Tacita Dean, Event for a Stage, 2015 / credit: Cathy Carver
While filmmaking may be in her family's blood, artist Tacita Dean has no intention of ever entering the movie business
'I've always been slightly afraid of actors,' Tacita Dean confesses. Given that her Fruitmarket show 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 centrepiece, 2015's 'Event for a Stage', 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 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, wilfully 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, some storytelling, and lines from The Tempest, while the actor also announces the changing of film reels for the two cameras filming him.
Also on show are the actors featuring in three shorter films made last year. In 'A Muse', Ben Whishaw reaches out through space and time to poet and essayist Anne Carson. 'Providence' has David Warner transported to a field of hummingbirds. As a kind of grand finale, 'His Picture in Little' brings together those three actors, who have all uttered the words that make up the film's title while playing Hamlet. The oldest piece in the exhibition is 'Foley Artist' from 1996, a soundwork which partly features Tim Pigott-Smith performing lines from Henry IV Part 2. '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.'
Event for a Stage / credit: Zan Wimberley
While in no way calculated, a sense of theatre has permeated throughout much of Dean's work. It was there perhaps most explicitly in 'Stillness', her 2008 film of Merce Cunningham performing to John Cage's composition '4'33'. 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.
Then there is 'Die Regimentstochter' from 2005, comprising a group of 36 vintage theatre and opera programmes that she found in a German flea market.' 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 while 2001's 'The Russian Ending' 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 I call them asides, so it must be there somewhere.'
Dean's grandfather was Basil Dean, a pioneering film producer who co-founded Ealing Studios, and went on to make movies with the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields. Given that he died when she was 11, there is no direct influence, but she thinks that '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 20 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 her theatrical beginnings, middles and possible endings presented as a body of work in Woman With a Red Hat, might Dean ever go the whole hog and enter the movie industry?
'No,' says this reluctant auteur. 'The whole process of making "Antigone" after going to Sundance 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. For 20 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 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, Market Street, 0131 225 2383, 7 Jul–30 Sep, Mon–Sun, 11am–6pm, free.
The Fruitmarket Gallery
This exhibition by acclaimed British artist Tacita Dean takes performance as its theme. From the early Foley Artist (1996) – a celebration of the unseen sound artists of film that scripts an imaginary film entirely through the efforts of two foley artists – to the bewilderingly intricate Event…