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April 01 2012

The artisans behind the artists

What's it like to make giant monuments for Rachel Whiteread? Or to paint spots for Damien Hirst? The people behind some of Britain's best known art share their highs – and lows

Rachel Swainston

Made spot paintings for Damien Hirst in the mid-1990s, before becoming an upholsterer.

Painting spots was very dull. There's not a lot you can say about them. The canvases would arrive; they'd be stretched and pinned. Damien would specify spot size and we would mark them up and draw them. Then we'd have a massive delivery of household paints, which we'd mix into smaller pots of whatever colours we needed. We'd have hundreds of colours: no two were ever the same. A six-foot square canvas with spots four inches apart would take about a week. Every painting was sold.

It was quite simple really. With the spot paintings: it was, just a formula. Damian didn't need to have much input. Most of the time, there were two of us, although it would depend on how quickly he wanted them churned out. We were just the small fry. I came out of Goldsmiths [University] thinking I can't do anything, so I did these. Although they were all hand-painted, meaning each one is imperfect, there is no individual quality to the painting.

Lots of the Old Masters had people doing things for them. Damien created the idea; we just did the manufacturing. It would have been nice to have been credited in some way. We didn't feel he was particularly grateful, but it's quite a nice thing to be able to say you have done. Whenever my kids do a project on famous artists at school, they always do Damien Hirst. It means they can say: "My mum did the spot paintings."

Kerry Ryan

Has been making neon signs for more than 20 years, for artists including Tracey Emin, Anselm Kiefer and Mat Collishaw – as well as shops and restaurants.

About 20 years ago, Tracey Emin and Cerith Wyn Evans came into my shop in Spitalfields, London, separately, to ask for neons. It seemed to be getting used more and more in art. The first piece I made for an artist was the word EXIT backwards, TIX3, for Cerith, then a neon for the Tracey Emin Museum in Waterloo, then a piece for Sarah Lucas, a neon coffin she called New Religion. I now make all Tracey's neons for the UK and Europe: drawings and whole sentences in her handwriting.

I started nearly 30 years ago, via an apprenticeship on Brick Lane, when I was 16. Working with artists has inspired me to be more artistic myself. It's nice to see the transition from sketch to finished piece on the wall of a gallery or a collector's house. So I've been making my own work – in neon, metal, vinyl. I've also, over the years, worked out how to make underwater neon, which in theory you can't do but I found a way. It was for putting in fish tanks, although not all fish can cope with it. We tried electric eels, piranhas, all sorts. But we found that carp are tough enough.

Because neon is such a specialist field, I end up being a sort of consultant as well as a fabricator. For example, I have to explain that there are some things that just cannot be made in neon: it can't do folds or corners; it has to be curved or rolled. Conversely, I sometimes find myself suggesting even more risk-taking. I do feel essential to the process.

Working with artists is easier than working with people who want a sign for their restaurant or shop. Most artists tend to know exactly what they want, and tend to respect people who know their trade. They also understand materials and processes, as that's what they think about all day.

Art is all about the idea now: I think using fabricators makes art more valid and not less, from a conceptual point of view. If an artist has an idea, it can still take a lot of work to realise. As far as I'm aware, no artist who uses fabricators ever sits on their behind and lets other people get on with it. I don't know any people who work harder than artists.

Paul Vanstone

Former stonecarver for Anish Kapoor. He now exhibits his own work.

Anish Kapoor's work is very boring to make because it's so methodical, so precise. Changes could be measured in millimetres. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I'm a bit more random with my own work.

Anish is very good at making things himself: he knows what's what. But carving is very physical. He could use a stonemason but prefers to use an artist, so he obviously wants that artist's sensibility. I ended up going to quarries for him, driving across Spain looking for materials. That was fabulously useful, the sort of thing you never learn at art college.

The common analogy is that you wouldn't expect an architect to build his own building. Constantin Brancusi worked for Auguste Rodin, Anthony Caro for Henry Moore. It's understandable: you absorb or reject the skills of what comes before you, and then hopefully find your own voice. At the same time, you can't imagine Francis Bacon handing over his paintings to anyone else at any point. One thing that has changed with fabrication is that a lot of the artworks are like executive toys. They're just so controlled. In my own art, I look for more of a dialogue.

Mike Smith

Has made work for artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger and Damien Hirst.

The most difficult piece I've worked on was probably Monument for Rachel Whiteread because it was so fraught. The piece, which sat on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in 2001, was 11 and a half tons of polyurethane resin, carved into two pieces and made to look like a mirror image of the plinth. We worked on it for three years and then it was on show for six months. If we were to do it now, it would be easier because of the way materials and processes have developed.

It's pretty annoying how little people understand the processes of making contemporary art. Many of them would be horrified if they thought that photographers didn't take their own photographs. But how do they think Henry Moore made those bronzes? It's a lot like making a large car or a truck. I think there's a lack of understanding of the process. There are people who latch on to the fact that peopleartists are not making things themselves. There are even trained art historians who take issue with it. That's the scary thing. The moral outrage – the idea that we're all being duped because we're paying all this money and the work's not being made by the artists themselves – is ridiculous. What's more interesting is whether a piece is good or bad.

Steve Farman

Former negative cutter on major films from Lassie to Batman Begins. Worked on Tacita Dean's Film, recently shown in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

The Tacita Dean piece was the highlight of my career. I'm 52 now and I've been doing this since I was 17. It was the film I've had the most approval for. I felt appreciated, not just a very small cog in a massive machine. And Tacita's film was such a mess. As I recut it, I was saying: "Oh God, you can't have this bit – but you can use that. This bit's got marks on it, but you can use it – it makes it look more like film."

We started at midday on a Tuesday and she stayed with me until eight the next morning. I remember, at a reception for the piece, somebody asked how long I'd known Tacita, and I said we spent the night together last Tuesday.

That was my first major foray into the art industry. Compared to the film world, people are much nicer. They've got time to be nice because it's much slower paced. It was a bit surreal for me because I'd always been in the background. I remember, while working on [Wolfgang Petersen's] Troy, I only managed to speak to the third assistant director, not the director, not the first assistant director, not the second. That's the difference.

I'm of a different generation. If I stop, then effectively there'll be nobody left in the UK doing negative cutting. The 23-year-old editors working today have never touched film; they have no idea what it can do. Someone asked if I knew how a certain part of Tacita's work had been done and I said: "Oh yes, that piece of film was put through the camera 13 times." And they said: "Why wasn't it done digitally?"

It's a touchy-feely thing. Tacita still wants physically to touch the film. But as it's such an expensive medium, artists are the only ones willing to go down that route – because they love it.

Rungwe Kingdon

Runs Pangolin foundry in Stroud, Gloucestershire, one of the largest in the country. It has cast work for Eduardo Paolozzi, Lynn Chadwick, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley.

I tried to be a sculptor and, although I could make all sorts of things, I recognised that I didn't have a language. Skilful people can make anything, but that doesn't mean it will be made well or can touch a large number of people. The language has to be distinct. A good fabricator can take an artist's language and work with it, a bit like a translator.

I'm not interested in how many assistants Rodin had. I'm interested in his language, his vision. Big artists have a big language – and Rodin's was monumental. Before him, it was tight, talented and dead, everyone worrying about the last hair.

Getting credit has never bothered me in the slightest. We're silent collaborators. We don't have the big ideas ourselves. We'd be ridiculed if we tried. There are a lot of mediocre artists and I didn't want to be another one.

I won't work for just anyone. I have to get into their language, understand them. We solve problems. Some artists will come to us and want an exact reproduction of a model. Others aren't very practical: they might come with some amorphous idea and want us to grab hold of the smoke. We help them fit their ideas into a practical reality. You go through very long periods of incubation, working on drawings with the artist. Once you get an image you have to try to fit it to a material. There is the technical challenge and the challenge of interpreting ideas

I don't think we should be surprised if the general public think it is fraudulent. What's really important is that things are made with integrity. If the artists pretended things were all their own work, that would be fraudulent. But we deal with artists, not charlatans.


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December 20 2011

Tacita Dean wrapping paper

Continuing our series of Christmas wrapping paper designed especially for the Guardian by leading artists, Tacita Dean reveals how she reused an antique postcard

Download and print Tacita Dean's wrapping paper

This is from my found postcard collection. It's over 100 years old and German. I overpainted the Prosit Neujahr (Happy New Year) at the bottom, and painted on the red Santa hat. I like it because it doesn't really work. She looks rather uncomfortable at that angle, holding her arm up like that.

I overpaint postcards from my collection a lot. I'm not sure this sums up Christmas, but a lot of trouble went into constructing this photograph all those years ago: the backdrop, the snow – which I think must have been hand-painted black flecks on the original negative. I enjoy the artifice and invention of the pre-digital world.


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December 19 2011

Tacita Dean wrapping paper slips into the past

Each day in the runup to Christmas we have asked artists to design wrapping paper exclusively for the Guardian. Download today's gift paper for Tacita Dean's winter scene with a twist …



December 15 2011

Lord Byron takes pride of place at art show curated by Simon Schama

Historian requisitions paintings from British embassies around the world for his Travelling Light show at Whitechapel Gallery

A smouldering Lord Byron, dressed in ostentatious Albanian gear, looms large in a new show curated by the historian Simon Schama, who can't hide his enthusiasm for it. "It is utterly wonderful," he said. "The ultimate undergraduate gap year vanity."

The 1814 Byron portrait by Thomas Phillips normally hangs in the residence of the UK ambassador to Greece in Athens but has been requisitioned for the latest display of works from the Government Art Collection.

Schama is the third guest curator let loose on a collection of almost 14,000 works of art, personally choosing work which goes on display to the public on Friday at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

He said putting the exhibition together had been great fun. "When I was a small boy I used to be wheeled into Woolworths in my pram and I remember one of the first thoughts I had in my life was, do I nick the barley sugar canes first, or do I go for the humbugs? I really do feel like a kid in a sweetshop again."

Schama has called his exhibition Travelling Light, and explores the idea of Britain as a nation of explorers. Hence his choice of the Byron portrait as well as works such as Edward Lear's View of Beirut and Vanessa Bell's portrait of a woman as Byzantine Lady.

He also chose works by artists he knew and liked, such as Howard Hodgkin, Peter Liversidge, Roger Hilton and Tacita Dean, and came across work which won him over by artists he was unfamiliar with, such as Rachel Lowe and Hurvin Anderson, whose large work Peter's 1 – showing a barber's shop set up in someone's home – normally hangs over guests at functions in 11 Downing Street.

Other work has travelled from embassies in Tel Aviv, Cairo and Copenhagen. Schama admitted a certain intoxication to be had from "demanding them from embassies and cabinet ministers – how much fun is that! It is like liberating art for the people".

The Government Art Collection has been buying art works for the nation for 113 years, although spending cuts mean it is not doing so for two years – the first time it has stopped collecting since the second world war. The next and final GAC show at the Whitechapel will be chosen by staff at 10 Downing Street.

Travelling Light, Whitechapel Gallery until 26 February.


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November 15 2011

Tacita Dean's artwork malfunction

Is the breakdown of Tacita Dean's Turbine Hall piece anything to worry about? Absolutely not. Glitches and good art have always gone hand in hand

Art is not reliable. Why should it be? Reliability is for trains to run on time, clocks to go like clockwork, and banks to be, er, trustworthy. Art and artists offer an escape from all that into the world of imagination and possibility – or impossibility. Art deserves as much slack as it wants.

News that Tacita Dean's Film, an 11-minute silent work projected onto a white monolith in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, broke down at the weekend is therefore no big surprise – and no big deal. While there may have been some disappointed gallery-goers, the public has long got used to, and loves, the unpredictable nature of art: in the end, few people protested when access to Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, the previous Turbine Hall spectacle, had to be restricted because of health fears over ceramic dust. Most visitors found the seeds moving from afar, and the political and poetic resonances of the work increased throughout its run, regardless of technical hitches, because of the tribulations of its creator Ai Weiwei.

Dean's Film was up and running again by Sunday lunchtime. But it's worth bearing in mind that failure is not necessarily failure in art. The most spectacular case of art going (harmlessly) wrong that I can remember was an installation in the old Tate Gallery. In 1999, American artist Chris Burden, famous for his performance art that included having himself shot in the arm, unveiled an installation in the form of an automated assembly line.

When Robots Rule was supposed to mass-produce balsa-wood toy planes, but it never produced anything. It didn't work and could not be fixed. For months. Burden can make steamrollers fly in the air, as a 2006 project showed. But the Tate machine was a disaster and no one seemed to mind. It became a thought-provoking example of a non-functioning artwork.

Our tolerance for artistic error has gone up as art itself has become more popular. James Turrell's skyspaces may or may not deliver the thrill they promise: for a long, long time, he has been turning a crater in Arizona into a mind-boggling artwork, but it is still unfinished. Will it ever be ready for the public? And does this make the artist any less visionary?

All these contemporary adventures have a great tradition behind them. The National Gallery's current Leonardo da Vinci show includes all the surviving paintings he is known to have finished in Milan. But what about his unfinished (and in his day impossible) projects for flying machines? Da Vinci failed more often than anyone – and he was the greatest of all. There's no shame in trial and error when the imagination soars.


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October 15 2011

Tacita Dean: Film; Wilhelm Sasnal – review

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern; Whitechapel Gallery, London

You'd have to be blind not to notice that, from a distance, Tacita Dean's commission for Tate Modern's sepulchral Turbine Hall looks like nothing so much as a vast stained-glass window – and for this reason I fervently hoped it was going to have the same effect on me as Olafur Eliasson's numinous The Weather Project (Eliasson's commission, the fourth in the Unilever series, filled this space in 2003-4 – and oh, how I worshipped it).

A flickering, flaming 11-minute silent colour film, Dean's installation, complete with sprocket holes and random filter flashes, was made using a CinemaScope lens turned through 90 degrees, and is projected on to a vertical screen 13 metres high. In other words, its scale alone is enough to cow the visitor, and from 50 paces. Like some hungry peasant suddenly confronted with the exquisite manipulations of the medieval architect, your first inclination, as the eyes adjust, is simply to believe.

But this faith is misplaced, and fleeting: illusion not epiphany. Move closer, sit down and watch, and the jaw clamps shut again, awe turning first to disappointment, then to irritation. I have no argument with Dean's guiding impulse; her piece is intended to mourn and to celebrate celluloid at a time when 16mm film is no longer even printed in the UK. But I am amazed that it didn't lead her to produce something more interesting and beautiful than this. Film, with its assorted images of escalators, toadstools and a snail lurking on a leaf, isn't just banal (do I need to point out that when it comes to the passage of time, these metaphors have all been used a thousand times before?), it is fatally boring. Ripe tomatoes, mullioned windows, a tree, an egg, a clock... only because I wrote these things in my notebook do I remember them at all.

In a commentary on the work, Dean states that "Film is a visual poem", a remark I thought dubious even before I saw her fountains plash and her lightbulbs glow: likening other art forms to poetry is a cliche, the first and the last refuge of the shallow thinker. Afterwards, though, I thought it fraudulent too. What she has produced, however lovingly, however laboriously (she slices her prints by hand, alone at a Steenbeck cutting table), is more list than poem – and the trouble with lists is that even as they remind you of your obligations, they are so eminently resistible.

You might say that Dean's work is all technique and no content. Well, at the Whitechapel Gallery you can see a show where something approaching the opposite is the case. At his worst, Wilhelm Sasnal, the preposterously successful Polish artist, produces canvases that remind me of a certain kind of 70s album cover; his work can feel overly broad, naive, unfinished and hurried (he likes to paint quickly, often finishing a piece in a single day). I can't help but wonder just how good a painter he really is. But he has big things to say about politics, faith and community, and for this reason the Whitechapel's new exhibition of his work is both fascinating and bleak, the weight of 20th-century history bearing down on every wall of every room. It also works – what serendipity – as an interesting pendant to the unbeatable Gerhard Richter retrospective currently at Tate Modern. Sasnal belongs to a different generation from Richter; born in 1972, he is half his age. But both knew life under communism, and both have an unblinking relationship with the Holocaust, a catastrophe they simply will not ignore, not even in the peace of their studios. Sasnal has used the grey palette so often favoured by Richter; he, too, paints from photographs; and he flips easily between the abstract and the figurative, even if not with quite the same facility as his master. It's extraordinary to see. Talk about the anxiety of influence.

The show takes in paintings from 1999 until the present day, with the earlier work in two rooms upstairs. I understand why the curator decided to let people see the most recent paintings first; Sasnal's latest work is certainly the more colourful and, perhaps, the more accessible. The hope must be that visitors see Bathers at Asnières (2010), his interpretation of Seurat's painting of the same name, and feel a welcome connection (the copy's cloistered simplicity is a way of reminding his audience that until Sasnal was 17, when Solidarity was re-legalised, travel to London, where Seurat's original hangs, would have been all but impossible).

But I prefer the earlier work, which painfully embraces the fact that Kraków, where Sasnal is based, is not only close to Auschwitz, but once had its very own concentration camp (Kraków-Płaszów): the small painting Shoah (A Forest), from 2003, in which three figures are made miniature by the swirls of green (are these leafy branches kindly or malevolent?) all about them; the scenes from Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic book Maus, which Sasnal painted large scale and without speech bubbles by way of a riposte to those Poles who couldn't deal with its implications (these paintings – bunks seen through wire, a pig in a peaked cap – somehow need no explanation, even if you have not read Spiegelman); and, most of all, a landscape called Kielce (2003), in which briars and brambles are piled high on old snow, like knives, or bodies. Kielce is a Polish city where, in 1946, Polish antisemites attacked Holocaust survivors, killing 42.

Sasnal cannot let go of these themes. He wants to pay attention to other crises – more recent subjects include a Palestinian farmer, an Iranian nuclear power plant, and African migrants – but events closer to home haunt him. Downstairs hangs his most recent work, completed this year. It is a landscape: low, green fields surround a sprawling white construction which, the title reveals, is in fact a pigsty. When Sasnal showed this piece to his family, his father asked him if it was Auschwitz. It isn't hard to see why. The crazily lush fields, though they make up two thirds of the canvas, are an irrelevance. It is the hunkered buildings you wonder about, and knowing that they house animals somehow only makes you feel worse.


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October 12 2011

Reel deal: Tacita Dean's Film at Tate Modern

British artist Tacita Dean's giant installation in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, created using 13mm film, is a love letter to a disappearing medium



October 11 2011

The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean: Film. Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London

The twelfth commission in The Unilever Series at Tate Modern in London has been realized by the Berlin-based artist Tacita Dean. Tacita Dean conceived a piece that consists of an eleven-minute silent 35mm film projected onto a monolithic wall erected at the end of a darkened Turbine Hall. The work is entitled Film and deals with the typical nature of the analogue film in contrast to the digital image. Tacita Dean’s film is the first work in The Unilever Series that is devoted to the moving image.

The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean: Film. Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London. Press preview, October 10, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.


October 10 2011

Tacita Dean: Film – review

Tate Modern, London

One morning last February, Tacita Dean called to tell me her film lab in Soho had just informed her they would no longer be printing 16mm film, her chosen medium and that of dozens of other artists, with immediate effect. It sounded like the floor had just gone out from under her. She wrote about the consequences of the closing of the last film production lab in the UK in the following day's Guardian. Little did any of us realise that this event would be key to what she was going to do in Film, her Unilever Turbine Hall project, which opened on Monday.

Projected from a booth specially built into the Turbine Hall bridge, Dean's Film is about the specificity of the medium. Unlike a digital recording, film is physical – and just as a lithograph is not an etching, an oil painting is not a fresco, and none of them are just pictures, so film, with all its grain, its lights and darks, its undying moment-to-moment record of what's recorded in the camera, is physical.

"We're analogue people, not digital," Prince is quoted as saying in the fascinating catalogue, which includes contributions by dozens of film-makers, artists and musicians – from Jean-Luc Godard to Neil Young, Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese – who explain why analogue matters. You can feel as much as see the difference between film and digital recording, just as you can hear the difference between music recorded on a vinyl record and a CD of the same performance.

The screen is a 13-metre slab, standing towards the rear end of the Turbine Hall, like a great stained-glass window, but one that is in constant motion, standing in the puddle of its own projected light and dwarfing those who stand beneath it. Working with 35mm film, and a cinemascope lens turned 90 degrees, Dean's usual landscape format becomes a towering vertical. Film also concerns the Turbine Hall itself, whose far wall rears up in the image, the real end wall hidden in shadow beyond the screen.

The roof's girders and walkways and skylights appear, caught as though in shards of a mirror. And here's an orange, a memory of Olafur Eliasson's indoor sunset that filled the Turbine Hall in 2003. And here comes a giant ostrich egg. There are jokes, there are metaphors, a play of arresting and sometimes discordant images.

Escalator steps descend the screen: think of Tate Modern's escalators, think of all those cogs and sprockets and the way the steps catch the light as they pass, just like film moving through the camera.

A Victorian fountain spouts a geyser of water, the falling droplets cascading like the random clumps of chemicals fixing the footage in frame after frame of film. Suddenly, there's the sea at the bottom of the screen, the waves coming in and sliding up a beach, as though the tide were coming in on the Turbine Hall's concrete floor. Then pigeons peck at the foot of the screen.

Film mixes black and white, flaring tinted colour slabs, interior and exterior shots. A cricket forages, foliage swims in its own reflection, an industrial chimney billows bright smoke in black and white sunlight. A rock appears, both the mountain in the old Paramount Pictures logo and an imaginary Alp derived from the strange, almost forgotten 1944 novel Mount Analogue by René Daumal. Dean used the antediluvian technique of painting her invented mountain on glass, placed in front of the camera, to create scenes of a mountain inside the Turbine Hall, rising from a misty sea of dry ice.

The Turbine Hall is both set and cinema, a real place and a place of illusions in Dean's Unilever commission. The more I think about it, the richer and more complex it gets. We are projectors too, life clattering through our brains. Film looks totally new and oddly out of time, with its cutaway images, hand-painted mountains, rivers of lightning like pulsing nerves, beautiful rocking reflections of leaves in water, sunsets glancing through foliage. Dean's eye, and that of her young son Rufus, peer out as though through keyholes cut in the layered image.

A silent movie, Film is a rejoinder to the digital noise of the modern world. It recalls early cinema and experiments with colour, cinema as art abstraction and as home movie, structuralist film and underground cinema. It is cool and passionate, lovely and weirdly old-fashioned. "I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes," writes Spielberg. And so it is with Dean, whose Film is both homage and requiem to the medium itself, and, not least, to the Turbine Hall, and to those who come and look.

Rating: 5/5


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October 07 2011

Frieze, Warhol, Hirst – the week in art (and money)

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Jonathan Jones's top shows to see this week

Claude
The spontaneous drawings of this French artist in 17th-century Italy offer a radically new persecutive on how he imagined his dreamlike paintings of myth, history, and landscape.
• At Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 8 January 2012

Tacita Dean
The most intelligent and serious British artist of her generation takes on the most theatrical and renowned venue of our times. There have been some wonderful and some ordinary installations in the Tate Turbine Hall but here is one that promises, at last, profundity.
• At Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London SE1 from 11 October until 11 March 2012

Frieze Art Fair
Aha ho, ooh, what to say. Art, money, crowds, hype, VIPs, MPs, squirrels drifting in from the park, that actor from whatsitcalled ... you will see them all here this weekend. It is even mentioned in Michel Houellebecq's latest novel. It is ... what it is.
• At Regent's Park, London NW1, from 13-16 October

Structure and Absence/Inside the White Cube
Fantastically huge commercial art space opens to coincide with aforementioned art fair. Should be worth a gander.
• At White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1, from 12 October until 26 November

Jamie Shovlin
This contemporary artist has put enigmatic works throughout the galleries of Tullie House in Carlisle, a fine museum close to Hadrian's Wall with one of the best Roman collections in the country.
• At Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, until 27 November

Up close: art and money

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908
This is an affectionate portrait of a great art dealer who helped at the birth of modern art. Vollard sold Renoir's works, but he also represented Picasso. He was a creative figure who commissioned ambitious works, and his name will be remembered forever in the title of Picasso's graphic masterpiece The Vollard Suite.
• At Courtauld Gallery, London WC2

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode, c1743
Long before art and money celebrated their marriage at Frieze, this great 18th-century satirist painted six jaw-dropping canvases that tell a tale of a dangerous liaison. In Hogarth's high society London, paintings are luxury items in posh drawing rooms, yet all the purchased culture in the world can't stop the rot of impotence, adultery, murder and syphilis.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1982
Warhol said the dollar was a beautiful currency. He drew it, screenprinted it, and here wonders at the power of the dollar sign in the 1980s, when greed was good.
• At De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until 26 February 2012

Damien Hirst, Controlled Substances Key Painting (4a), 1994
Warhol and Jeff Koons seemed to have said it all about art and money. But with works like this dot painting, Hirst made them look like cultural conservatives gingerly dipping their toes in the hot water of commerce. He has dived right in, auctioning his own works, mocking the art dealers who thought they owned him, becoming so rich it isn't business art any more, it's the art of business.
• At Leeds Art Gallery until 30 October

Parmigianino, Portrait of a Collector, c1523
The wealthy bankers and mercenary princes of Renaissance Italy invented the luxury art market as they delighted in antiquities and bold contemporary works. Parmigianino here portrays the kind of connoisseur who funded his own career as a daring mannerist who broke the rules of art and rebelled against classical proportion.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

What we learned this week

That Lucy Liu has been dumpster diving, and creating abstract art, for as long as she can remember

Why Manchester cathedral's been taken over by a giant plughole

How King Robbo launched a Banksy war in Bristol

How much skinheads, mods and rockers have moved on

Why farts float up and away when artists air their dirty laundry in public

Image of the week

Your art weekly

@rachelguthrie8: "Has Degas become so much of a mainstream mover that all that was innovative about him has been streamlined? #artweekly"

Have you seen any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones.

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October 06 2011

Muted masterpieces: contemporary art that does not need the wow factor

Richard Wilson's 'lake of oil' was the first artwork to give me a theatrical thrill. But there are quieter, more subtle artists on the march this autumn, such as Turner prize nominee George Shaw

What work of art first made you feel the wow factor? This does not mean just being impressed by, or loving, a work of art. I mean the particular theatrical vibe of contemporary art, that thrills, entertains, and diverts the spectator in a way that makes you just say ... "Wow."

The British modern art season is about to enter mad mode. With the new Tate Turbine Hall commission, the Turner prize, and the Frieze art fair all imminent, it is time to gargle and exercise your vocal chords ready to say ... "Wow." Or perhaps just say it in your head, and skim-read some art theory so you can mouth more impressive phrases. Or stay at home and watch television, or do the garden. Hey, I didn't have this bright idea of compressing a year's modern art into a week. Don't turn on me about it.

Anyway, the first work of art that brought the contemporary wow factor home to me was Richard Wilson's sleek and dark, reflective and apparently bottomless lake of oil, 20:50, which I first saw at the old Saatchi Gallery in Swiss Cottage. Walking for the first time down the narrow aisle between the two halves of the room-filling installation, with oil pressing against their edges, held in by molecular forces as it peeped over the steel walls, was awe-inspiring. The glassy reflections created a sense of floating in the air, so you felt at once menaced by oil and in danger of falling: as I write this I remember that strange sensation of both claustrophobia and vertigo.

Here we are, and you can still see that definitive work of contemporary art at the relocated Saatchi Gallery today. In the early 1990s, critics often carped that the taste for the wow factor was really the product of Saatchi's advertising sensibility. He even bought a pickled shark!

Now we know it was more than that. Something about the theatricality of today's art liberates and greases the pleasure principle. That thrill of going to a museum and getting a theme park ride is very real, and apparently universal.

Yet this autumn, among the rides, there are some imitations of a quieter art. The Tate Turbine Hall stole Saatchi's thunder long ago and is today the definitive arena of culture as spectacle. Yet this year's artist there is Tacita Dean. Her films, drawings, photographs and montages resist the wow factor. They make you think instead. She is truly serious, and in the best way mysterious, and her Tate piece promises to be a real event, not merely as spectacle but as sombre, subtle, complex art.

Similarly, in the Turner prize, the most fascinating contender is George Shaw, a painter of depth and passion. Shaw is a quietly miraculous artist. His paintings are eerie scenes of the ruinous edges of modern British life. Surreal and silent, they beckon your imagination. Nothing could be further from the culture of wow than the art of George Shaw. No one has ever seemed a more deserving candidate for the Turner prize.

So the real artistic wonders this autumn will leave the wow factor far behind.


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July 06 2011

Cy Twombly: a close encounter

'His absence will be keenly felt' – Tacita Dean pays tribute to veteran painter Cy Twombly, who has died

Cy was fully intending to come to his opening dinner at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday last week and only cancelled at the last moment, so it is shocking news to learn that he died yesterday afternoon. The show put him together with Poussin as an equal, and it would have pleased him enormously to see his work hanging in such parallel beauty with the painter he so admired.

His work was about the encounter – no encounter, no work. I filmed him last autumn in his small shopfront studio in Lexington, Virginia, where he was born. He'd started returning there once a year from his home in Gaeta, just north of Naples.

I gave the film his given name, Edwin Parker – Cy being a childhood nickname, because it felt closer to whom he became in the film. He was a private man but he wasn't reclusive and it was only in recent years that I learned what he looked like.

When he looked into the camera, it was the look of young Twombly arriving in Rome for the first time with the artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Cy will be missed by the many who are stopped in their tracks by one of his works – that degree of emotional beauty is rare. His absence will be keenly felt by those who through the work found the man.

It is sad knowing that he is no longer sitting, biding his time and awaiting the encounter.

• Tacita Dean's film of Cy Twombly, Edwin Parker, is being shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25 September 2011.


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March 08 2011

Tacita Dean | Top 100 women

Turner nominated artist who is set to fill the Tate's Turbine Hall

Tacita Dean, 45, will become a great deal more famous this October, when her work for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is unveiled. She should already be a household name. Nominated for the Turner prize in 1998, notable In truth, she should already be a household name: the quiet seriousness, gentle curiosity and unfailing beauty of her art ought to have seen to that. But Dean, who lives and makes her work, largely in film, in Berlin, is not a limelight-seeker; she inspires not through personal flamboyance but through the careful seriousness of her practice. works include The Presentation Sisters, which quietly and observantly follows a group of Irish nunsas they perform the ritual of their daily lives. A recent work, Prisoner Pair, filmed pears suspended in schnapps as they grew and ripened in the bottle (an Alsatian delicacy), an almost eventless 11-minute work in which one's attention was brought to bear on to the minute incremental changes to burnished light and brooding shadow.


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February 22 2011

Save celluloid, for art's sake

When Tacita Dean went to make a 16mm film for Tate Modern she was shocked to find the lab had stopped using it. Why can't digital and celluloid coexist, she asks

On Tuesday last week, the staff at Soho Film Laboratory were told by their new owners, Deluxe, that they were stopping the printing of 16mm film, effective immediately. Len Thornton, who looks after 16mm, was told he could take no new orders. That was it: medium eviction without notice. This news will devastate my working life and that of many others, and means that I will have to take the production of my work for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commission out of Britain.

Soho Film Lab was the last professional lab to be printing 16mm in the UK. In recent years, as 16mm has grown as a medium for artists, the lab has been inundated with work, both from this country and abroad. Contrary to what people imagine, it is a growing and captive market, albeit a small one, with a new generation of younger artists turning to analogue technologies to make and show their work: Thornton says he handles work from more than 170 artists. Then there's the effect that this will have on the BFI and their conservation of the many thousands of reels of Movietone news footage, television, documentaries, features and much else.

These last few days have been like having my bag stolen and remembering, bit by bit, what I had inside it. My relationship with the lab is an intimate one; they watch over my work, and are, in a sense, its protectors. I have made more than 40 films, and each one has several internegatives (a copy of the original negative). In the vaults of Soho Film Lab are racks packed high with cans containing my life's work to date, including the negatives of films I never made. I order countless prints each year, as projecting my films on loop systems in museums and galleries inevitably means that they become scratched and exhausted. Thornton and his colleagues know the titles of all these films, and when I make a new film, I turn up at the lab and grade every colour in every scene. Film is chemistry: chemistry that has produced the miracle of the moving image. Decades of knowledge, skill and experience have gone into my saying, "I think that shot is too green, but the next one is too pink."

Deluxe (who responded that they have "nothing to say at this time") are, admittedly, ending only one tiny part of an ongoing process: they will not stop processing 16mm negative, and will continue to process and print 35mm. It is not as though they are giving up the chemicals and going dry. But they are stopping 16mm print because the cinema industry does not need it any more, and it is they who run the labs and are dictating that movies go digital and celluloid be phased out. Printing 16mm is an irritant to them, as it is time away from printing feature films, and features are the industry and all that matters. Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant. My films are depictions of their subject and therefore closer to painting than they are to narrative cinema. I shoot on negative that is then taken to the lab, in much the same way you used to drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working alone on a cutting table over many weeks, I cut my film out of the rush print. Using tape, I stick the shots together, working as both artist and artisan. It is the heart of my process, and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing.

When I have finished, I take my reel of taped film, now called my cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the original negative and delivers it to the lab, which then prints it as a film. My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper – something to do with poetry.

Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies. Digital is not better than analogue, but different. What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.

The real crux of the difference is that artists exhibit, and so care about the final presentation and presence of the artwork in the space. Other professions have their work mediated into different formats: TV, magazines, billboards, books. It remains only in galleries and museums that the physical encounter is so critical, which is why artists, in the widest sense, are the most distressed by the obsolescence of analogue mediums. But it is also in these spaces that a younger generation born in the digital age are taking up analogue mediums in enormous numbers. At the recent Berlin art fair, 16mm film projections outnumbered digital projections by two to one.

The decision to end 16mm print at Soho Film Lab, newly named Deluxe Soho, seems to be worldwide policy (they have already ended 16mm printing in their labs in New York and Toronto), so it is unlikely we will be able to reverse the decision locally. I spent my weekend writing to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who are both understood to care about celluloid film, even 16mm. I am also trying to make contact through the Guggenheim with the US owner of Deluxe, Ron Perelman, who, as a patron of the arts, might not have understood the devastating impact this presumably financially negligible decision might have on a growing group of contemporary artists, the galleries and museums that show them and the national collections that own their work.

In the end, the decision is more cultural than fiscal, and needs to be taken away from the cinema industry. What we need in the UK is a specialist laboratory for conservation-quality 16mm and 35mm prints, possibly affiliated to the BFI. This needs to happen quickly, before the equipment, technology and experience is irreparably dismantled, and Deluxe must help with this. In the meantime, I will look to the last remaining labs in Europe to print my 16mm films.


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January 03 2011

The best visual arts for 2011

Adrian Searle has been critical of Tracey Emin in the past, but finds himself looking forward to her show at the Hayward in May, plus the year's other highlights

It's perhaps surprising that I should single out Tracey Emin's upcoming solo show as one I'm particularly looking forward to. I slagged off her Bed (above) in the 1999 Turner prize show – the artist even blamed me for her not winning the prize. I was horrified by her Venice Biennale British Pavilion in 2007, which included an ill-advised collection of paintings. She stopped speaking to me. But when I slated a slightly tipsy performance she once gave, the artist wrote to tell me my review should have appeared in the obituaries section. She's a trouper.

Tracey, oh Tracey. Her art is often derided as trivial and self-regarding. She is an artist who has placed her own life – her abortions, her childhood and troubled adolescence in Margate, her relationships with her Turkish father and her brother – at the centre of her art.

It is better to regard Emin as a cultural phenomenon as much as an artist, both a regular presence in glossy mags and an elected Royal Academician. Sir Joshua Reynolds, you might imagine, would turn in his grave. He'd be as likely to offer to take her for a drink. Emin has achieved a status in British public life that sometimes gets foisted on eccentric individuals: think of the late Quentin Crisp, life-model turned autobiographer and film critic; think of the self-parodic mad-eyed TV astronomer and xylophone player Patrick Moore; think of Grayson Perry, transvestite, potter, savant and motorcyclist. All are self-invented figures, consciously or otherwise, and self-invention is their best creative act. This might also be said of artists such as Warhol and Beuys – one was bewigged, fame-conscious and lived a double life; the other wore a fisherman's jerkin and affected the role of the shaman. Their work and their persona are as one.

But their art was greater than themselves, however much an extension of personality it became. This is not to put Emin on anything like their level of attainment as artists. Her painful self-exposure wouldn't count for much if it weren't for her artistic drive, and the wish – not always succesfully fulfilled – to transform her experience into films, appliqued fabrics, drawings, paintings, installations, poems and stories.

Mounting this large show is a test. The Hayward can be a stern critic. Things can shrivel and die here against the shuttered grey concrete. Or they can sing. At its best, her work can do just that – in a key that's all her own.

At the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0844 847 9910; southbankcentre.co.uk), 18 May – 29 August.

The year's best art exhibitions

Modern British Sculpture

Is there such a thing as British sculpture? What's interesting is who's in and who's out (no Anish Kapoor, no Antony Gormley) in a show that takes us from Jacob Epstein to Damien Hirst. Sarah Lucas, Barbara Hepworth and Rebecca Warren are also included, co-curated by newly appointed Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis.

Royal Academy, London W1 (0844 209 0051), 22 January – 7 April.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

The great Catalan painter and sculptor began by painting scenes of rural peasant life, and went on to become a wayward surrealist, abstractionist and creator of a freeform symbolic world. Tate Modern's show will feature such works as The Farm (below). Underlying his work is a responsiveness to his times, from the civil war to the fall of Franco. Miró was playful, scatological, sophisticated and childlike – and apparently almost effortless as an artist.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 14 April – 11 September.

54th Venice Biennale

The biggest, best and oldest biennale and the one always worth visiting. Mike Nelson represents Britain, the first installationist to do so.

Venice, 4 June – 27 November; labiennale.org; +39 041 5218711.

René Magritte

The Belgian painter is an often misunderstood and frequently trivialised artist. Surrealism's poster boy, Magritte was a poetic, contrary and troubled man. His art is at once popular and instantly recognisable, complex and flawed.

Tate Liverpool (0151-702 7400), 24 June – 16 October.

Folkestone Triennial

The faded resort plays host to artists from all over the world in the second of these three-yearly projects. Cornelia Parker brings Copenhagen's Little Mermaid to the south coast, and Huw Locke fills a church with model ships.

25 June – 25 September, folkestonetriennial.org.uk, 01303 854080,

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

Robert Wilson, an inspired director of theatrical extravaganzas, presents The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, starring the equally complex Serbian performance artist herself and the excellent Willem Dafoe. With songs by Antony Hegarty, this should be the high point of the Manchester festival.

The Lowry, Salford (0161-876 2198), 9-16 July. mif.co.uk.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

This will include his most important work – the 1988 cycle of paintings based on images of the Baader- Meinhof group, counterpointed with September 2005, his response to 9/11. This most intelligent painter is enormously prolific, and works in diverse, unexpected ways, yet his work's overall coherence and power becomes more apparent as time goes on. Europe's most significant painter.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 6 October – 8 January 2012.

Tacita Dean

Dean is one of my favourite artists, the best non-winner of the Turner prize. Mostly a maker of quietist, observational films, she's a surprising choice to create the next Turbine Hall Commission. Unlikely to deliver a participatory spectacle, she should change the way the audience approaches this most public and high-profile of annual commissions. What will she do?

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 11 October – 9 April 2012.

Leonardo Da Vinci

The most complete exhibition of Leonardo's paintings ever held. Leonardo was a genius – but how good a painter was he? Complimented by drawings and works by his contemporaries, and the RA's copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, and his preparatory sketches, this is the high point of the National Gallery's year. The Mona Lisa won't be coming, but there will be queues anyway.

National Gallery, London W1 (020-7747 2885), 9 November – 5 February 2012.


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January 01 2011

A fine pear

Tacita Dean has been unveiled as the next artist to exhibit in the Tate Modern turbine hall. Her current show and recent films – about decay, beauty and nostalgia – mark her out as one of the best of her generation argues Brian Dillon

At 11 minutes long, Tacita Dean's film Prisoner Pair (showing at the Common Guild gallery in Glasgow) is a svelte précis of certain tendencies in the English artist's haunting and haunted oeuvre. In 2008 Dean was commissioned to make a work in or about the historically contested region of Alsace-Lorraine, and she responded with a type of still life: a close-up study of two bottled pears suspended in schnapps and subtly decaying in sunlight. The film's title depends on an obvious pun but also on the name, poire prisonnière, given to such novelty liquors as are still produced in Alsace, parts of Switzerland and the Black Forest. The work itself is an intimate and almost whimsical portrait of two bodies (two territories of sorts) that rhyme with or mirror one another and seethe quietly with life even as they're immured behind glassy frontiers.

Like much of Dean's art, Prisoner Pair broaches vast topics – nature, history, decay and the seductions of nostalgia – with apparently modest means: the simple passage of light across the surfaces of things. Born in 1965 in Canterbury and educated at Falmouth and the Slade, she has since the early 1990s been making work (notably in film) that stands out among her generation of British artists for its formal elegance and emotional poise. If Prisoner Pair is not immediately of a piece with her longer films, which often place human figures in resonant landscapes and historically charged architectural settings, that's partly a matter of productive mistiming. Dean had originally hoped to film the harvesting of the pears in Alsace – their buds are bottled on the tree and the fruit grown inside – but, having missed her moment, focused instead on the textures of the finished product. The result is a film that is all light and flesh and minute drifting particles.

Other contemporary artists have produced film or video updates of the traditional nature morte – Sam Taylor-Wood's Still Life of 2001 offers an accelerated view of a decaying bowl of fruit, for example. And Dean has made films before that look intently at objects and surfaces; her Darmstädter Werkblock of 2007 documents the walls and carpets around a permanent installation by Joseph Beuys. Prisoner Pair is not so much a consciously painterly move (for one thing, the film is shot from several different vantages) as an exploration of the metaphoric potential of its subject. At times the mottled pears resemble ageing, maybe dead, flesh, looking as if they're entombed or in suspended animation. (Dean buried the bottles first for added patina, so that the glass itself seems subject to some dark organic process.) From other angles they look like planets – quite specifically, the mysterious milky world in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film Solaris – that now and then erupt with small puffs of fermentation. Still, in spite of the meanings and references that might attach to these tender, ghostly twins, it is mostly the light you notice as it agitates the fruit inside with its flickering or burnishes the glass with a golden glow. (There are many golden glows in Dean's films. As Rex Harrison says in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1967 movie The Honey Pot, gold is the colour of time.)

Had Dean managed to film the Alsatian pear harvest, it might have looked something like an especially entrancing passage from Michael Hamburger, the 2007 film with which she acknowledges Prisoner Pair has some affinities. In the earlier work, Dean filmed the poet and translator at his home in Suffolk, a year before he died. (The piece was commissioned in part as a response to WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn – in that book, Sebald's narrator travels to the home of his friend Hamburger, whose life, uncannily, he feels he has himself lived.) Michael Hamburger is filled with typical Dean motifs – the textures of old walls and old hands, lingering shots from inside windows, half-open doorways that give on to brightly lit and empty rooms – but it slowly organises itself around its subject's relationship with his orchard. We see Hamburger naming and caressing the species among his windfalls, recalling an enthusiasm shared with Ted Hughes, plucking apples from his trees while late flowers nod and lazy insects buzz around him in the dog days.

All of which ought to confirm that Dean risks a formal beauty and deploys a melancholy palette that in her case easily cohabits with irony, rigour and complexity. The art critic Jörg Heiser has floated the term "romantic conceptualism" to describe what an artist such as Dean does, with her knowingly oblique and sometimes subtly frustrating approach to her subject matter, and her commitment to the beautiful way she frames it. Her continued use of 16mm film, instead of the high-definition video that is everywhere now among artists who work with the moving image, is essential to the way her works are made and shown: the whirring, hot projector is often a semi-sculptural presence in the gallery. This too leaves her open to accusations of aesthetic nostalgia, but after nearly two decades of making films Dean is presumably past caring; the rhythms of shooting, processing, laborious sound design and film editing (done by Dean herself on an old Steenbeck at her Berlin studio) are part of an artistic practice that has a relentless coherence.

That said, much of her recent work seems to be about age, decay, loss and nostalgia in more straightforward ways than her early films would openly admit. Or rather, the timescales being canvassed were on the face of it more devious and odd in the works made a decade or so ago. Consider a film such as Fernsehturm from 2001, filmed at the revolving restaurant atop a 1960s TV tower that she had first visited on a trip to East Berlin in 1986. Like several of the artist's other subjects – Berlin's now-demolished Palace of the Republic, the pre-radar "sound mirrors" at Dungeness, Robert Smithson's drowned and resurgent sculpture Spiral Jetty on the shore of the Great Salt Lake – the tower embodies past and future at the same time. A good deal of Dean's art mines this sense of a future anterior, of technological, utopian or artistic dreams that have gone to ground only to surface again as relics of a time to come that we can no longer imagine.

In one sense, the series of meditative film portraits that Dean has been making in the last decade – of which the vegetal memento mori of Prisoner Pair is in a way a peculiar offshoot – expresses a much simpler chronology of decline or passing. (The same might be said of Kodak from 2006, a work of frank mourning for which she filmed a Kodak factory in France with some of the last-manufactured reels of the company's black-and-white 16mm film.) For some time she has been engaged in a sort of aesthetic romance with the image of an artist or storyteller near the end of his life – in an interview with Marina Warner in 2006, she joked that she had developed "a thing about old men". Among the earliest examples was Boots (2003), a three-screen film installation that follows the aged character of the title (a family friend of the Deans, so named for his orthopaedic footwear) around an empty art deco villa in Portugal. Boots tells stories as he goes about what might have gone on in the house, reminisces about his affair with a woman named Blanche, and muses that the place seems to have drifted off into another time. It turns out that this portrait of melancholy recall is really no such thing – the old man is inventing (or maybe half inventing) history as he limps between the sunlit rooms, projecting us into a time that never was.

Boots had been preceded the year before by Mario Merz, a study of the Italian artist sitting beneath a tree in summer heat and contemplating his own mortality. (Merz did in fact die not long after the film was made.) In 2004 Dean made The Uncles, in which two of her elderly uncles recalled their fathers: Basil Dean and Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios. And in 2005 she completed Presentation Sisters at a convent in Cork: a muted collective portrait of the few nuns left and the domestic rituals with which they filled the days. But the best of these portrait films are surely the two works Dean made with Merce Cunningham in the last years of the choreographer's life. The first, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33'' with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), is a still life of sorts. It shows the frail but poised Cunningham seated in a chair in a dance rehearsal space, performing static interpretations of Cage's famously silent work.

The second, Craneway Event (2009), is among Dean's most dynamic and spatially ambitious films. It records three days of rehearsals by Cunningham's dance company at a disused Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California. (Cunningham had originally asked Dean to document the resulting performance, but she preferred the unpredictable rehearsal and its lack of music.) This is a film about movement: the 14 dancers careering between three sprung stages, the way a pelican flexes its wings in San Francisco Bay, the stately passage of ships past the building's huge windows. But at the centre of all this energy is the still point of Cunningham himself: aged 89, conserving his energy and restricted to his wheelchair, but entirely focused on the dancers and the possibilities of the space. Dean's portrait of him is all about timing, about Cunningham's knowing when to give himself up to fatigue, when to urge his young dancers to work as hard as he does or to trundle himself out of shot when he gets bored.

It's into this lineage of portraiture, strangely, that we ought to fit Prisoner Pair. Because quite apart from the dazzling array of textures and light effects that Dean manages to tease from a macro lens and a couple of muddy schnapps bottles in a London garden in summer, and bearing in mind the pears' ripe and fleshy reminder of vulnerable bodies, this is a film about concentration (ours and the artist's) and about survival. The trapped pears are fragile living things consigned to a sweet and potent afterlife, caught behind glass like museum specimens but still redolent of all the time between their budding and their maturity. In that sense they resemble Dean's aged portrait subjects, but also in this: watching them, the greatest mystery for the viewer is how the artist has managed to imprison them in the first place and turn greying flesh into filmic gold.

Tacita Dean is at the Common Guild, 21 Woodlands Terrace, Glasgow G3 until 5 February. Tel: 0141 428 3022.


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December 14 2010

Turbine Hall win for Tacita Dean

Dean, best known for her poetic films, will be the third British artist to win the Unilever Series commission

Tacita Dean, the British artist best known for her poetic, mesmerising 16mm films, was today named as the artist who will next year fill one of contemporary art's most daunting spaces – Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

Dean, nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998 when she missed out to Chris Ofili, has been asked to tackle one of the most popular of annual commissions, often employing varying degrees of interaction by the public.

What Dean will do will be kept under wraps until 11 October next year. While best known for film – such as her recent portrait of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham – Dean also uses found objects, drawing, sound and photography in her work.

Sheena Wagstaff, Tate Modern's chief curator, said they were now looking forward to seeing how Dean responds to the hall's architecture and space. "Tacita Dean has created some of the most fascinating and elegiac works of recent years. Her interest in light, space and history, as well as her keen sense of the cinematic and the sublime, make her a perfect choice for The Unilever Series."

Dean, one of the Young British Artists generation, will be the third British artist to get the commission after Anish Kapoor in 2002 – with his vast trumpet-like Marsyas – and then Rachel Whiteread in 2005, when she filled the space with 14,000 casts of cardboard boxes.

If she makes a film work it could mean visitors lingering longer than they have for other commissions. Visitors to Ai Weiwei's current installation of 100m porcelain sunflower seeds have to longingly look at the work rather than walk through them, as originally planned, because of health worries about the amount of ceramic dust that was created. Previous commissions have seen people wandering alongside Doris Salcedo's crack in the floor; queuing to hurtle down Carsten Höller's spiralling slides; or nervously walking in to Miroslaw Balka's intimidating dark chamber. Perhaps Dean will offer something more like Olafur Eliasson's 2003 The Weather Project when people came to Tate Modern and simply basked.

The Berlin-based Dean's best-known films have included Banewl, which charted the effect of a solar eclipse on a farm in Cornwall, and Disappearance at Sea where she filmed the transition from day to dusk as a lighthouse near Berwick became illuminated.


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October 16 2010

Meet the best new artists in Britain

We asked Richard Wentworth, Tacita Dean, Yinka Shonibare and Cornelia Parker to choose the young artist they find most promising – and tell us why

HELEN MARTEN chosen by RICHARD WENTWORTH

Sculptor Richard Wentworth is quite clear why 24-year-old Helen Marten is a young artist to watch: "I admire her sureness, fearlessness and lack of hubris," he says. "It is complicated for her generation. It is as if they were in a ludicrous souk. But she is like a fantastic tourist: intelligently acquisitive, yet editorially selective. She is a brilliant fossicker. She knows how to look."

A is for anarchy… is the title of one of Marten's series – and do not expect any of her work to be law-abiding. She is an artist for whom anything can be subverted: the world's potential grist for her satirical mill. She is captivatingly articulate about what she describes as "environmental window shopping". She was not sure she was going to be an artist (there has always been a competing literary pull), but she did a foundation year at Byam Shaw – part of St Martins – and a degree course at Ruskin (which she calls Oxford's "dirty little sibling"). She introduces me to a sculpture that invokes George Nelson, father of American modernism, made of "slick, sleazy powder-coated aluminium". She describes it as "at once corporate and semi-baroque" and "anchored" by a white PVC tailored suit jacket that is "seedy and flaccid". We also inspect A is for anarchy…, two 3D letter As. The first is sub-titled "Thug Life" and is a "hard, knotty ringleader". The second, his "sidekick", is "slobby, messy, getting into bad scrapes".

She revels in the "remeshing" of the design canon (the more you know about design, the better you will be able to unlock her work). She describes herself as "nomadic", travelling between Macclesfield, where she grew up, and London. Most of the "brute manoeuvring of materials" gets done in Macclesfield. The "condensed thinking" happens on trains and the "grappling with verbal stuff" happens in London. She works with metal and wood, "hard, lofty boys' material", which she describes as "unforgiving" and also with clay which is "relaxing and yielding" – more feminine and spontaneous. In one of her wittiest pieces, three gorgeously entangled clay figures hobnob. They are animated but inconclusively human. The title is: Um, you mean we have to be serious now?.

Marten's aim is to produce a "family of objects and ideas with some sort of circuitry". Wentworth says: "She is making codes – her work is like a contemporary Rosetta stone. It is part of a broad conversation. She is enormously respected. She has a hidden grandeur but no grandiosity. And she has such wisdom… I can talk with her about how the world is made." Kate Kellaway

CHARLOTTE MOTH chosen by TACITA DEAN

'Her work feels like she's travelling, noticing and absorbing, and is not, for the time being, studio-bound or stuck to a particular place or orthodoxy," says Tacita Dean of her chosen artist, Charlotte Moth, before praising her "eclectic use of materials" and "delicacy of touch".

Charlotte Moth's art has taken her all over Europe, but it was in her hometown, Bexhill-on-Sea, as a teenager that she had her first shiver of inspiration: walking past the De La Warr pavilion every Saturday on her way to work, she noted with curiosity the white Modernist hulk amid the old-world grandeur of the seaside resort.

Sixteen years on and Moth, 31, is still fascinated by the shapes and spaces around her, from apartment blocks to empty streets to striking interiors, but is now an established artist who draws on these photographic subjects as a sculptor draws on their material. She avoids restricting herself to one discipline – "I always had a problem at art school because they made you choose departments" – and her work takes in photography, sculpture and, occasionally, film, theatre and music: an exploration of space in all its aspects.

Moth shares with Dean an interest in analogue – Travelogue, her ever-growing collection of photographs of spaces such as hotel lobbies, seaside resorts and deserted offices is shot entirely on film – and an affection for continental Europe: Dean left Britain for Berlin in 2000, Slade graduate Moth has lived in Paris, "on and off" for the past four years. "It's this idea of displacement that's really important," she says. "When you're removed from something, then maybe you can look at it in a different way."

In ParisMost recently, Moth has been working on installations of a "sculptural dialogue" between two works – the one a shimmering curtain, the second a slide show behind the curtain. She also continues to add to Travelogue, in which images are stripped of all context: "Someone who comes to see [them] might not have been at the De La Warr Pavilion but they might have been to a lido in Cornwall, for example, or some exotic place that feels the same. The sense of ambiguity is important because there are many readings an image can trigger." LD

BJORN VENO chosen by YINKA SHONIBARE

Yinka Shonibare was initially drawn to Bjorn Veno's work because, while artists such as Tracey Emin, Cindy Sherman and Paula Rego are renowned for scrutinising the female self in their work, Veno seemed to be the only contemporary male artist doing the equivalent. "I'm older than him but maybe I'm having my own mid-life crisis," Shonibare says, "because I find his exploration of male identity very intriguing. He's very brave to expose himself like he does. It's not something I could do."

Captivated by tales of heroism as a child, 31-year-old Veno uses photography to explore his sense of disillusionment at the man he has become. "I had this idea," he says at home in Rochester, Kent, "that adults were in full control, a bit like James Bond or Indiana Jones. Suddenly I found I'd become an adult and I was actually worse off. You have these perceptions of what it means to be an adult which you cannot live up to."

For the first chapter of Mann, his four part self-portrait series, Veno returned to his childhood home in Norway to photograph himself playing the games of his infancy: set within dark, haunting landscapes, Veno, often naked, looks pale and powerless. In one he crouches next to a Lego spaceship, his underpants round his ankles. Elsewhere he emerges limp and dripping from a lake, the opposite of a triumphant James Bond coming to shore. "I find failure interesting," he says. "As a man you're not supposed to fail." By the final chapter Veno is playing out his hero fantasies. In one shot he's a "confident" swaggering fisherman "ready for a fight".

Shonibare also describes the "odd" quality that Veno's photographs have, something he works hard to achieve, particularly through lighting. For the "tableaux vivants" he works with his camera on timer and performs in character, selecting the final shots from hundreds. In the chapter Veno found the most cathartic, his mother and aunties were also required to react on camera to him "in a bad state, hyperventilating, screaming". The resulting images are both moving and disturbing.

Veno has just started an MA in photography at the Royal College of Art and is represented by London's Nettie Horn gallery. It seems his study of failure is likely to bring him great success."He deserves to do well," Shonibare says. "He has a vast body of work and is more rigorous and focused than so many of his contemporaries." IC

KATIE PATERSON chosen by CORNELIA PARKER

Katie Paterson is an astronomical artist – in the fullest sense of the word. The sky is not the limit for her. It is a beginning. Her champion Cornelia Parker describes her as someone who can "take you out of your realm … she is so original, engaging and expansive – I fell in love with her and her work. She makes us realise how inconsequential we are in relation to the universe." Her work has involved plotting a map of 27,000 dead stars, bouncing Beethoven's Moonlight sonata off the moon in morse code and returning the results into a self-playing piano, making an electric light bulb that duplicates moonlight.

More recently, she has become a connoisseur of darkness. In her beautiful, playful, fastidious The History of Darkness, she has catalogued and dated darkness with the help of telescopes – including the Keck telescope in Hawaii – the most powerful telescope in the world that can look back 13.2 billion light years. Questions that tease us out of thought obsess her: "I like work on the brink of impossibility," she says. She loves immensity – and particularity. One of her works tells the story of a single grain of sand taken from the Sahara desert which, with the help of a nanotechnologist, was turned into the smallest grain imaginable ("I like the idea that it is a sculpture") and then released back into the desert. "The sand is smaller than a blood cell, as close to nothing as you can get but it still exists." Paterson's boyfriend photographed her, in black and white, returning the sand to the Sahara. "I suddenly felt so sad," she said. It was to do with scale – the immensity of the desert and her almost invisible enterprise.

Paterson, 29, laughs as she talks about her work – and acknowledges that it is finely balanced between seriousness and play. She is a romantic (with the romantic's understanding of futility) and with the patience, curiosity and technical persistence of a scientist. Scientists champion her work: she has recently become University College London's first artist in residence in the department of physics and astronomy. She grew up in the western highlands of Scotland and studied at Edinburgh and the Slade, where her MA involved recording a melting glacier – a work that launched her career but is likely to prove just the tip of the iceberg. KK


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May 08 2010

Tacita Dean: Craneway Event

Frith Street, London W1

There are not many living artists whose every new work you would always want to see, but Tacita Dean is high on that list. At 45, she is the great poet of art film. Over the years, she has turned her deep and elegiac vision to some of the grandest of dramas – storms, shipwrecks, total solar eclipse – and some of the smallest, from the passage of diurnal light through a restaurant to the faint breeze that transforms a lake from still landscape to moving picture. Not for nothing has she been variously compared to Terence Davies, Walt Whitman and Edward Hopper.

Lately, though, Dean has turned more to the art of the portrait. It suits her origins as a painter. And she has found a way of transforming the single, condensed image that a painter might make over many sittings and long scrutiny by spooling time through a sequence of nearly motionless images.

Her studies of the Italian sculptor Mario Merz and the poet (and translator of WG Sebald) Michael Hamburger are classics of empathetically patient observation. In each, she finds elements of the man in oblique or ephemeral details. The overgrown house, the volatile wind and the sudden arrival of a rainbow, in Hamburger's case, brought this complex man into clearer view.

Now Dean has made an immensely beautiful portrait of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. It is a perfect collaboration between two kinds of creator. But so strong is the affinity between them that one soon begins to see that they are intent upon the same thing: man's brief walk (or dance) in the sun.

Craneway Event was filmed on 16mm in late 2008, as Cunningham rehearses his dancers in the disused Ford assembly plant on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. Craneway refers to the purpose of this grand canyon of a building, with its full-length windows and vast doors opening on to the quay outside. Event is Cunningham's term for a 100-minute anthology of pieces from the company's repertoire. And this is what Dean appears to give you at first: almost two hours of the master at work, the dancers practising against a backdrop of passing ships and the distant hilltops of Marin County.

But everything runs against expectation. The film opens with a pelican on the quay steadfastly waiting for the best moment to lift into flight. Inside, technicians are laboriously peeling gaffer tape from the floor. The dancers are pacing round the hall, a parade of earthbound figures apparently whiling away time. Cunningham's quiet arrival, a black-clad figure in a wheelchair, scarcely alters the picture.

Anyone familiar with Dean's work will know that the rehearsal itself is not likely to be the main event. Rather, she notices the totality of the scene: the grids of the windows like hundreds of picture frames on the landscape beyond, the cavernous space, the liquid sheen of the floor with its ever-changing reflections. Her cameras drink in the sunshine. Occasionally, a dancer slides into shot, or a ship glides past, but it gradually becomes apparent that these are Cunningham's preoccupations, too, precisely what inspire the wonderful abstractions of his choreography.

The dancers move like creatures and objects as much as people. One may be executing a slow circle with his toe, bent arms rotating like propellers, head delicately craned like a bird. Another raises an elegant arm, describing the sail of a yacht. Four together take on the rhythms of an assembly line smoothly alternating with a square dance. A pas de deux becomes an aerial gantry.

All of this occurs without music. The only sounds are of creak, footfall and soft-shoe shuffle, occasionally broken by Cunningham's mellifluous voice, suggesting a slightly different orientation in space. He appears to view the dance like a painter, holding his pen like a brush, yet he is also within it. The movements all seem to flow through and from him.

Dean shows him at a distance, framed by his dancers, or watchfully close, the tendrils of his hair illuminated like a Rembrandt etching. Approaching 90, he still looks forever young and graceful, presiding over the scene like a pensive angel. In one shot, the handles of his chair at shoulder height appear ever so briefly like wings.

A pigeon arrives, appearing to swim in the reflective floor. A man in a stetson ambles along the boardwalk. A great ship passes with such magnificent grace that one can hardly help but think of Cunningham himself, wheeling slowly out of the frame. He died during the editing process; the film becomes both portrait and homage.

Cunningham watches and guides with transcendent concentration; so does Dean, whose camera positions are never as anticipated. Both orchestrate movement in mysterious ways. And like Cunningham, Dean is fascinated by the structure of motion and time; her film is, in a sense, open-ended.

The long day closes, another begins. Light passes through the celluloid as shiftingly as the sun through the high windows. And eventually the viewer, having nearly rebelled at the slowness of both artists' pace, becomes entranced – calm and poised as the figures on screen, mesmerised by their movements through glowing space.

Dean's work is screened too infrequently in this country. Tate Britain owns many of her best films, including Disappearance at Sea and Michael Hamburger, but they are not on permanent display. Occasionally, you catch a work in a mixed show, but it is almost 10 years since her last major exhibition and 12 since she was shortlisted for the Turner prize.

I have no idea why she has never won the prize, since she is one of the most intelligent, profound and inventive artists of her generation. This film (and her enthralling study of nuns in a Cork convent, grace incarnate, shown at the Edinburgh festival last August) could have put her on this year's very strong list. Still, as Cunningham says in his serenely encouraging way, there is always time again tomorrow.


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