Tacita Dean: A Study in Time and Movement

Taking time out from settling into my new city, I couldn’t resist the pull of the Tate Modern any longer, and off I went to Bankside along the Thames for an afternoon of modern art. 

Instead of arriving at the Tate from the front along the river (which would have afforded much nicer views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the rest of the city), I approached from the back, picking my way through multiple construction zones surrounding the building. When I finally arrived, I was surprised at what I found. Looking for an existing site to expand to, the museum chose to convert an old and empty power station. The building, originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, still retains the look of a factory, including a 325-foot high chimney that is one of its most striking features.

I have been taught to expect modern art buildings to be in themselves a work of modern art. See the Hirshhorn in DC, or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. During my university days in Denver, we were exceedingly proud of the Hamilton Building, the expanded wing at the Denver Art Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind to mimic the mountain peaks. Never mind that the angle of the walls made it difficult to hang the art properly. And never mind that the titanium panels that make up the outside of the building created treacherous slides from which the winter snow and ice could plunge on unassuming museum-goers. It was cutting-edge! It was arty! It was modern! But as I approached the Tate Modern I wondered if its anti-modern art façade was somehow more modern in its unexpected form, making me question my biases and beliefs. Isn’t that, after all, what modern art is supposed to do?

Tacita Dean’s installation FILM was my destination, and I found it within the expansive Turbine Hall. The darkness and silence of the hall created a close and still atmosphere, making the experience for each visitor intensely personal, a solitary undertaking. I sat on a bench as Dean’s 11-minute 35mm film was projected on a tall column at the far end of the hall.

There was no sound, and the images were arresting in their simplicity. A snail on a green leaf that is moving gently in the wind. The sunset reflected in the rippling surface of a lake. The constant roll of ocean waves. Falling circular objects against the backdrop of a brick tower. Many of the images were in black and white, but Dean also used colour, some of the result reminding me of the early days of filmmaking when filmmakers added colour by hand tinting the negative.

Inspired by Alain de Botton’s reflections on art in his recent book Religion for Athiests, I asked myself: What does this piece of art mean to me? How is it relevant in my life? How could it make me a better person?

This was a study of time, an installation of time. But it was also a study of movement.  Dean says, “FILM is a visual poem. I found its rhythm and metre from the material itself, relying not only on the images I had, but on what’s normally considered waste: the picture fading at the tail end of the roll, the shimmering metamorphosis of a colour filter change and the flash frames of overexposure as the camera starts and stops. FILM about film, and in the end, I let the materials’ intrinsic magic be my guide.”

So as I watched the 11-minute loop of film I contemplated time and movement. Time never stands still; life never stands still. We’re all in constant motion. Everything is transient. This ephemeral quality of life is what makes individual moments special – they begin and end in the same instant, the same breath, and they will never exist in this form again.

The images continued their steady march and I could feel time pouring through me; I became part of the movement, part of the moment. This piece of art and my contemplations created a very personal experience and I still feel – days later – the effect of this work. Life is what is happening all around us, and I want to participate fully. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to tell the people in my life how much I love them. I want to see and taste and hear and feel as much as possible. Life is so rich, and I always want to remember how lucky I am to have so much available to me.

“Film is time made manifest…”, Dean said. “It is still images beguiled into movement by movement and is incredibly magical.”

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