BY Tacita Dean in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 126

Life in Film: Tacita Dean

frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practise

BY Tacita Dean in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 09

I completely missed out on cinema during my undergraduate education because there was no cinema in Falmouth. But during my post-graduate studies in London I went to see a lot of films; it was the era when the Ritzy in Brixton and cinemas in Hampstead and King’s Cross regularly screened triple bills – I remember ones devoted to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Derek Jarman. But many of these venues have changed or closed now.

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Moving to London, just before I started at the Slade School of Fine Art, was a period of awakening for me. This was when I saw, for the first time, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I remember thinking how radical its length was, and how Akerman created tension through languor and boredom rather than through any sort of action. I thought it was an amazing film.

I can’t remember where I saw India Song (1975), which was written and directed by Marguerite Duras. I was living in France, and I had heard a programme about it on the radio station France Culture before I even saw the film, so it must have been after 1995. India Song is just so wonderful because it’s all done through illusion, and nothing is what it seems to be. It’s filmed in a chateau in a Paris suburb, but thanks to the soundtrack and the look of the film you assume it’s taking place in India. It’s full of sad, bored, languid expatriates, and it stars Delphine Seyrig, who was also in Jeanne Dielman…. I love Duras’ films.

Alain Resnais, Providence (1977)

Providence (1977), written by David Mercer and directed by Alain Resnais, is an extraordinary film. It’s the only movie Resnais ever made in English. It’s basically a cast of five: Dirk Bogarde, David Warner, John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn and Elaine Stritch. What’s so amazing about it is that you don’t realize until the end that the story you’re witnessing is the rabid dream of a writer. The protagonists are always changing scenes but it’s not in any way faux-real. They walk down a long flight of stairs to enter a room and the next minute they might walk into the same room – without the stairs – and you realize Resnais has accommodated the slight adjustments of memory and fantasy. It was shot in France but Resnais sent an additional camera crew to America, so the film switches very subtly between the footage shot between the two locations, which creates an unhinging sense of non-location.

I remember liking Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration, 1998) – the first of the Dogme films that I saw. It’s one of the few movies I returned to see again, immediately after I had first seen it. It’s about a family occasion fraught with tension and it’s beautifully made.

Thomas Vinterberg, Festen (The Celebration), 1998. Courtesy: Metrodome Distribution

When I moved to London I met Ronald Grant, who has an archive of films, and every Saturday would show anything from trailers to old American B-movies to feature films. I went to his Cinema Museum in London every Saturday to watch the films from his archive; it was around the same time I met Derek Jarman. I had been to the premiere of his film The Garden (1990) at the National Film Theatre the day before; it was two days after Mrs Thatcher resigned and I was on the train travelling to Kent and so was he. I had seen his films The Tempest (1979) and The Last of England (1988) and had read his memoir Dancing Ledge (1993). Jarman was a very prominent figure in London at the time. I sat in a seat near him; I was full of awe but didn’t know if I could say anything to him. However, an obnoxious Canadian opposite me was talking about his grief at Thatcher’s resignation, which was motivation enough for me to move to a seat opposite Derek, and we talked for the whole journey. We had a lot of things in common – I was a student at the Slade and he’d studied there, and we had Kent and Dungeness in common. I remember a lot of things about that conversation: one was the absolute freedom he gave himself, and the fact that he admitted he was technically useless. He said he didn’t know how to work a light meter, and I’m exactly the same. I’m a terrible technician. After that I made a point of watching everything he made.

Another film I like is Fata Morgana (1971) by Werner Herzog. He had a whole other vision of what he was going to do, but then ended up making something else altogether. It’s a sort of document, not a documentary, which is like my films. I don’t like films that are hemmed in by the rules of cinema and I feel the same way about art works. These films allow acres of mental space. I’m interested in a weightless cinema – a cinema where you go off into a flight of fancy. The films of Michael Powell and Jarman, who edited with complete freedom – that’s the sort of British cinema that I really like, which we don’t really do anymore – it’s like suddenly drifting off and filming something on the periphery. Right now a lot of cinema is really low on imagination. We don’t take risks anymore. Since I’ve lived in Berlin I don’t see enough films; unfortunately they dub everything into German here. It’s sad. Going to films is the one thing I really miss.

British artist Tacita Dean currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She works in a range of media, but is perhaps best known for her intimate, meditative 16mm films, which not only serve as subtle, penetrating portraits of the people they document – from Mario Merz to Merce Cunningham – but also reflect on the fading medium of film itself. Dean’s 2004 film The Uncles is a document of her uncles’ memories of her grandfather’s involvement with the early days of Ealing Studios. In Kodak (2006) she filmed the factory in France that had recently stopped producing the 16mm film that she uses. Dean has upcoming solo shows at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Canada, and she was recently awarded the Kurt Schwitters Prize. Her latest film, Craneway Event (2009), will premiere at PERFORMA 09 in New York, USA.

Tacita Dean is an artist based in Berlin. Recent exhibitions include MUMOK, Vienna (2011) and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). Her latest film project, JG (2013), is currently being shown at Arcadia University Art Gallery, Philadelphia until 21 April.