Exhibition Review: Tacita Dean: Portrait; Still Life review (National Portrait Gallery; National Gallery, London to 28 May)

 Prisoner Pair Tacita Dean 2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Prisoner Pair
Tacita Dean
2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

National Portait Gallery and National Gallery to 28 May.

National Portrait Gallery details

National Gallery details

RATING:  ★★★★★

Thanks to a collaboration between the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, each of these esteem institutions over the next few months will host exhibitions from renowned British European artist Tacita Dean, with the National and NPG first up with STILL LIFE and PORTRAIT respectively. This weekend of 25-27 May is therefore really your last chance to catch the first two of the three planned linked exhibitions (the RA's started 19 May and runs to 12 August). Film lovers should make a beeline for this, as 16mm projections lie at the core of the National and NPG's exhibitions, with Dean having long been interested in exploring genres like still life and portraiture but through the medium of film instead of paint. The whirr of 16mm dominates both exhibitions, with Dean seemingly having designed many of the film installation rooms with the intention of making contact with the beam of light unavoidable, a reminder of film's mechanics and physical presence. Some of the film's are projected onto screens that hang from wires so tiny that in the darkened rooms they seem to be floating portals that you might reach through back into the time and place of the on-screen action.

In the quiet of the National Gallery and the NPGs exhibition halls, and in particular when sitting in the rooms devoted to Dean's film still life and portraits (though each exhibition compares and contrasts the film works with photographs and paintings curated by Dean from her own collections or various other galleries and sources), a ruminative and elegiac atmosphere prevails. Aside from being challenged to parse a personality from the various tics and mannerisms of Dean's chosen subjects for the portraits (which includes actors David Warner, Ben Whishaw and Stephen Dillane, and artists David Hockney and Cy Twombley) and having the chance fall under the hypnotic spell of watching a largely still figure hold the screen as a projector whirrs rhymtically behind you, what Dean's portraits encourage is a contemplation of time. Not just the amount of time each film runs for, but also 'film time' (how much time is passing in each portrait, some seem to cover seasons, others a day in the life of an artist with activities both mundane and creative) and the fact that film as as medium relies on the passing of time, or the passing of frames through light at a set speed, to work. You can even get up and look at the 16mm film running through the projectors in many of the rooms. And, finally, the subjects of the films themselves often suggest the inevitability of degradation or give off a distinct autumnal vibe; with Twombly and Hockey both slowing figures in their 80s, and one film in the Still Life series covering the slow alteration of two apples in a schnapps bottle. 

Watching the films and reading the supporting text might also trigger you into contemplating how manipulating the physical nature of celluloid can allow for new realities  and effects to be created on screen: Dean's "His Picture in Little" (a tiny, intense projection of the sittings of three former Hamlet actors Dillane, Warner and Whishaw which emerges onto one of the NPGs wall spaces) splices together three different shoots from three different time periods, all done via masking of the film and not digital manipulation. "His Picture in Little" is one of the new works on display and perhaps the highlight, being an homage to the tradition of tiny portraiture painting that harks back to the Shakespearean period and with examples of original art pieces from the time mounted alongside the film. Typical of Dean, this is a lost art form reclaimed for her show; she seems eternally curious about things that are about to vanish.

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Owen Van Spall

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