Tacita Dean: the acclaimed British artist poised to make history

The artist and filmmaker is staging a trio of shows at London galleries this year. She talks about her struggle to continue using 16mm film, her father’s influence and living with arthritis

It is tempting to think of Tacita Dean as a witchy presence in the world, a diviner of hidden forces. Her chosen medium is an antique one: spooled film. Waiting is a big part of her method, and watching; there is also an alertness to chance and coincidence. She is a lifelong collector of four-leaf clovers; a sometime chaser of solar eclipses. One artistic quest saw her pursuing the three known sightings of the severed breasts of St Agatha among Italian relics. In another, she rose in a hot air balloon in the Alps before dawn to try to capture a plastic bag full of alchemists’ ether. She has long been drawn both to lighthouses and to shipwrecks. The prospectus for her three solo shows about to open in London – in an unprecedented collaboration between the National Gallery, the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery – involves ancient and modern obsessions divided in the traditional way: still life, portrait and landscape. She will bring her own quiet magic to each.

I meet her one lunchtime in the midst of one of those three pressing deadlines, in a closed gallery at the National, surrounded by still lifes, some chosen from the collection, some shipped in, some her own. She sits beside a long trestle table of plans and tools and notes, trying not to feel the pressure of the 101 decisions she has still to make, while a gallery assistant paints a final section of wall and one of her regular team works on the sound for one of her films.

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The car’s the scar: photographs of US veterans’ interior lives

“When I was growing up in south-west Virginia, it was ingrained in me to thank a veteran if I met one,” says Matthew Casteel, a 37-year-old photographer who works under the name ML Casteel. “That was the norm back then, the understanding that they had made a huge sacrifice for the country. Somewhere along the way, that has changed. Their plight has gotten lost in the bureaucracy of government.”

Casteel’s new book, American Interiors, is a compelling indictment of the way in which US war veterans, the wounded and the war-weary, are often treated on their return to the homeland that demanded that sacrifice of them. What is audacious about Casteel’s approach is that there are no portraits of veterans in the book. Instead, while working as a valet parker at a veteran’s hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where he now lives, he began surreptitiously shooting the interiors of their cars. The result is a grimly powerful, extended metaphor for the neglect and decay that makes their daily lives at home a dogged extension of their lives at war.

Cigarette butts in a dog food can in one car interior.

Cigarette butts in a dog food can in one car interior. Photograph: ML Casteel

“Many of the pictures, with their impersonal and scrutineering eye, have the look of crime-scene photography,” writes Kenneth MacLeish, author of Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community, in his illuminating afterword, and one immediately notes the recurring tropes among the messy interiors: guns, knives, syringes, porn mags, crushed beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. The detritus of survival, of lives altered immeasurably by combat in faraway places.

Many of the interiors are untidy and cluttered, several are encrusted with dirt and piled high with debris. They are decorated with photos of loved ones, lucky charms, holy pictures, flags and littered with discarded children’s toys, walking sticks, medicine bottles, airbrushes, toothbrushes, socks and lottery tickets. In one photo, a baseball cap bears the words “Life Is Crap”. In another, someone has written “Better days!!” on a tiny US flag.

“I parked hundreds of cars a week and most were in some state of neglect and disrepair,” says Casteel, who honed the project during his time as a postgraduate student on the renowned MFA photography course at Hartford, Connecticut. “The symbolism of neglect was pervasive in the cars, but also in the folks that were driving them. I met several guys who actually lived in their cars.”

One driver leaves out his Bible and a hunting knife.

One driver leaves out his Bible and a hunting knife. Photograph: ML Casteel

The statistics speak for themselves: one in seven homeless adults in America is a military veteran; one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder; every day, 22 veterans take their own lives, averaging one suicide every 65 minutes.

Casteel worked as a valet parker at the hospital for seven years, during which time he took thousands of photographs of the car interiors using a small camera, working fast so as not to be detected by his fellow workers. The project took on an almost obsessive dimension for him: “At times it did feel like I was shooting the same interior of the same car,” he says.

I first came across Casteel and his work five years ago while working with Hartford students on an intensive weekend of seminars and workshops in Berlin, organised by his mentor, Jörg Colberg, who also edits the influential Conscientious Photography website. It was easily the strongest series I saw, but the early dummy of the book he showed me contained more than 150 images. The finished work comprises 55. “I was maybe a bit lost in it back then,” says Casteel, laughing. “But I knew it had a formal consistency because I was creating the view of the interior from the driver’s seat over and over. It was what the vets’ saw when they looked around them.”

Details of images from American Interiors

Details of images from American Interiors. Photograph: ML Casteel

The car is an enduring symbol of America and American photography, synonymous with mobility, freedom and independence, but here that symbolism is upended. “That dream of freedom that the car symbolises doesn’t always translate into real freedom,” says Casteel.

Surprisingly, many of the vehicles shown in the book belong to veterans of much earlier US wars: Vietnam, Korea, and even a few from the second world war. Of the 21 million military veterans in America, 3 million served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Unless they were seriously injured, the vets from more recent conflicts in the Gulf and Afghanistan would park their own cars,” says Casteel. “This was an ageing population. They were, to a man, tough. They were hanging in there and the veterans’ hospital was a place where they could go and be with their own people, be with guys who understood what they had been through and what they were going through.”

An image from American Interiors by M L Casteel.

Photograph: ML Casteel

Casteel befriended several veterans, even visiting their homes to take formal portraits, but he says “it always came down to the cars”. He has shown the resulting images to several of the vets he befriended – the usual reaction is “my car doesn’t look like that”. He plans to make a special edition of the book with proceeds going to a veterans’ charity.

“I heard so many stories and saw so many guys struggling with addiction or health problems relating to what they had been through that it kind of humbled me,” he says. “I grew up as a rebellious teenager who played in punk rock bands and was involved in anti-war activism. Back then it was just ‘fuck war!’, but I never really considered the human plight of individual veterans. The ones I met were struggling, but they were also cool guys and I was always struck by their generosity. They were inspiring to be around, for sure. They changed my way of thinking.”

American Interiors by ML Casteel is published by Dewi Lewis (£28)

Ai Weiwei on the project that awoke his political voice – The Start podcast

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In 2008, an earthquake devastated Sichuan province in China, claiming the lives of more than 69,000 people. Following accusations from parents that substandard construction caused the collapse of schools across in the region, the artist Ai Weiwei set upon a political investigation that would name every missing student and call the government to account for their deaths.

In the fourth episode of The Start, we hear how this investigation brought about Remembering, an installation of 9,000 school backpacks on the Munich Haus der Kunst, that both commemorated pupils and engendered a new sense of political duty within Ai Weiwei’s work.

David Milne review – One of Canada’s greatest painters? Come off it!

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
From the glitz of New York’s gilded age to the horror of the trenches, Milne had plenty to work with. So why does our critic prefer his photos?

‘Tediously genteel’ … Billboards, c.1912, by David Milne.

‘Tediously genteel’ … Billboards, c.1912, by David Milne.
Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

This exhibition of a supposedly “great” Canadian artist who was unsuccessful in his own lifetime and is little-known outside his own country today is called David Milne: Modern Painting. I don’t know what definition of modern painting they used, but it isn’t in any of my books. Milne’s paintings are only modern if by that you mean a wishy-washy vagueness, depressed colours and complete lack of shock. This is the cough of the new, modern art with a yawn.

There is very little sign of development in Milne’s art, and as you navigate his backwoods the monotony of his subdued palette of russets, pale greens, blacks and muddy browns becomes embarrassingly repetitive.

Manhattan via Bloomsbury … Columbus Monument, 1912, by David Milne.

Manhattan via Bloomsbury … Columbus Monument, 1912. Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

Milne, born in Ontario in 1882, started his career in gilded age New York – already the art capital of the Americas by the 1900s. He painted softly toned scenes of city life that make Manhattan look like a corner of Edwardian Bloomsbury. His dappled studies of women in big hats, people milling about in the Public Library, a couple of cars and some sedate hoardings are timid imitations of the likes of Matisse and Bonnard. Compared with the paintings of George Bellows or photographs of Alfred Stieglitz from the same era, with their powerful sense of a great urban society, Milne’s perceptions of New York are tediously genteel.

He obviously did not feel at home in the metropolis and in 1916 – suffering from what he described as a “nervous heart” – moved to the first of a series of hideaways in the mountains of New York State, before eventually returning to Canada in 1929. From 1916 onwards, the exhibition is dominated by woodland landscapes. In his 1916 watercolour Bishop’s Pond (Reflections), he finds a mirror of his melancholy in the glassy surface of a woodland pool. White, snowy trees become blurred forms of reflected sadness. Yet the exhibition’s attempt to compare his love of reflections with Monet’s waterlilies reveals a loss of perspective. One of Milne’s landscapes might be touching; together, they pall. He seems unable to take his imagination outside a very limited repertoire. In 1929, for instance, he is still brooding miserably on woodland water in the appropriately titled Gray Pool.

Pink Reflections, Bishop’s Pond, 1920, by David Milne.

Reflected sadness … Pink Reflections, Bishop’s Pond, 1920. Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

When Milne visited the western front in 1919 as an official Canadian artist, the first world war was over and its eerie potholes and trenches gave him plenty of mud and rainwater to brood on. He himself said he was merely a “tourist” among these haunted landscapes. His war art is not especially powerful. Milne was a misery before he visited the trenches and a misery afterwards. Obviously any image of those landscapes of horror is distressing. Yet it is hard to see what Milne’s dappled renditions add to the photographs of the same scenes that are displayed for comparison. The photographs are brutally real, the paintings almost decorative.

That same contrast between the raw reality of the camera and the gentle artifice of Milne’s brush recurs when the woodland photographs he took as part of his research are shown beside his pastoral scenes. I prefer the photos. I have never thought that about a painter before.

This venerable gallery – with its wonderful architecture by John Soane and collection of masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Poussin – is a beautiful place, yet its exhibition programme is turning into an orgy of the second rate. It’s time Dulwich celebrated what it is, an art-historical treasure house, instead of trying to be “modern” and getting lost in some very dreary woods.

Ann Hirsch on the art project that invaded her private life – The Start podcast

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In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.

In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.

Damien Hirst on the break-in that changed his art – The Start podcast

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In 1985, a young artist in a London squat set to work on a portfolio that would secure him a place at art college. Despite initially struggling to find a medium that suited his artistic expression, Damien Hirst soon found inspiration from an unlikely source, his neighbour, Mr Barnes.

We hear how a man whom Damien never met put into motion the artist’s first forays into sculpture, transformed his view on conceptual art and, ultimately, changed the way he makes it – even to this day.

The Big Burns Supper – in pictures

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