Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2018
Tacita Dean Buon Fresco London: MACK, 2016. 112 pp.; 112 color ills. Hardcover $95.00 (9781910164280)

Pier Paolo Pasolini concluded his 1971 film The Decameron, adapted from Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century text, with a question: “Why complete a work,” the director asks, playing a disciple of Giotto in the film, “when it’s so beautiful just to dream it?” Pasolini’s character poses the question while gazing up at a recently completed fresco, and his thoughts have already turned to a future project, glimpsed earlier in a dream. After the line is delivered, the film ends and the credits role. It is a double-edged question, then, one that marks the completion of fresco and film alike, of the painter’s and the director’s work, and longingly asks of both arts: What, in fact, is the relationship between the immaterial images of the imagination or the dream and the vicissitudes of technique—that is, the technical, even monotonous work of materializing images for a public of viewers?

Similar questions haunt Tacita Dean’s Buon Fresco, the title given to two related works, one a film, the other an artist’s book. The genesis of the former lies in Dean’s 2014 visit to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, where she made her film for the exhibition On the Road, curated by Gloria Moure the same year. The resulting work focuses on the famous frescoes in the Upper Basilica, which depict scenes from the life of Saint Francis and which are likely the work of Giotto, the great innovator of naturalism in painting. Dean’s title—meaning “true fresco,” in English—names the technique employed for these images, one that involves the time-bound application of pigment to a ground of wet plaster. Shot in 16mm atop a mechanical lift, the film consists of a series of extreme close-ups of the frescoes: faces, hands, ornamental flourishes, stigmata, and most provocatively, pentimenti, the signs of unworked or abandoned passages left out of the final composition. The work reveals details invisible to the pilgrim or tourist, accessible only to the probing eye of a camera equipped with a macro-lens and positioned mere inches from the surface of the frescoes, at a location proximate to where the painter himself would have viewed the work while crafting it.

Dean thus stages a productive confrontation between the technical procedures of fresco painting and those of her own filmmaking, a dialogue made explicit in research notes listing terms related to buon fresco technique, including giornata, pentimenti, and pennello. As she wrote in the catalogue for On the Road, one of her goals was to endow her camera with “the painter’s perspective,” in order to “have his intimacy and his proximity to his subject, and to be permitted as witness to the otherworldly ability present in one man’s craft, which we can name here as the divine within his human skill and inspiration.” It was her admiration for this “otherworldly” technical skill that led Dean to try to occupy, impossibly, the position of the long-dead painter. In doing so, she effected a translation on the level of the materiality of the images, shifting them from the domain of plaster and pigment to filmstrip and projected light.

Published two years later, the book version of Buon Fresco incorporates yet another medial transformation, this time from projected light to printed page. Designed with longtime collaborator Martyn Ridgewell, the book reorders frames from the film, as well as many more that were not included in the original project. Printed in an edition of 1,000 signed copies, Buon Fresco includes no text, each of its 112 large-format, horizontally oriented pages consisting of one greatly enlarged detail. Images are placed strategically in order to produce playful formal rhymes between adjoining pages as well as over series of spreads. The first pages feature details of hands and fingers, enlarged so as to dwarf the reader’s own. In certain instances, signs of the stigmata are apparent, but scaled up to such a degree, the wounds lose their spiritual connotation and resemble dark, abstracted ovals that echo the shape of fingernails. Two open (singing?) mouths appear, in subsequent pages, removed from any physiognomic context. Near the middle of its pages, the book isolates a third sense organ: two huge ears centered across from one another, their shell-like curvatures less anthropomorphic than creaturely.

All of these details seem calculated to foreground the book as an object of intimate but silent communication dependent on the movement of hands and the caress of fingertips. Despite the gaping mouths, this book does not speak—or sing—to us, and if we hear it, as if with those uncanny ears, it is only within the echo chamber of our own thoughts. The lack of text here means that we also do not read this book in a conventional sense; whatever narrative or meaning we ascribe to these images must come from the reader’s sensory activity of touching, optically inspecting, and comparing images across its pages. In place of a purely textual language, then, we are given a language comprehended as much haptically as optically. And indeed, Dean offers the reader a diverse array of seductive objects, surfaces, and textures to gaze upon, touch, and study: larger-than-life-size vegetal forms, angels’ wings, ornamental patterns, the divine flesh of saints, and the worn surface of the fresco wall itself. Magnified to near abstraction at certain points, these latter details are truly hybrid, a layered composite of wall, pigment, celluloid, and printed page.

Dean’s hybrid fresco-film-book also touches on issues of image circulation and spectatorship, referencing different types of aesthetic reception: the decidedly site-specific fresco technique; the distributive form of film; and the highly individualized, haptic form of reception required by the act of handling and reading a book to oneself. The book should be seen as a three-part ensemble of nested works, each one subsumed and incorporated into the technical support—whether film strip or printed and bound page—of another. The limited print run of the book alerts us to the fact that Dean’s approach to these media is less focused on their potential function as techniques of mass reception and more on their ability to entangle the individual subject in a hybrid technical assembly of tactile, visual, and cognitive experience. Binding different media and mediums together, the project aims for intimate, individualized dialogues between different modes of technical production, types of image reception, and avenues of physiological sensation. 

On its cover, the book sports an example of pentimenti—an abandoned portion of underpainting only accessible to the eye up close—and in doing so, signals a focus on process and technique decoupled from resulting iconographical content. Providing an opening onto technique itself (the pentimenti in question is linked, cannily, to some kind of represented portal), the book then allows the reader to leaf through details that, due to their decontextualization, appear by turns naturalistic, ornamental, abstract, and gestural, calling up any number of techniques from centuries of Western painting.

What is so uncanny about this focus on technique, however, is the way in which it, Pasolini-like, induces a kind of communion between painter, filmmaker, and reader. Like the film’s reoccupation of “the painter’s perspective,” the book, by virtue of the intimate proximity demanded by its form, places the reader in the position of both painter and filmmaker. These various figures and their divergent techniques of production are transposed here: the technology of painting is reframed by the technology of film, and both are reshuffled and reread by the technologies of printing and binding. It is Dean’s unique ability, however, to position these translations within the domain of the tactile encounter that conditions the book’s form of communication. She seems to align the touch of the painter with the touch of the reader, whose tactile engagement with Buon Fresco reanimates the painted images in the act of turning pages. Dean, of course, recognized that such procedures are themselves the gestures of a technique that mediates between text, image, and the figures of the mind. Like grouping fresco paintings into narrative scenes, flipping pages can also be a way of working with and animating images in space and time, one that has intimate access to the interiority of the reader’s mental space. One result is the dispersion of the painter’s “otherworldly ability” into hybrid, creative acts of individualized reception, from filming to turning a page.

Herein, it seems, lies the significance of the profusion of hands, fingers, and stigmata across Buon Fresco’s pages: with these images, painter, filmmaker, reader, and depicted figures might, if only poetically, join hands. They also, in uncanny fashion, join minds, for clearly Dean envisions the hand not simply as an instrument of technical work but as a mental field, a site with its own form of thought and imagination—its own “perspective,” even. In translating the fresco surface onto the printed surface of the page, Dean makes the painted image participate in the cognitive operations of reading, which is also a function of the movement of hands. For Dean, thought, dream, and technique might not be separable; all are contained within the hand’s own specific type of subjectivity.

Of course, artistic gestures of the past can only be restaged or replayed, never reembodied.  Dean’s book hopes, instead, that an “otherworldly” force might emerge through the layers of mediation required to occupy the painter’s—or more generally, the past’s—“perspective.” One gambit of Buon Fresco might be to materialize a hybrid form of thought from the mixture of different techniques of making, reading, and thinking. This hybrid thinking, in which different hands and minds from different historical moments momentarily occupy the same “perspective,” might be hinted at in the final image of the book. A barely recognizable face, formed from subtle strokes of blue pigment, this image calls to mind a new type of being dreamed up by the mixture of paint, film, and page, and one that Buon Fresco, and Pasolini’s The Decameron in its own way, attempted to locate.

Kevin Lotery
Visiting Assistant Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, Sarah Lawrence College

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