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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.