to work]. I thought he had a very strong physical resemblance to my father, and I just couldn’t stop looking at him. Everyone said there was no way I could ask him to do it, but one afternoon his wife [artist Marisa Merz] was getting most of the attention, which always made him rather uncomfortable, and he needed some attention. There I was gazing at him, and I think that helped. He died just afterward.
Presentation Sisters (2005) came from trying to find a project for Cork [the European City of Culture in 2005] and finding a nun’s graveyard, which led me to the nuns. It was just one of those gifts of the moment: When I arrived in Cork I had no idea I was going to be doing that at all. All these pieces come from different places.
I wasn’t suggesting an obsession.
Well, it is an obsession to a certain extent. The reason that I like older people is that they carry so much information in their bodies and have an incredible grace about them at that point in their lives.
How did this new piece come about? Did you set out to collaborate with Merce Cunningham?
I wanted to do something about silence. The Manchester Festival in England, to whom I proposed the work, was going to have a lot of noise in it, so I thought, in total ignorance, which is how I work half the time, “Maybe I could ask Merce Cunningham.” He had used Cage’s 4’33” as part of a bigger choreographed piece, but I was more interested in him. I didn’t approach it like a collaboration, but of course once you begin it, it becomes one immediately.
Was Stillness, the piece that Merce performs in your film, an existing piece of choreography?
No, it’s new. The beautiful thing was I didn’t know what he was going to do until we turned on the cameras. I was told that he was going to “hold his position,” but I didn’t know what that meant. But what he did was just so brilliant. While you’re watching it you think about everything — about the room he’s in, about old age, of course, about him, about him and John Cage, and about silence. The complexity is amazing.
I’ve always thought that that was the point of 4’33”. How well did you know it before you made this piece?
I didn’t know that John Cage wrote it in three movements, which are marked by the piano lid going up and down. That was a revelation to me. How Merce did that was he just shifted his pose, which is really perfect.
What was the reason for doing six separate portraits?
Initially I was going to do just one take for Manchester, but Merce did six takes — six was the limit of his energy — and we all realized that he’d just done the first six performances of this work. Thank God I didn’t think of interrupting the dance! I had two versions of each — because I had two cameras — and I filmed each differently, so suddenly I had two-camera films of six different performances, and I had to do something with them. An installation became the perfect solution.
One of the reasons that you use film is its impermanence. How long will the film in this installation last?
These copies? Within a week they’ll get really trashed, because they’re shown for hours on end. We just have to change the copy. We’ve perfected this loop system as best we can. It’s a way of keeping film as film, which is my passion.
Why is that?
Because film is a medium of silence. It’s always mute. You can never film with sound, so sound is separate. And it’s also a medium of time, because with film you’re dealing with a roll of time. It makes you very decisive about light, about focus, about everything.
Is this an homage to Merce Cunningham?
Of course it is. But I’m refusing to have it be purely that because it’s also a performance.
Is it Cunningham’s homage to Cage?
That’s a very personal question. You’d have to ask Merce. But I think he’s definitely thinking about Cage. There’s something in the power of that stillness.