Tacita Dean’s Woman with a Red Hat

The initial impression of Woman with a Red Hat upon entering the exhibition space is one of space and traditionalism; a wide white room lined with framed prints on each side. Yet this understated-ness leaves the viewer utterly unprepared for the incredibly intense, challenging and intelligent message of Dean’s work, which at once exposes and indulges in the artifice of performance.

The exhibition is dominated by its centrepiece, the headspinningly intricate film ‘Event for a Stage’. While for many this is undoubtedly its main draw, the quieter ‘Found Postcard Monoprints’ and ‘The Russian Ending’ are also essential in establishing the effect and feel of Woman with a Red Hat.

At first ‘Found Postcard Monoprints’ appears more obscure and inaccessible than the rest of the pieces, which are very explicit or even intrusive. This is Dean’s opening salvo – the abstraction and distortion of the actor. The dramatic poses of Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton are juxtaposed with irreverent paint splotches and puncture marks. They seem less real somehow, reduced to mere images and expressions.

This sense of the unreal and of artifice continues in ‘The Russian Ending’, a collection of photogravures etched with annotations of stage directions. The monochromatic scenes presented are emotive and grave – battlefields, artillery explosions, a funeral. But this high drama and pathos jars uncomfortably with the detached and incongruous nature of the annotations. ‘Last Shot’ is circled along with camera directions, (“zoom in”, “cut”) on an image of a priest lying in an open coffin. “Priest Dead”, we are told. This reduction and distillation of tragic symbols to the scenes of a film is challenging and uneasy. The emotional manipulation of the viewer is laid bare. Superimposed over a familiar trench landscape, the words “ALL LOST” are capitalised and circled. Part of the cleverness of Dean’s work is that we are unsure whether this makes us feel more or less affected.

The structure of the exhibition is very effective. The machinations of theatre and film are deconstructed, and in a progression we are told first to distrust character, then scene and circumstance. Then in ‘Foley Artist’ finally we challenge even the integrity of our own senses, unsure of whether to trust the sounds we hear, the instructions on the subbing light box or the images on the screen.

‘Event for a Stage’ is highly impressive and incredibly overwhelming. Dean masterfully plays with the conventions of acting and performance, and the relationship between art and artist. The piece is in turn rousing, sentimental and in places almost crassly humorous, but always carefully controlled. Through this self-awareness Dean alternately alienates from and reunites the viewer with the performance. We know that Dean is the puppet master here, yet the complex ways in which she inserts herself into the piece play with our sense of orientation, it seems as though we ourselves are part of the gag.

Woman with a Red Hat is an astoundingly accomplished body of work and a unique and challenging experience, remaining with you long after.

 

At  The Fruitmarket Gallery 

Until 30 September 2018 

Image: Courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

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