Tacita Dean is among the most important artists working today, but her name is one that few Australians outside the art world know. British by birth but global by practice, Dean is one of the most prominent voices behind the Save Film movement (alongside movie directors Christopher Nolan, Jane Campion, Michael Haneke and others). Getting to know her work is like contemplating the precipice of obsolescence: it rides a fine line between the sense of being lucky enough to bear witness and the thrill of mortality.

This summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) has chosen Dean for its major exhibition in the 2023–24 Sydney International Art Series. Curated by MCA director Suzanne Cotter, senior curator Jane Devery and curator Megan Robson, it’s the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work in Australia to date, spanning her career from the unnerving photo series The Story of the Lemon That Grew Hair (1991/2014) to the 2023 films Claes Oldenburg Draws Blueberry Pie and Geography Biography. The exhibition incorporates a range of mediums, including drawing, photography, printmaking, installation and her beloved celluloid film.

Despite the wide-ranging, seemingly random subject matter – in one room you’ll find handmade objects drawing on items in the Special Collections at LA’s Getty Research Institute as part of the work Monet Hates Me (2021); in another, a photographic print of a 2000-year-old cherry blossom tree overdrawn in pencil – the threads that holds Dean’s work together are chance, memory and the passage of time.

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For Monet Hates Me, Dean was asked to submit a research proposal as part of her Getty residency – a big ask of an artist who often doesn’t know what she’s making until she’s making it.

“In all her work, Dean embraces chance and coincidence”, says Brigid Moriarty, MCA assistant curator. “Her research project, titled ‘The importance of objective chance as a tool of research’, aimed to explore the Getty’s Special Collections – a vast repository of objects and ephemera relating to art history and visual culture – through a process of random selection. To begin, Dean literally pointed to a box on a shelf and said “that one”. They got it down for her, and inside was the key to Auguste Rodin’s studio. From there, Dean navigated her way through the Getty’s vast holdings by allowing a series of chance associations to unfold. While she did employ other search methods from time to time, it all was very much grounded in this idea of creating the conditions for serendipity to occur.”

Born in 1965, Dean is often named as part of the Young British Artists movement, after showing with many of them at the 1995 Venice Biennale, but her work differs from contemporaries such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Living and working between Berlin and LA, Dean identifies as “British-European”, though she’s created high profile work for UK museums and galleries – including Film for the Tate Modern, which advocated for the preservation of film as a subject for art, not just a medium.

Dean’s use of celluloid film is likewise an exercise in serendipity. Many of the effects are created in-camera, and she edits by tangibly cutting frames. What emerges relates to the process as much as the subject of the film.

If you’re planning to visit Tacita Dean, make time to view the films, which are a significant part of the exhibition: three and a half hours’ worth in total. Most are on a loop, but the 50-minute Event for a Stage (2015), filmed during the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, has special screening times as it’s best seen from the beginning.

In keeping with the ephemeral nature of Dean’s art, Chalk Fall (2018) and The Wreck of Hope (2022), two large-scale chalk on blackboard drawings, are also worth a closer look. “There is a sense of time elapsing, and collapsing, within them,” says Moriarty. “Chalk is an unpredictable medium and, as a viewer, it’s exciting to encounter works of such extraordinary scale."

However, it’s Paradise (2021) , an abstract film inspired by Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem, The Divine Comedy (1321), that Moriarty is most drawn to. The film’s exquisite colour palette is drawn from a series of watercolours created by the British artist William Blake in the final years of his life. Part of Dean’s set design for a ballet, The Dante Project, the 35mm Cinemascope film “epitomises the alchemic, inexplicable qualities specific to analogue film, and the artist’s adept handling of her medium”.

Tacita Dean runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until March 3, 2024.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.