Life stilled: Tacita Dean at the National Gallery

Contemporary artist Tacita Dean takes on a well preserved and cemented genre in her refreshing new show.

‘Tacita Dean: STILL LIFE’ has a new exhibition at the National Gallery that promises to investigate the history of the genre by taking inspiration from the gallery’s own collection, and interpreting it with a modern twist.

Not only is Dean challenging the idea and presentation of still life, she’s braving the medium of portrait and landscape in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy. And all in the same year!

Alongside her own diptych films, especially created for the exhibition ‘Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting’, and ‘Prisoner Pair’ (2008, 16mm) – she has chosen some of her contemporary foes to exhibit, like Roni Horns, Thomas Demand and Wolfgang Tillmans. Her choice of National Gallery paintings is very telling in how she intends to challenge our preconceptions and to see still life in a new light.

But let’s start at the beginning, as it’s a very good place to start, with Zurbarán’s ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, which was the work that inspired Dean on her investigative journey into still life paintings. This is a fairly recent purchase for the National Gallery and is a delicate motif, shrouded in religious symbolism.

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Francisco de Zurbarán ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, about 1630 – National Gallery collection

This cut down composition of a very simple subject has somehow influenced Tacita Dean’s treatment of the genre in the exhibition. It’s a show of extreme close-ups, widened plains, traditionalism and the nature of things. We see dead rabbits on tables, two white owls staring back at us and a tweeting bird projected up high on the wall. You start to see how nature weaves its way through the works selected.

There’s more drama to be had with the animal related works, as these were living, breathing things and you begin to question when does something become classed as ‘still life’? Suddenly the offering of Titian’s ‘The Head of Saint John the Baptist’ on a plate doesn’t seem so weird.

Her ‘Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting’, and ‘Prisoner Pair’ 16mm films are a pace changer. These small scale films require you to stop and stare and get a closer look of the inanimate objects on film. For me, Dean’s films are a lesson in still life. Life stilled, slowed down. And in these pause-for-thought moments you understand how Dean is responding to the genre. They are moments captured in time; to be looked at and to experience. It’s by no means an immersive experience. You’d have to work hard for that I would think. But they are a chance to contemplate and focus your senses to what Dean is trying to put across in her films. How she personally responds to still life and encourages a new way of seeing for the viewer.

It’s a very understated exhibition, and as you walk around you get the sense that these works are connected through time and history. And by having these connecting shows at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, place becomes a factor too. Experience ‘Tacita Dean: STILL LIFE’ for free at the National Gallery until 28 May.

Banner image: © Courtesy the artist, Tacita Dean, Frith street gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

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