The glance, with its speed and lack of resolution, is probably the defining characteristic of contemporary vision. We see people with the same lack of depth, quickly skimming across their seemingly shallow surfaces. The experience of viewing Tacita Dean’s ‘PORTRAIT’ at the National Portrait Gallery, on the other hand, is more like the process of reading than the ways in which we usually contemplate visual art; the whole show seems to provide a slow, even still, contemplative corrective to the incessant pace of modern life.
16mm film was once cutting edge technology but Dean has recast it as a part of nature and a breeze of whirring film reels resound around the gallery spaces like a natural weather front. The portraits themselves, of personalities cropped from the arts, mirror this and blow through the exhibition modulating between soft and sharp focus.
The first portrait of David Hockney offers such little action, as with most of the portraits, that the viewer is forced to come in close, concentrate and look closely at the subject – similar to the process of looking at the miniatures that Dean has displayed entitled ‘His Picture in Little’ (2017). In Dean’s portraits the persona of a subject is not captured through the extroversion we would usually associate with such figures but through their infinitesimal muscle twitches, minute gestures, ticks, inaudible noises of their bodily movements, contractions of flesh and pores; all the things often considered remnants of a personality but are really the crux of a person. The portraits may look still, even paralysed at times – such as in the portrait of Merce Cunningham – but a body is never really motionless, and over time a person is sculpted by such minor movements. They are personality compressed into flesh and muscle, and these facets of a person cannot lie, nor can they be manipulated by self-mythology.
The movements that Dean has captured are similar to the motions which exist in the noise, grain, shudders and flecks of dust inherent within 16mm film itself. In this way Dean is capturing people, whilst seeing them too through a portrait of film. In many of the rooms but particularly in the space in which the portrait of Hockney resides, the process of projecting film has been similarly deconstructed and laid bare; from the flickering projector light in the corner of the room, to the dim husk of Hockney reflected at an angle off a dark black panel like some kind of inner psychological skin. What’s left is a pure slice of film hovering in the dim light – much like the personalities on show themselves.
I am always reminded of W. G. Sebald when seeing Dean’s work, with which the show holds a serendipitous link through Sebald’s translator, Michael Hamburger – a subject of one of the portraits. Writing about the artist Jan Peter Tripp, Sebald describes the terrifying abyss which he feels lurks below the peaceful stillness of the painter’s work. Dean’s portraits, with their lack of action, their realism and excruciating detail, share this, and expose the substrata of her subjects, their metaphysical underside, their dark inner lining.