Andy Warhol would probably have been surprised to learn that his 1964 film ‘Empire’ had given rise to an entire genre. This work comprises eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building during which nothing much happens. Warhol remarked that it was a way of watching time pass or, you might say, the Zen of boredom. Much the same could be said of the films in Tacita Dean’s two exhibitions, Portrait and Still Life at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery respectively.
The most ambitious of these, ‘Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS’ (2008), on show at the NPG, is composed of six separate films, each five minutes long, of the late dancer and choreographer enacting a balletic version of Cage’s celebrated (or notorious) composition 4’33’’ (consisting, of course, of a silence lasting for that interval). Cunningham — who was by then wheelchair-bound — interprets this by being almost entirely motionless.
So far, you might think, so minimalist. But in one way Dean’s work is almost baroque. The biggest gallery of the exhibition is filled with six large screens, on to which are projected moving images of this motionless, aged man, shot from multiple angles. The whole piece piles paradox on paradox. To see it, you move around the space, while he barely shifts. Dean is devoted to the medium of 16mm colour film, now as outmoded as oil pigment. So the only sound is the quiet whirr of projectors.
‘Portraits’, another of her works at the NPG, consists of 16 minutes of David Hockney in his studio, doing what he spends a lot of time doing: smoking, contemplating, musing on his own pictures. Again, nothing much eventuates. Hockney puffs away and at one point laughs at his own thoughts. You are watching him thinking, perhaps reflecting on the cycle of 82 portraits he had just completed, reproductions of which hang on the wall behind (one depicting Dean’s young son).
Of course, traditional portraiture is created by an artist observing someone sitting doing nothing much. Dean is presenting the observations from which a Velazquez or a Freud would make a final selection — the raw footage, as it were.
Dean has joked that she has developed ‘a thing about old men’. Hockney was 78 in 2016 when ‘Portraits’ was made, Cunningham 89. Other subjects of her filmed portraits include the octogenarian Cy Twombly, who potters around his own studio, reads a letter and goes out for lunch (Coca-Cola plus a turkey sandwich), and the critic, poet and translator Michael Hamburger.
The latter is marginally more demonstrative than the other subjects. He is seen working at his desk, but also reads a poem and discourses on a rare variety of apple that he imported from the west country garden of his friend Ted Hughes. The camera lingers, too, on the orchards that surrounded his Suffolk house.
Dean has in fact developed a thing about fruit as well as about old men. One of the pieces at the parallel exhibition next door in the National Gallery, ‘Prisoner Pair’ (2008), is made up of close-ups of what the French call a poire prisonnière — that is, a pear preserved in a bottle of alcohol. The camera lingers on its mottled surfaces and the gleaming glass around. It’s beautiful, like a lot of Dean’s films.
Personally, I enjoyed the little National Gallery exhibition more than the larger portrait show, because for the most part it consists of stills — paintings and photographs. These add up to a meditation on passing time, mortality and decay, all perennial themes of the still-life genre, and for that matter of portraiture.
However, there is a difference between paintings and sculpture — which are by their nature still — and movies. It is possible, if you are in the mood, to look at a painting or a sculpture for a long, long time. The longer you do so, if it’s really good, the more you see. But you don’t have to. Like most gallery-goers, you could move on after a few seconds.
With film, it’s different. You feel an obligation to watch until the end — which would mean a couple of hours viewing just for the films in ‘Portraits’. Also, you expect there will be action. That’s why very early Hollywood directors devised a frenetic repertoire of chase sequences, battle scenes, dance extravaganzas and explosions (still popular today).
It goes right against the grain to settle down in front of a screen and watch a movie in which nothing happens. That’s what makes Warhol’s ‘Empire’, whatever else it is, a provocatively witty idea. Some of Dean’s works are more than that: intelligent, poetic and profound. Even so, I can’t help feeling that sitting in an art gallery watching a film of inactivity is a highly unnatural act.