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the warp of time, the shiver of celluloid

the warp of time, the shiver of celluloid

May 08
10:54 2018

“Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns,” wrote the South African painter Marlene Dumas before adding that hers was “a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light.”

As I roamed through Tacita Dean’s Portrait, Dumas’ words resonated. The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is one of a trio of solo shows at major London institutions devoted to the British artist this spring — the others are at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. Portrait felt as unified and unhasty as a canvas by Leonardo, who, we are told, would stare at his surfaces for weeks before making a brushstroke or two.

Dean, of course, is not a painter, but a film-maker and photographer. Yet such is her gift for her medium, that she seems to dilate time. Nowhere is this truer than in her film portrait of poet and translator Michael Hamburger. Shot in 2007, the last year of his life, the 28-minute work trundles us through the annual cycle of change in his Suffolk home and garden. Nothing much happens. Yet I sat through it twice, unable to tear myself away from the benign, rumpled figure of Hamburger as he muses on the different apples he grows; recites a poem to his friend Ted Hughes; waves away a plume of cigarette smoke in a graceful, feline gesture. The apples in his orchard swell, ripen and yellow. The light through his casement window sharpens and dims. In midsummer the glass is saturated in a waterfall of citrus greens and yellows that evoke Monet’s late vision of his garden at Giverny.

Indeed, Portrait maps chiefly a country for old men. There is a work dedicated to the mid-career, Ethiopian-American painter Julie Mehretu, and upstairs, among the gallery’s collection of portrait miniatures, we find Dean’s own miniature film, “His Picture in Little” (2017), which includes actors incuding the youthful Ben Whishaw. But the majority of films here offer glimpses of days in the lives of elderly artists including Cy Twombly (“Edwin Parker”, 2011), David Hockney (“Portraits”, 2016) and Arte Povera talent Mario Merz (“Mario Merz”, 2002).

There is also a majestic installation devoted to Merce Cunningham. Entitled “STILLNESS . . . (six performances, six films)” (2008), it captures the legendary dancer and choreographer in the year before his death, on six screens of different sizes as he performs the act of sitting in a chair in a dance studio to the “sound” of 4’33’’, the composition of ambient silence by Cunningham’s partner John Cage. Standing in front of Cunningham throughout the piece, a figure lifts his hand to count down the last five seconds on his fingers. In his lilac-pink shirt and neckerchief, sharp-eyed as an eagle, knowing as a sphinx, Cunningham commands the room even when choreographed into stasis.

‘STILLNESS . . .  (six performances, six films)’ (2008) is devoted to Merce Cunningham

As with Dean’s other pieces, the lack of action nudges our eye into a conversation with what commonly goes unobserved: the hand-prints that smear the big mirror on the far wall; the opaque blanks of the arched windows reflected in the mirror’s surface; the faceless, shadowy, near-porous quality of the lonely upright figure.

Dean’s crucial accomplice is celluloid. Born in 1965, she is often scooped up with other members of the YBA generation. Yet her choice to use this frail, unwieldy medium — she has spoken of analogue film’s innate “resistance” to artistic intention — and her concern with the quiet, quotidian transitions of landscape, bodies, sound and light set her far apart from the spectacular, vapid narcissims into which so many of her peers tumbled.

Film demands patience on the part of its user. Dean has spoken of her “solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing” that are intrinsic to the finished fabric of her work. They give it the weave and grain, the alluring, uneven optical shiver, that are the keys to its unique expressiveness.

It is dangerously easy, as the Dumas quote testifies, simply to compare Dean’s practice to that of painters. She herself, in the only digital work on show in Portrait, captures her reflection in Giorgio Morandi’s shabby mirror.

Tacita Dean’s ‘Mario Merz’ (2002)

On many levels, the Italian painter is her worthy counterpart. He spent his life holed up in his Bologna studio laboriously painting and repainting vessels on a shelf until he had created an oeuvre as abstract, mystical and timeless as that of Rothko.

Yet this show also underlines that it is film rather than pigment that enables Dean to conjure her luminous narratives of ephemerality. For only celluloid allows her to show the thread of smoke evaporating from Hockney’s cigarette; the spreading of painterly marks under Mehretu’s patient hand; the mesmerising tempo with which Twombly’s liver-spotted fingers open a letter.

You leave this show feeling that there isn’t a moment to lose. And that you have all the time in the world.

To May 28,

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