Reading that Tacita Dean had produced a series of works on Los Angeles seemed at once unexpected and strangely logical. Given her longstanding interest in landscape, narrative and the physical properties of celluloid, I imagined a Lynchian, noirish vision of the seductive lure of Hollywood. Which is why Dean’s take on the city is so jarring: instead of doubling down on the sinister shadows of the forests and canyons, she’s chosen the elements of the city that seem most antithetical to her gloomy aesthetic, slicing out sections of Titian-blue sky that have been streaked with white clouds and vapour trails of different shapes and properties.
Despite initially appearing as photographs due to their incredible verisimilitude, the images are in fact lithographs, drawn by hand. Undeniably beautiful, they are knowingly titled ‘LA Exuberance’, a winking reference to Dean’s unusual embrace of colour. Viewing them in series provokes a meteorological curiosity: what does each cloud precipitate? A passing shadow? A tropical storm? The city that we romantically imagine as being eternally sunny has its darker days too, and they play into Dean’s fascination with beginnings and ends and their mutability, as well as her interest in fractured and dislocated narratives.
Displayed alongside her photographs and drawings of clouds are two new video pieces, the first of which was produced alongside a performance commission for the 2014 Sydney Biennial, titled ‘Event for a Stage’. Blurring the lines between film, art, theatre and performance, the piece features actor Stephen Dillane reading and performing extracts of everything from Shakespeare to personal diaries, all on a bare, moodily-lit stage and encircled by a Brechtian white line. Where the Los Angeles images are capricious, humourous even, the mood here is sombre and ominous, with a nod to the artifice and illusion of all of the various formats Dean is using. Even if aesthetically there is little in common with the clouds, in the unpredictability of the work and its deceptive use of medium, there is a shared intention: to unsettle.
More curious still is her second video piece: a portrait of the ultimate Brit in California, David Hockney. Here, Dean applies her forensic gaze to Hockney calmly smoking a cigarette. Dean and Hockney might seem unusual bedfellows given the former’s stark monochromes and the latter’s kaleidoscopic use of colour but their common interest in cinema offers a link between their two practices. What’s more intriguing, however, is Dean’s strangely dispassionate way of looking.
Projected in a pitch-black room, we watch the octogenarian Hockney as he puffs away, carrying the eerie echo of a memento mori – the cinematic glamour of smoking stripped away and reduced to a deadly habit. It serves as a perfect summation of Dean’s disarming ability to build contradictory layers of meaning. On the one hand, we have a vibrant evocation of California’s blue-skied wonder but below the surface lies a darker promise of finality – even death. While the exhibition might not always be cohesive, it is sinister and seductive in its unpredictability.