‘Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.’ So wrote German philosopher Heinrich von Kleist in his 1810 essay, ‘On the Marionette Theatre’, quoted at length alongside Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Tacita Dean’s film ‘Event for a Stage’ (2016), currently showing at Fruitmarket Gallery as part of a retrospective exhibition, Woman with a Red Hat.
In von Kleist’s text, a pair of unknown speakers discuss human consciousness through a series of anecdotes: the first describes the graceful dancing of marionettes at a local theatre; the second tells of a narcissistic youth who likens himself to Spinario, the much-copied Hellenistic bronze statue of a boy removing a thorn from his foot; and the third is narrated by an expert fencer who is unable to defeat his adversary, a chained bear, because the latter fails to be fooled by his feints.
If von Kleist’s text triangulates humanity as deity, animal and automaton, Dean zooms in even closer by narrowing the focus onto one very particular human: the actor. The question that underpins ‘Event for a Stage’ is whether the actor is the highest form of (mortal) life or, in fact, the lowest. Following von Kleist, the same question could be expressed as follows: is the actor a puppet or a god?
From the beginning, ‘Event for a Stage’ is both a work for theatre (hence the title) and for film. From the crackling countdown with which it begins, the visual language of film is an ever-present reminder of the medium. This is typical Dean. Camera directions are voiced repeatedly, and sections of the script describe the development of the project through conversations between the artist and the actor she invited to take part: Stephen Dillane, best known for his roles in The Hours and Game of Thrones. But this is a theatre piece too: the camera tracks around Dillane as he circles the stage while the auditorium fills up. “Too fucking cosy by half,” he chunters to himself.
Dean’s aim is to analyse the craft of acting, to examine the reality of a (male) figure who is always aware of himself being watched, while continuously acknowledging the impossibility of scratching beneath the artifice. To some extent, Dillane is therefore playing an abstract character, the actor in general, on show to the audience “in his natural habitat, like a beast in its lair” (or a bear in a cage). But this is also a personal performance: Dillane glides from performer to narrator, snatching sheets of script from Dean on the front row of the audience, declaiming Shakespeare, recalling stories from his own life, his relationship with his family, his creative differences with Dean. He hated her initial script, he says, and decided to rewrite it. But is it true? And does it even matter? Sometimes Dillane sports the paraphernalia of the classical actor (make-up, wig); sometimes he appears simply as himself (whatever that means here).
Gradually, and with precision, the work unpicks the relationship between actor and audience and navigates the fine line between self-awareness and self-consciousness. The actor is in ultimate control, but he simply reads lines prewritten for him by another. It is, in the end, a question of agency. Like ‘acting’, ‘agency’ also stems from the Latin verb, ago– I do. But ‘agency’ implies something real, serious, political, authentic; acting is always much more ambiguous. Puppet or god or bear in chains?
“Art is what makes life more interesting than art,” Dillane intones memorably. “Theatre is what makes life more interesting than theatre.” Reviewing the film when it was shown at Frith Street Gallery, London in 2016, Adrian Searle guessed that Dean wrote these lines for Dillane. Maybe, but the first half was also a line used as a kind of motto by Fluxus artist Robert Filliou. In fact, Dean referred to this same line in a 2012 text she wrote about the Iranian drama-documentary Close-Up. Maybe no script is ever written for the first time.
If there is one sign that Dean’s film is an affective as well as an intellectual triumph, a sign that nobody else in the auditorium would have noticed, it comes right at the end of Dillane’s performance. As the audience on screen burst into applause, I feel myself right there with them, on the verge of clapping too. For that moment, even though I have been reminded over and over again that this is a film, I nonetheless imagine myself in the theatre. For that moment, I forgot where I was and reacted on instinct (are the audience also puppets?). But I stopped myself just in time and exited the gallery in silence. In control, then, or just following the script?
Woman with a Red Hat, Tacita Dean, The Fruitmarket Gallery, 7 July - 30 September
Tom Jeffreys is an Edinburgh-based writer, who is especially interested in art that engages with environmental questions. He has written for numerous publications including Apollo, art-agenda, The Daily Telegraph, Frieze, The Independent, Monocle, and New Scientist. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of The Learned Pig, an online magazine with four areas of interest: art, thinking, nature, writing.