Safety Curtain 2004/2005

Play as Cast

What is this scene all about? Nobody really knows, not even Tacita Dean. She no longer remembers where she found the photograph but she has kept it in her files for decades. Probably it's an amateur theatre group performing a drama, probably in England. When? Let's guess: around 1920. Which play? A tragedy perhaps, and one with a female lead. Let's say Antigone. That's clearly what Dean thinks. In the upper left corner she has written, "Antigone by Sophocles." The inscriptions in English and Greek – some more legible than others – say things like "Applause," "Exit," "Stage Left," and obviously read like stage directions. Whatever this photograph originally depicted, now it is about Antigone. In the upper right corner one reads "Polyneices," the name of one of the heroine's two dead brothers, more precisely the one denied proper burial by King Creon, who declared: "Let him lie unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and who so touches him shall perish by the cruel death of stoning." For me, and probably for you, this image is now also about Antigone. And like me, you perhaps try to remember the full narrative and start speculating about what our heroine is about to announce next. Perhaps the key line, "In spite of the orders, I shall give my brother burial, whether thou, Ismene, wilt join me or not." And who is her sister Ismene – the woman standing immediately to the left or the one reclining in such a relaxed way? That we will never know.

Tacita Dean, an artist born in Canterbury, has an older sister called Antigone, so it's no great surprise that she's interested in the literary figure and her mythological surroundings. In fact, Dean has produced a number of works relating to Oedipus' and Antigone's relationship. Originally trained as a painter her works are today realized in a variety of media: drawing, photography, sound and, perhaps most notably, film. Her characteristically long takes and static camera positions create a sense of stillness and an intensified temporal awareness. British author J.G. Ballard, an admirer of her work, has detected an obsession with time in all of her works. Perhaps that also provides a clue to this new work for the safety curtain, titled "Play as Cast." It represents, one could argue, an entry to intricate catacombs of pastness. Like all photographs it says: "Look, this has been!" It points to something that is already past. In this case, the state of affairs depicted (a group of actors on a primitive stage) is itself a representation catapulting us to the more ancient times of Sophocles. And once we arrive at the tragedy, we will soon want to explore the subject of the play in question, and we are hurled backwards to an even more remote past, that of Greek mythology. Thus Dean's image invites us to travel through layers of things past. Things past, but not things gone. What we encounter during this excursion is not only the most ancient ancestor of the institution in which this contemporary artwork is displayed, the forerunner of all theatres and opera houses. When reaching the domain of Ancient Greek myths, we come upon something even more essential. What we encounter, if Sigmund Freud was right, is something we already know (or so we think): ourselves.