“I’ve always been slightly afraid of actors,” Tacita Dean says, midway through talking about Woman with a Red Hat, her enticingly named exhibition that forms the Fruitmarket Gallery’s contribution to this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival. Given that Woman with a Red Hat, which opens hot on the heels of a trilogy of solo exhibitions running concurrently across London, is based entirely around theatrical performance, this sounds like an odd thing to say. Especially as its centre-piece, Event for a Stage (2015), is an hour-long film featuring a solo performance by Tony award-winning actor Stephen Dillane in a black box theatre space dressed as Oedipus.
“Working with Stephen was a huge learning curve for me,” says Dean, whose artistic career began with the YBA generation, and who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1998. “I don’t think I work with actors in a functional way, and that’s all to do with my inability, willfully or otherwise, to work within linear narrative cinema. I tell stories, but I struggle with linear narrative, and I wonder why I can’t go there.”
Event for a Stage was commissioned for the Sydney Biennale and filmed over four nights in an auditorium where Dean hands Dillane pages of a script one by one from the front row. There are reminiscences about Dillane’s family, lines from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and story-telling, while the actor also announces the changing of film reels for the two cameras filming him.
Actors feature in three shorter films on show. In A Muse (2017), Ben Whishaw reaches out through space and time to poet and essayist Anne Carson. Providence (2017) sees David Warner transported to a field of hummingbirds. As a kind of grand finale, His Picture in Little (2017) brings together the three actors, who have all played Hamlet, a line from which gives the film its title. The oldest piece in the exhibition is Foley Artist (1996), a sound-work which in part features Tim Piggot-Smith performing lines from Henry IV Part Two.
“I used Ben and David in the tradition of art and not in the tradition of acting,” says Dean. “It’s a bit like asking them to sit for a portrait. Actors are uncomfortable if they’re not being directed, even in a small way.”
While in no way calculated, a sense of theatre has permeated throughout much of Dean’s work. It was there perhaps most explicitly in her film of Merce Cunningham and company dancing to John Cage’s composition, 4’33 (2008). It was there again in Play as Cast (2004/2005), which enlarged a monochrome production shot of a play onto the safety curtain of Vienna Opera House as part of an ongoing series of work by contemporary artists. Then there is Die Regimentstochter (2005), a group of thirty-six vintage theatre and opera programmes she found in a German fleamarket. There is drama here too.
“There’s something cut out of the front page of each of them, so you can see the next page coming through,” Dean says. “They look like found collages, until you realise that someone’s cut the swastika from each of them. You don’t know if that was an act of rebellion, or an act of obedience when the swastika became illegal, so there’s this ambivalence to them.”
Dean sat on them for a while, showed them at her 2006 show at Tate St Ives, and the work now belongs to the German government. This is why they won’t be seen at the Fruitmarket. Two other works will. The blackboard-based When first I raised The Tempest (2016) is a storyboard for an imaginary film. The Russian Ending (2001) reimagines a set of found postcards as stills from fictitious disaster movies.
“I’ve always used theatrical language,” says Dean, her words a series of unrehearsed fractures that eventually connect into mini monologues. “Even early on with my blackboard pieces, I used stage directions like ‘exeunt’. When I write about my work as well, I call them asides, so it must be there somewhere.”
Dean’s grand-father was Basil Dean, a pioneering film producer who co-founded Ealing Studios, and went on to make films with the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields. Given that he died when Dean was eleven, there is no direct influence, but “maybe hearing about all that left its mark.”
Dean’s latest film, not being shown in Edinburgh, is called Antigone. She began working on it more than twenty years ago, visiting the Sundance Film Festival to learn how to write scripts from some of the greats. The result is more arthouse than multiplex.
“It’s about stage fright,” Dean says, “and came out of what happens when you lose your way.”
With the theatrical beginnings, middles and possible endings presented as a body of work in Woman with the Red Hat, might Dean ever go the whole hog and make (+italic)movies(-italic) rather than (+italic)films(-italic).
“No,” says Dean the reluctant auteur. “I’ve always resisted that, and I think I always will. The whole process of making Antigone after going to Sundance and all of that confirmed to me that I need the blindness of working as an artist rather than a film director. I have to get it all from underneath rather than left or right.
“With Antigone, for twenty years I was carrying around this idea of writing a script, but I came back from Sundance, and even with everything I’d learnt there, I couldn’t do it. I write, and I make films, so why can’t I do that?”
She answers herself.
“Probably because I don’t want to. I need to be blind. I need to not know where I’m going. If there’s one thing I understand about my work is that I don’t want to know the entry point. I need to be blind.”
Tacita Dean – Woman with a Red Hat, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, July 7th-September 30th.
The List Edinburgh Festival Guide 2018, July 2018