Nothing is more frightening than not knowing where you’re going, but then again nothing can be more satisfying than finding you’ve arrived somewhere without any clear idea of the route.
– Tacita Dean, “An Aside,” published by Hayward Gallery, 2005
Everything began with the child’s discovery in the green grass: a small plant symbolically charged with luck. It’s strange that a somatic mutation, or an error caused by the environment, should be transformed into an emblem of providence. The girl tore out the four-leaf clover and kept it, not yet knowing that she would build a collection of hundreds of similar tokens. In the backyard of her family home in Kent, Tacita Dean was making her first forays into chance.
Thirty-five years later, now an acclaimed artist, she displays her collection of leafed clovers inside a showcase. Four, Five, Six, Seven and Nine Leaf Clover Collection (1972 – ongoing) assembles a degraded and colorful crew of lucky encounters, as Dean situates them within a composite tale of fortune and chance. The archive currently resides at the Rufino Tamayo Museum as part of Tacita Dean, an exhibition of later works. For this, her first solo show in Mexico, Dean has gathered approximately one hundred works from the ‘90s, with some new productions made specifically for the occasion. This selection allows us to cast a wide glance on her career, grants us with an illuminating coherence to help comprehend her venture: the forcing of the fortuitous. Like poring over a patch of shamrocks, we must allow ourselves to be surprised by the irregular, the anecdotal. We must predispose ourselves to finding singularities.
A smoking room has been installed inside the museum, where you can light a cigarette while watching one of Dean’s 16mm videos from her series Portraits (2016). As I enter, the subject is David Hockney, and, on first view, nothing compelling seems to come off. The old artist perches on a chair, and smokes five German cigarettes. Is this just a tautological game attempting to celebrate a bad habit? We know from recent interviews (like this one in The Guardian), that Hockney is a faithful defender of smoking rights. We also know that Dean always films artists, writers, and philosophers doing something other than their jobs. In this film – a single ten-minute take – she’s out to capture whatever it is that Hockney seeks when he stops painting, sits down, lights a cigarette, inhales deeply. A chance glimpse of clarity.
André Breton developed the theory of Hasard Objectif (objective chance) using ideas exposed by Friedrich Engels in his Dialectics of Nature, in 1883. Breton focused on the oneiric aspect of desire, and its implications for Surrealist composition: what seems arbitrary, random, venturesome, is actually the deliberate imprint of a longing. Revisiting Dean’s work under this filter brings a fresh reading. The creation of chance operates at the center of one of her newest works, Found Cloud (2016), where she paints gouache clouds on two found postcards. The act brandishes a form of fortuity that is not epic, but everyday, the very sort that determines which bits of daily debris make up the fabric of dreams.
She extends this logic in Duck Brush (2012), inserting an image of a duck-shaped shoe polisher – found in the home of Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka – into a series of 16 anodyne postcards. The origin of this capricious object is banal, but the duck’s forced introduction into the postcards lends them an air of improbable fantasy.
During her visit to Mexico the artist did a bit of sightseeing with her family at the temple of Teotihuacán, but her limp prevented her from climbing the steep steps. As the group ascended, she waited under a tree, watching an ant cross a stone. Many tourists moving through that legendary IIIth-century city – literally the “place where the gods were made” – are seeking awe and transcendence; an impromptu rendezvous with an insect would surely seem anticlimactic. But Dean elevated that tiny company into another quietly memorable meditation on contingency. With gouache, again, she commemorated the chance meeting by inserting ants on four Mexican postcards in Ant, Teotihuacán (2016).
The manipulated memos point to a gulf between the motives of the artist and those of the tourist. In her essay “Postcard Corners: Tourism and Hospitality” (2014), the Spanish researcher Estrella de Diego analyzes the tourist’s inability to locate and portray the authentic (Sam Korman recently wrote about the same phenomenon for this publication, in a review of Mark Leckey’s survey at MoMA PS1). Once we accept the impossibility searching of the authentic, what’s wrong with being fascinated with the appearance of a common insect? This seems to be the recipe of artists like Dean (for instance, Jimmie Durham, whose sculptures made of found residues were scattered in recondite places at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia, Venice, in 2015): why not be a tourist ceasing to be a tourist? This approach offers a return to the anecdotal, the casual, the almost insignificant, in front of the exhausting search for the sublime.
In her presentation of the exhibition, Dean claimed that what catches her attention is the mutant nature of ambivalent effects: “clouds are transit, the sea is transit.” The main space of the retrospective is dedicated to the series A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds (2015-16), a host of chalked smudges emitting a powder of overwhelming and stunned silence. After lengthy observation, she composed an “analogical” handmade photograph of the clouds of Los Angeles. It’s a transient daily event drawn onto stone tablets: the commandments of the arbitrary, the ephemeral, the aleatory.
Dean invites us to look through her eyes, to feel her discoveries, to search for luck. This demands activity, as one of the exhibition’s parallel activities (“Cloud Watcher’s Guide”) involves a nocturnal journey in which participants are invited to begin a night tour with the sketchy clouds, ending on the roof of the nearby Bancomer Tower to observe the genuine article. From this dizzy height, one spots impossible patterns in the mundane, the daily, the routine; and equal providence in ants below and clouds above.