Immersed in Merce at the mercy of the projector! Visitors can find themselves in the picture at the Landscape, Portrait, Still Life shows at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery and, coming soon, the Royal Academy. Tacita Dean is having a mega-moment across three galleries with a retrospective of work as well as new, previously unseen, film portraits.

Whether you are the subject of an exhibition or a curator it’s hard work.  For Tacita Dean, her workload has been exceptional – she’s not only the subject but also curator of THREE exhibition across major London galleries.


LANDSCAPE, PORTRAIT, STILL LIFE  is a major undertaking. I went to the press preview for PORTRAIT AND STILL LIFE – which are at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery.  The third element, LANDSCAPE, will open at the Royal Academy in May and will be the first exhibition to be held in the new Jungels-Winkler Galleries after years of redevelopment.

The thing about the exhibitions I saw is that they do need a bit of explanation.  I was lucky enough to hear Tacita Dean talk about her work and outline the technical challenges and the difficulties in getting her subjects to cooperate and capture the elements she was after.  I think, without that direct input from the artist it might be quite hard for viewers to comprehend what they are seeing and how to understand it.


I admire Tacita Dean’s faithful use of film, real film, the tactile stuff which you can hear running through a camera, see developed and then experience again through the whirr of the projector as the finished image on celluloid is thrown onto a vast screen.  But I do find it hard when you creep into a totally black space to watch some very long shots of …. well, leaves rustling, for example.  I know you have to invest in this kind of art, it’s not designed to be easy or a quick fix, but it does demand time and concentration of the viewer and sometimes it’s inclined to feel a bit, well, boring.

Anyway, I was very beguiled by the large gallery space which was filled with screens showing projected portraits of the American choreographer Merce Cunningham.  The filmed portrait is of a performance called STILLNESS and it’s that famous piece by John Cage: 4minutes 33seconds where no music is played but the ambient sound of the environment becomes the ‘music’.  But stand in front of the projector, your own shape enters the space in a rather surprising way.


I was very taken by the tiny portraits of three actors who have played Hamlet: David Warner, Ben Whishaw and Stephen Dillane. Called His Picture in Little, 2017, the title is  a quote from the play. These tiny portraits, arranged as a split screen triptych amongst collections of miniatures from the gallery’s collection of 16th and 17th miniature portraits, is very intriguing and impressive.  Each actor was filmed on their own but, when seen in the three screens, you vaguely make out a kind of ‘synergy’ between the three.


Over at the National Gallery there’s an exhibition curated by Tacita Dean which throws up questions about the nature of the Still Life and the Landscape. Are they part of the same way of looking?  Dean’s own work is subtly introduced within the collection. I almost missed her contribution of ‘Bird on a Wire’ chirruping away on a projected screen above images of birds – alive, stuffed, dead.


And I completely agree with her assertion that the  painting by Thomas Jones of A Wall In Naples  (about 1782) is magnificent.  You can read it as a landscape, a still life and also as an abstract piece of art.


I look forward to the third element of this show when it opens at the Royal Academy on 19th May. Otherwise, I suggest that the exhibition should be seen, discussed and that each visitor makes up their own mind.



15th March – 28 May 2018 at National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery    Royal Academy 19 May – 13 August 2018

Tacita Dean: PORTRAIT costs £14

Tacita Dean: STILL LIFE is free

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s