Smoke, Clouds, Breath: Tacita Dean at Marian Goodman
Tacita Dean: …my English breath in foreign clouds at Marian Goodman Gallery
March 3 to April 23, 2016
24 W 57th Street (between 5th and 6th avenues)
New York, 212 977 7160
Tacita Dean’s “…my English breath in foreign clouds,” at Marian Goodman, is a lofty exhibition encompassing new photo works, drawings, and three films. The first room holds A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds, a suite of photographs, slate drawings, and pieces made with spray chalk, white charcoal pencil, all created in 2015 and ’16. The titles, all containing the word cloud, are taken from William Shakespeare. In Portraits (a 16-minute film made in 2016) David Hockney smokes several cigarettes in his Los Angeles studio while we watch. The smoke rises up in front of his own series of portraits, all with blue backgrounds. The film is silent save for Hockney’s exhaling and the occasional rustling of papers. He laughs once, heartily. His sweater is blue and the couch in his studio is blue. The film is surprisingly meditative, paralleling the cloud works while grounding them in a subtly humorous way.
The viewer might travel between the large room of cloud drawings and photographs and the gallery of Hockney’s smoke. Both the film and the clouds provide the viewer with a specific kind of space in which to travel — Hockney smokes while he looks, not while he paints. And Dean looks at clouds, it seems, while painting them and photographing them. What is the space between looking, thinking, and making? The works in Concordance seem to hang the way clouds do: they are paired together, dispersed, clustered, vertically and horizontally oriented. There is an abundance of space, as in Portraits, wherein Hockney sits thinking and smoking in his studio. This is perhaps a result of big sky Los Angeles — a city known for being spread out, and bluer, too, with its intense sun and Pacific Ocean. The smoke makes visible evidence of inhalation and exhalation, while the clouds present evidence of looking. The viewer watches the watcher.
The other works in the show provide this same sense of looking at something that has been looked at in detail by Dean and others. Buon Fresco (2014) is an intimate view of Giotto di Bondone’s frescos of The Life of St. Francis (1297–1300). This allows the viewer to see into the processes of the painter — his techniques and style. The projection is small — not much larger than a sheet of paper — and unlike the other two films, does not have a separate and darkened viewing area. The projection appears as a humble surprise in the hallway between the two larger galleries. The scale of the projection, coupled with the intensely intimate up-close view of the Upper Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, makes for a visceral micro-macro looking experience. In the same way that Dean grants viewers a particular kind of access to Hockney’s process, we see Giotto’s painting anew.
After walking down the narrow hallway, GAETA, 2015 — Fifty photographs, plus one appears. These photographs are installed similarly to A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds, on the opposite end of the gallery. Dean photographed Cy Twombly’s house and studio in Gaeta, Italy in 2008. They contain intimate details of his life and work — small scribblings on Post-Its, stacked photographs, surfaces and floors. Also of varying sizes, these works provide clips of information about Twombly. Though perhaps not directly about his work, it feels natural to make connections between the chalk drawings for which Twombly is known and Dean’s chalk and slate cloud works in the adjacent room. The show makes art historical and intuitive leaps. These leaps hold poetic resonance and keys to Dean’s ways of working.
Lastly, on the third floor of the gallery, Event for a Stage (2015) is shown every 90 minutes. A 50-minute, 16mm color film, it’s completely captivating as a standalone film and also hangs contextually with the rest of the works in the show. Filmed in a theater in Sydney, Australia in 2014, Event for a Stage is not exactly a work of theater. British actor Stephen Dillane is, as he says in the film, “an actor playing the role of the ‘actor.’” The set-up is immediately recognizable as one of a small theater, with a wide white circle drawn on the stage. The first few moments present a hypnotic, swirling introduction to the piece, with the camera following Dillane as he walks the perimeter. The audience is facing the camera. We are watching the audience watch the actor. Throughout the 50 minutes, Dillane grabs pieces of paper from Dean, who is sitting in the front row, and reads/performs them. At other times, he seems to be improvising. At still other times, he seems to be rejecting whatever text Dean has handed him. He appears frustrated at times and it becomes unclear if he is “acting” or if this is a performance of the difficult methods of communication and collaboration between Dean and Dillane, between film and theater, between an artist’s vision and an actor’s carrying-out. Dillane talks to the audience about the piece, about exchanges between himself and Dean, and about self-consciousness in acting. Filmed over the course of four performances, the camera is usually visible or we are aware of it via other means (Dillane giving camera direction, for instance). Part of brilliance of this film lies in the fact that it’s difficult to distinguish whether the actor is acting or not. It’s also difficult to distinguish whether the tension between Dean and Dillane is “real.” What is written on the papers that the actor keeps grabbing from the artist and then tossing on the ground? At the end, we are left with several papers strewn about the stage. Dillane bows and the audience applauds.
At some point, near the end of the film, Dillane reads (from Dean’s text): “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” And so, Dillane is reading from Dean who is quoting fluxus artist Robert Filliou. That quote is an apt description of Dean’s body of work, and specifically this most lofty and intricate show. Dean is adept at speaking to the viewer. She complicates the relationship between artist and viewer by placing other artists and figures in the line of communication. In this case, she places, quite directly, Shakespeare, Giotto Di Bondone, Hockney, Twombly, and Dillane. “…my English breath in foreign clouds” is crowded with works, art historical figures and lives, while still spacious — leaving room for the viewer to make her own connections.