Tacita Dean: Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery
Tacita Dean came of age in the early 1990s, alongside other “Young British Artists” such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. While Dean may not be a household name in the same way as some of her peers, she has long since caught and held the attention of galleries, collectors and institutions.
This Spring, she is the subject of an “unprecedented collaboration” between the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery and Royal Academy of Art, who are hosting a three-part exhibition of her work. The show is split along genre lines: landscape, still life and portrait.
Dean is primarily known for her video works shot on 16mm film and played through old-fashioned analogue projectors. These are the focus of her exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which has never before dedicated a show to a film artist.
The films take as their ostensible subject individuals from the artistic and literary worlds. They are mostly old men: Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney, Merce Cunningham. The only exception is the artist Julie Mehretu, who flits engagingly between a two-screen diptych, immersed in her work.
It’s a strange experience, wandering from darkened room to darkened room to sit and stare at tiny video worlds that are simultaneously both immersive and jarringly distant. Pensive, intimate and thought-provoking – it’s easy to see how these films function as portraits.
Dean’s masterpiece is undoubtedly her filmic portrait of the poet Michael Hamburger, which focuses as much on his gardens as on the man himself. It has all the charm and vivacity of vintage film, while also suggesting a moving timelessness that is very powerful. If you only linger over one work, make it this one.
It would be quite frustrating to visit this exhibition at a busy hour. Every time someone enters or leaves a screening room their shadow looms across the screen; one or two silhouettes adds a reminder of the present to the experience of watching the film, but a steady stream of visitors would stop you from catching anything at all. Don’t bother with this exhibition if you’re in a rush or hoping for a quick culture boost. This is one to take slowly, an invitation to sit and look and think.
Featured Image: Tacita Dean, Portraits, 2016
Tacita Dean: Portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery from 15th March until 28th May 2018, for further information or to book visit the gallery’s website here.