The subjects of the British-born, Berlin-based multimedia artist Tacita Dean’s films have always had a distinctly Continental focus, from the former East Berlin television tower featured in Fernsehturm (2001) to the artists Joseph Beuys and Mario Merz. Yet in some of her more recent works, Dean has turned to documenting the sceneries, myths, and hidden treasures of Los Angeles. Among them are the landscape film Pan Amicus (2021) and Monet Hates Me (2021), a so-called “exhibition in a box,” both of which are currently on view at the Getty Center, where Dean served as artist in residence between 2014 and 2015. Although these were not Dean’s first projects to focus on American mythology and landscape (her 2013 film JG, concerning a fictitious correspondence between the Land artist Robert Smithson and novelist J.G. Ballard, originated in the sound piece Trying to Find Spiral Jetty from 1997; while her ambitious, dual synchronous film Antigone was released in 2018), they do document her earliest steps toward embracing a city, and its surrounding filmmaking industry, which she humorously refers to as “the beast.” The experiences piqued her curiosity about L.A.’s unique sense of atmosphere, and she has since opened a studio in the West Jefferson area, dividing her time between there and Berlin.
At first glance, Pan Amicus and Monet Hates Me could not be more dissimilar. The former, a 16mm film loop of the Getty Center’s lush grounds (noticeably absent the distinctive, Richard Meier-designed campus), is a georgic-inspired fantasia with images of a blood-red moon, roaming deer, fruit trees, and antiquarian statuary left to molder in the weeds, as if the film were itself some recently unearthed home movie from Greek antiquity. Her sensuous, Arcadian vision is a knowing wink to Hollywood’s long-established use of trompe l’oeil scenography, as well as to J. Paul Getty’s primeval fantasy of a Mediterranean Los Angeles.
By contrast, Monet Hates Me is a boxed wunderkammer of 50 objects sourced from deep inside the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections, a non-specialist miscellany of donated archives stretching from the 15th century to the present. The objects were painstakingly reproduced by hand and organized into 100 boxes in Dean’s Berlin studio, each one containing photos, prints, collages, letters, engravings, drawings and other ephemera from sources as varied as Auguste Rodin, John Ruskin, and late-medieval alchemy folios. An accompanying artist’s book includes Dean’s own musings on the historical, and personal, provenances of the objects, which were chosen according to the artist’s long-standing method of “objective chance,” a term first popularized by the Surrealist André Breton to describe a practice of researched intuition or coincidence informing aesthetic decisions. Like Breton’s work, Monet Hates Me focuses on the narrative pleasures of serendipity, esotericism, and anachronism, from which Dean weaves together a fantastical tapestry of figures and objects.
As with Pan Amicus, Monet Hates Me epitomizes Dean’s intrigue with those images on the periphery. In both works, her intimate fantasies of time and place have mingled with the fantasies of others to transform the institutions and categories of history into a new, imaginary archive. In her own words, they are part of her ongoing fascination with creating “a box for the things you can’t box.”