Sydney Morning Herald Column

Tacita Dean

Published January 26, 2024
Tacita Dean, from 'Paradise' (2021)

It’s odd to think Tacita Dean was once lumped in with that motley group known as the YBAs – or Young British Artists. She had the mixed fortune of emerging at the same time as such headline-seekers as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and the Chapman Brothers, who saw notoreity as the superhighway to success in the contemporary art world. She got her share of attention, but that’s where the association ends.

Tacita Dean, from Buon Fresco’ (2014)

As visitors to her Museum of Contemporary Art survey will quickly discover, there are no dead sharks, unmade beds or hordes of tiny model-kit Nazis in Dean’s oeuvre. Her work is diverse and cerebral, caught up with moments of experience and the vagaries of recollection, both public and private. The work is not easy to classify because Dean (b. 1965) is one of those rare artists who have managed to get by without a signature style.

When the exhibition booklet tells us she deals with “history, memory, mortality, and the passage of time” or “impermanence and loss”, one recognises the difficulty of defining this body of work. The more important question is whether it offers a compelling experience for the viewer.

Dean has a fondness for certain materials and techniques, notably analogue film. She’s been at the forefront of a campaign to convince companies such as Kodak to keep manufacturing film stock in this digital era. In this she has been assisted by figures such as Christopher Nolan, who shot Oppenheimer on 65 mm film and found it became a drawcard. It’s possible film might yet enjoy a second life, like the LP record, although it seems unlikely.

Tacita Dean, from ‘LA Magic Hour’ (2021)

Being more interested in the quality of the music rather than the fine nuances of sound, I’ve always discerned a trace of decadence in the reborn passion for vinyl, unless you’re a DJ rubbing your fingers across a disc at a dance party. Likewise, film entails a lot of fuss and bother in search of a unique image texture.

There are, however, connoisseurs of such effects, and Dean is one of them. She loves the whirring sound of a projector, as the celluloid tracks from one reel to another, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to share that passion at the MCA. A notice at the entrance to the display alerts us there are three-and-a-half-hours of film on offer, for those with time to kill.

Tacita Dean, from ‘Telomere’ (2023)

The brochure accompanying the show tells us the film reflects Dean’s “fascination with St. Francis”, but one can learn a lot more about the saint from reading Jacques Le Goff or G.K. Chesterton.

Like so much of this exhibition, Buon Fresco invites us to participate in Dean’s highly personal, intimate take on those things that meet her eye and stimulate her mind. This makes some large assumptions about the viewer that I wouldn’t endorse, although the MCA seems to be right on board.

Upon entering the show, one proceeds down a long corridor lined with wispy, pale, coloured lithographs of the sky – LA Exuberance (2016) and LA Magic Hour (2021), along with a 16 mm film of a cloud on a small monitor. But while it may feel magical to gaze up at the evening sky or contemplate a cloud, the experience is not the same when we are looking at a bunch of lithographs and a short film on a gallery wall. In fact, it feels decidedly dull, as if these views have been de-natured by mechanical reproduction.

Tacita Dean, from ‘One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting’ (2021)

Dean is more infatuated with process than with any particular subject and loves to defy aesthetic convention.  A boxed work called Monet Hates Me (2021) contains 50 objects chosen at random from the holdings of the Getty Research Institute. Telomere 1-4 (2023) is a set of photogravure prints based on the scuff marks on a metal ramp at the artist’s Paris gallery, which become ‘found’ abstractions. The spirit of Marcel Duchamp hovers over both these pieces, obliging us to question whether art requires the shaping intelligence of the maker, or can be merely a matter of chance, like playing the stockmarket with a dartboard.

Tacita Dean, ‘Sakura (Jindai I)’ (2023)



None of this is new, and although it can be interesting, there’s an inevitable degree of frustration for the spectator built into this exhibition. A filmed 50-minute conversation between two artists, Luchita Hurtado (b. 1920) and Julie Mehretu (b. 1970), called One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting (2021), is diverting enough, but could hardly be described as a work of art. The same goes for another 20-minute film, with the self-explanatory title, Claes Oldenburg draws Blueberry Pie (2023). These 16mm home movies are only “art” if the artist nominates them as such.

An abstract, 24-minute film called Paradise (2021) was made to accompany a ballet based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Although we’d never know it without reading the label, the colours are borrowed from watercolours by William Blake. The work owes a huge debt to the music of Thomas Adès, which adds to the vaguely hypnotic effect of a central disc that keeps changing colour.

Tacita Dean, ‘The Wreck of Hope’ (2022)

The works that will appeal most strongly to audiences are two massive chalk drawings on blackboards, Chalk Fall (2018) and The Wreck of Hope (2022); and to a lesser extent two large, hand-coloured photos of trees. After so many films, prints and photographs, such tactile pieces come as a big surprise. Painstakingly drawn, too fragile to be touched, these landscapes evoke thoughts of the Romantic sublime, imbued with the urgency of our present-day climate crisis. The drawings are so approachable, so likeable and understandable, they risk making many of Dean’s other creations seem fatuous and irritating in their randomness.

Tacita Dean, from ‘Geography Biography’ (2023)

The major work in the show is the double projection, Geography Biography (2023) which I saw last year at François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce in Paris. The Bourse and the MCA have co-published a catalogue for this work alone, consigning the rest of the survey to a small booklet. This is a little disappointing, but to be fair, the museum has made a bigger effort than the Art Gallery of NSW did with the Kandinsky exhibition.

Geography Biography features two vertically oriented, 4-metre-high, projections that feature outtakes from Dean’s personal film archive superimposed on images drawn from postcards by means of neat, geometical cut-outs – circles, squares, ellipses, triangles. Once again, the effect is distracting but not exactly memorable. Watching this “accidental self-portrait” unfold is like peering into a stranger’s diary or photo album. The artist travels around a lot while working on various projects, picking up curious old postcards and images. We catch glimpses of her family, her student years, and her later life as a wellknown artist. Like so much of this exhibition, it feels as if Dean has been pleasurably absorbed in the process of putting these films together, while the rest of us stand at a distance, wondering what it’s all about.


Tacita Dean

Museum of Contemporary Art, 8 December 2023 – 3 March 2024



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January, 2024