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