Time on screen: Tacita Dean’s Antigone

Film offers a medium in which multiple temporalities can be accessed simultaneously. A new film by artist Tacita Dean, Antigone (2018), uses cinematographic effects and a double screen to explore multiple perspectives and times, from the classical past to an uncertain present, through a collage of images and reflections that recall both Sophoclean drama and American film.

Dean’s film, currently being shown in her ‘Landscape’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, grows from an autobiographical question. Antigone is the name her elder sister bears, and its mythical resonances intrigued the artist just as much as those of her own name. The story of Antigone, both sister and daughter to Oedipus, came to fascinate Dean, who also links herself to Oedipus through the shared experience of being lame. While a student she repeatedly inscribed their names, describing these acts in the exhibition catalogue as ‘perhaps in art school imitation of Cy Twombly, who seemed able, like none other, to awake his long-dead heroes by drawing their names’.

This practice continues, to feature in her landscape images, including those displayed in the exhibition, such as the narrative drawing Blind Pan (2004) that tells the story of Oedipus as a storyboard for an unmade film.

Blind Pan
Detail from Blind Pan, 2004, by Tacita Dean, currently on display at the Royal Academy, London

As this earlier work shows, Dean had long planned to make a film about the character and story of Antigone. Its evocation of landscape and travel is realised in the film that she finally made, after many difficulties in realising her vision.

Dean’s control of elapsed time in the hour-long film is a reminder of the formulaic temporality of Greek tragedy, with the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex taking place in a single day. Passing time is represented in the film by the image of a solar eclipse progressing, which provides a time-line throughout; at the core of the film, its totality transforms the landscape. Dean drew on the solar eclipse that crossed the USA in August 2017. While Sophocles uses the conventions of tragedy, such as messenger speeches, to bring past and distant parts of the story on to the stage, Dean frames her depiction of Oedipus’ journey with visible sprocket holes to mark the film’s apparent past, and uses split images to provide multiple perspectives on its landscapes, from Bodmin Moor to the mud pools of Yellowstone national park. The natural imagery also invites questions about duration and stability; the temporary change to the usual order brought by the eclipse, and the impermanent features of the geysers and mud pools of the volcanic landscape.

Antigone: still picture of volcanic landscape
Still from Tacita Dean’s Antigone (2018): volcanic landscape. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Oedipus’ blindness is represented anachronistically by the solar-eclipse viewing glasses worn by actor Stephen Dillane when in character; we too see the light of the sun replaced by its eerie corona, the landscape falling into darkness. This sun is itself then reshaped as a foot cuts through the image, suggesting the fragmentation inherent in the retelling of myth through the image masking and editing techniques that Dean uses to compose her complex images.

Sun and foot image from Tacita Dean's Antigone
Tacita Dean Antigone: sun and foot. © Tacita Dean; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

A breakthrough in Dean’s development of the project came with her meeting with poet Anne Carson and her discovery of Carson’s poem TV Men: Antigone (Scripts I and II), which covered the same part of the myth that interested her, the period between Oedipus leaving Thebes and arriving at Colonus. This poem becomes integral to the film, in which Antigone herself is an ambiguous absence, with Oedipus wandering apparently alone in his blindness, and in which Carson is an informative presence, explaining the story to characters and viewers alike, mediating between the worlds as a chorus figure.

Anne Carson, in Antigone
Poet Anne Carson in the Thebes courtroom. Location photograph from Antigone.

Dean’s Oedipus has forgotten his own story in his long journey, and has many questions to ask the sphinx-like Carson, with whom actor Stephen Dillane is in dialogue both in and out of character. Why has it taken him so long to reach his destiny at Colonus? The myth of the sphinx is reversed; Oedipus must interrogate the poet to understand his own story. Their discussions takes place across time, the character Oedipus at his campfire as he traverses the landscape, and Carson, Dean and Dillane indoors in the present. But that present itself negotiates the recent past: the three discuss the myth in a courtroom in another Thebes, in Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, itself a symbolic location.

Dean draws on the resonance of this American Thebes’ name with that of Oedipus’ city. It also provides an American present, the small town of the American cinematographic imaginary, as well as hints of an American past that recall other exiles travelling in search of a resolution to their stories. The historical courtroom she films is linked with the story of Dred Scott, who had escaped from enslavement and whose failed legal pursuit of his freedom was a significant point on the road to the US Civil War. American history and geology, ancient Greek myth, and Dean and Carson’s own interpretations of them all contribute to a layering of time and space as the film overlays its characters and locations, using the double and split screen to draw the elements together.

Time is already a problem and a source of uncertainty within the narrative of Oedipus’ story, with puzzling gaps between the episodes within the myth that Sophocles chose to dramatise. Antigone’s presence and voice are also problematic; was Antigone even there in the story before Sophocles developed her character in his plays? Carson’s poem appears and re-appears within the film, and documents the erasure of Antigone’s voice and experience from her own story as it is compressed by editorial processes:

For sound-bite purposes we had to cut Antigone’s script from 42 seconds to 7: substantial changes of wording were involved but we felt we got her ‘take’ right.

The characters’ discussions, along with Carson’s text, foreground the processes of working on myth and question the idea that there is an original story to which retellings should adhere; Carson appeals to Theban versions of the story that predate Sophocles’ retellings. But is the version of Antigone produced by Carson’s ‘TV men’ any less valid as work on myth than that offered by Sophocles? Meanwhile, Dean’s film offers a final glimpse of Oedipus, with a comforting touch on his shoulder as Antigone’s hand emerges from the darkness.

  • Tacita Dean: Landscape is at the Royal Academy until August 12 2018.

References

  • Tacita Dean (2018), ‘Antigone’, in Tacita Dean et al. Tacita Dean: Landscape, Portrait, Still Life, London.

‘Do this!’ Performing political analogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

BRUTUS: Peace! count the clock.

CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.

Search the internet for a definition of ‘anachronism’ and it’s likely that this exchange in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will be cited as a prime example. Shakespeare uses the conspirators’ response to the sound of the clock striking to interrupt their meeting, reminding them of their limited opportunity for action. But does it also disrupt the audience, reminding them that they are watching an incomplete depiction of an ancient society in which there were no striking clocks? Does Shakespeare deliberately collapse the historical distance between Rome and the present, or is he unconcerned about separating the two or even unaware of the difference? And what are the implications for performances now, when both Rome and Shakespeare are in the past?

Julius Caesar performance
Staging the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as contemporary protest and performance, Bridge Theatre.

The relationship between Roman past and dramatic present in Shakespeare’s play is fluid, with plenty of other elements – especially material objects and props, costumes, weapons, books – that suggest slippage between the two. But the audible interruption of the clock, itself indicative of his characters’ anxiety about time, is particularly telling. As with his series of English history plays, part of Shakespeare’s purpose appears to be to connect past events with present political concerns, to explore the present through the past, and so one might expect past and present to merge. The Tudor era scarcely lacked political conspiracy and violence, although in a significantly different political landscape from that of the Roman republic; scholars debate the extent to which Shakespeare elided the different societies, although the emergence of strong leadership in a state of growing power offers clear parallels.

For each new production of the play, directors have choices to make in drawing analogies and connections between the Roman past, the Tudor past and the political present. Their choices in emphasising or collapsing historical distance between Rome, Shakespeare and themselves perhaps reveal the political anxieties of the present. They also remind us of the role of drama in providing exemplars and analogies through which we can think about our present concerns.

The current production at London’s new Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bunny Christie, is the first production of a Shakespeare play at this new venue, just as the play’s debut in 1599 was one of, if not the first, productions at the Globe Theatre. For both Shakespeare and Hytner Julius Caesar can perhaps be read as a statement of theatrical intent. The new production’s immersive approach simultaneously acknowledges the active audience of Shakespeare’s theatre, and uses it to foreground present political concerns. Long before the clock strikes, the audience through its participation has bridged past and present. The standing audience in the pit is co-opted to represent the mass of Romans – but kitted out in red baseball caps labelled ‘Caesar’, and exhorted to ‘Do this!’, emphasising their performative role. Like crowds at a contemporary demonstration or festival the spectators wave flags and sing along to the rock band performing for the rude revels of the Lupercalia, its cover versions of rock standards standing in for the low culture of the mob scene that opens Shakespeare’s play.

The audience surges around performers as they rise into view to speak, enacting the changing allegiances of the Roman crowd, as Brutus and Mark Antony take the stage in turn at Caesar’s funeral, to defend their actions and to claim the loyalty of the crowd, many still wearing their Caesar-branded hats. But the constantly moving staging also generates uncertainty and division. As the Roman factions enter battle, the audience is scattered to the margins, performing the collapse of civic order along with the actors.

One aspect of the production’s own manipulation of past and present is to dress the proto-tyrant in the costume of a presidential contender, as other recent US productions have done, to some controversy. In doing so they insist that both Roman politics and Shakespeare’s drama can inform our analysis of present-day events, and that a play insistent in its concern about time can become a timeless commentary.

Indeed, as Mary Beard notes in her note on Roman history for the programme, the whole play is an exercise in exemplarity, setting up Caesar’s death on the Ides of March as the prime example of assassination. And as an exemplar, it benefits from connection to the present through analogy marked by anachronistic references. But as Matthew D’Ancona notes in turn in another programme note, it is not Caesar himself who provides the exemplar for us in our present political circumstances, but Brutus, played in this production by David Calder and Ben Whishaw respectively. D’Ancona sees Shakespeare’s Brutus, the idealist and philosophical conspirator happiest at home with his books, as a paradigm for the failure of Britain’s liberal elite to explain itself and its political projects to the wider public. He connects this to the ‘post-truth’ political rhetoric on which he has written in his book of that title. But Brutus’ inability to match the rhetoric of Mark Antony also taps into a long classical tradition that begins with the disdain for the philosopher depicted by Plato, or even in the Sicilian Expedition debates of Thucydides, and shows no sign of ending.

  • Matthew d’Ancona (2017) Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury).
  • Dennis Kezar  (2005) ‘Julius Caesar ’s Analogue Clock and the Accents of History’, in Zander, H. (ed.), Julius Caesar: new critical essays (New York: Routledge), pp. 241-255.