Tacita Dean: In Search Of Inspiration

How do you make a work of art for a place that's new to you and for which you have no cultural references? It's a task often given to the celebrated artist Tacita Dean, yet it always presents a challenge. Interview by Nick Coleman

I found myself in Kita-kyushu in Japan, on a sort of strange residency-stroke-professorship, where they invite an artist to come and make a work and show it within a period of four to six weeks. Kita-kyushu itself is an industrial town on the island of Kyushu. It was supposed to be Nagasaki in 1945 but the sky was too overcast: its own pollution saved it. It's the centre of Nippon steel.

Artists nowadays travel a lot and they're asked to make work for places they have never been to and have no cultural references for. Each situation is different. For instance, in 2005 Cork was the City of Culture, and had a certain budget to invite an artist to make something for the city. It's incredibly stressful. You land like an alien and you get shipped around in an effort to find situations that might in some way inspire you.

In Cork, I was taken to the Titanic Centre - I'm known for my interest in sinking ships - and just by chance I saw a nuns' graveyard. The graves were like baby teeth. Tiny. And there was one grave missing. An empty space. So there I am afterwards sitting at home, thinking, "have I got an idea?" And they're saying to me, "have you got an idea?" And the only thing I can pull out of my head is this graveyard with one grave missing. So I say, "I want to make a film called The Last Plot about the last five nuns in this convent thinking about who's going to get that last space."

You're working blind on these jobs. But I have to court this degree of chaos and agony in the hope that something will come of it. Anyway, I arrived back in Cork to find that a nun had died in the interim period and instead of filling the last plot, they'd actually removed one of the stones and created two empty plots - they double and triple hang in these graveyards - so the whole premise of my film was dubious. I ended up filming the remaining nuns in this huge empty building they occupy because they can't get any new novices. They turned out to be amazing women. I made an hour-long film called Presentation Sisters - an hour because of The Book of Hours and because one of the subjects of the film was female domestic labour: a lot of scone-making, making tea, watching Gaelic football and praying. It was a gift. And I was so lucky because I had to turn up with a camera crew having never been inside the convent building and never having met the women. That's the sort of blindness I'm talking about with this travelling thing.

Anyway, so I get invited to the Centre for Contemporary Art at Kita-kyushu. It's very strange that the centre should be there because, well, no offence to Kita-kyushu, but it's a bit of a no-go place; it's not on any tourist map - it's on two seas - the interior Japanese sea and the Korean Strait. However, the food is spectacular, far better than in Tokyo. The sushi is totally fresh. I've never eaten better in my life, not even close. But nobody goes there!

We were there for four days and I was afflicted with this paralysing fear because, again, I didn't have an idea. The curator came to my studio in Berlin a year later and said, "what are you going to make for us in Kita-kyushu?" Fortunately, on my first visit I'd written down some of the things she'd said. And one of the things she'd said was that in Japanese traditional arts there is this thing called the concept of "Human Treasure". And I'd written it down. So she came in and I thought, "what the hell!" I said: "I want to film a Human Treasure." So the next few months were filled with endless negotiations about what sort of Human Treasure I might film.

A Human Treasure is someone who's reached the top of the tree in their field. The curator sent me a weaver and someone who did gold leaf, and I was a bit worried about that - not quite right.

In the end, I managed to gain access to an 87-year-old comedian-actor who imitates animals: very traditional, slightly slapstick.

So I said I'd film him and it became the most detached thing I've ever done. I don't know his full name because I only ever called him "Human Treasure". Human Treasures are demi-gods, you see.

I wasn't allowed near him really. The first day's shoot was "Human Treasure has Western Breakfast in a Hotel". It was actually very beautiful. He went with his wife to a Seventies hotel - very louche with low seats. I then discovered that Human Treasure had this same seat every day when he ate his breakfast. We then went back to his house and he agreed to cry and laugh for about two seconds each, and then to do imitations of a dog and a fox.

He's something of a Japanese version of Sir John Gielgud - hugely famous, always on television. And it's like a dynastic thing - totally in his family.

Later, we went to a school, where he was staging a performance for the children. It was a complete catastrophe. We weren't allowed to film any of the schoolchildren; and it was at this point that I found out that my camera person had never before been a camera person of any description, and he completely missed the action. So that was unusable.

And then Human Treasure had his tea. And then he fed the carp....

So I made this film, all 15 minutes of it, and it actually turned out quite well. It's still mute because I haven't had the chance to finish it because I had to do everything - make the film and deliver it - in that short period, for an exhibition at the end.

My other Japanese work was the Benesse Prize. During every Venice Biennale the Benesse Foundation gives a prize of a million yen - about €5,000, so I was only a millionaire in my head for a few seconds - and a trip to Naoshima island in the Seto sea. It's an island where Mitsubishi has all its factories on one side. On the other side is this extremely rich man, called Mr Fukutake, who made his money from adult-studies literature.

It was his father's business, I think. Mr Fukutake has very strong beliefs about art and its replacement of religion.

He has built a spectacular hotel there with the architect Tadao Ando; spectacular, but lethal for children - sheer drops for example. I can't imagine how much it costs to spend a night there. Each room is decorated by an artist.

There's a Richard Long, a David Tremlett ... I merely stayed there. And Mr Fukutake doesn't allow televisions in the rooms. You get there by monorail and it's spectacularly beautiful. And he's even built a museum for his Monets, his James Turrell and his Walter De Maria. He has excellent taste.

For the other part of the prize you are invited to make a work for Naoshima island. I was asked to build a pavilion for women, along with two other women, an American and a Japanese artist. Oh, and we would be able to design our own museum. People actually now go on day trips to Naoshima. The ferry is a normal passenger ferry, and there's another huge new hotel going up on the island - it's clearly going to be a destination for art tourism. I think Mr Fukutake wants to make it an independent state. I suppose the tenets of the state would be to do with aesthetics and culture. As I say, he believes in the spirituality of art: that art is about spirituality. But I'm not sure that I totally agree with that.

Anyway, what was most interesting for me were the Mitsubishi factory buildings on the island, some of which are still functioning, although a lot of them are deserted. They were fascinating.

It was raining, so I suggested driving us back to the ruins to photograph them. I was told, "Wim Wenders was here last week and he made us do the same thing!"

There are two ways of making artworks in relation to travel. There's something that comes from my own motivation - for instance, I've just finished filming the [now obsolete] Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône.

That was very much from my own motivation. Or, you can just respond to landing in a new place or situation. There's an inordinate amount of travelling in what I do.

The funny thing is, that since moving to Berlin I've been looking at home for inspiration, whereas when I lived in London I really didn't need to seek it out. However, there was something that always took me to those places. Finding Donald Crowhurst's boat, the Teignmouth Electron, took me to Cayman Brac; I went to Madagascar because of the eclipse, having failed to see it in England, and having made a film about having failed to see it.

I really did want to see it, so in the end, I made a little film called Diamond Ring about the failed attempt to film the eclipse in Madagascar. And of course, something else came out of it. We arrived there literally hours before the eclipse, and the whole point was to have three weeks travelling around Madagascar.

The eclipsed sun set into the sea, and of course the moment it sank I saw a green ray - and I became obsessed. I've actually been obsessed with green rays for a long time. I made my poor friend, Dick, spend our entire time motionless on the beach in Morombe, waiting for a green ray. We went extremely far to end up not moving very much.

If you want to see a green ray you have to have a totally clear horizon, no obstructions at all. When the sun sets into a clear line, like a pencil line of sea, you have a good chance of seeing it. And what you are seeing is the slowest light from the sun. It looks like a tiny pulsating lentil. The one I filmed is almost invisible, which is nice for the film, because in a way it becomes more about faith and perception than the phenomenon itself.

The most spectacular green ray that I've encountered was when I was on one of those awful transatlantic flights where they make you close the shutters on the plane, on the way back from Washington. Someone hadn't put their shutter down and the same dreadful film was on for the umpteenth time. I couldn't read, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't watch the film again, and I just lifted my gaze over three sleeping bodies at the very moment the sun rose.

It was a full, sustained green ray lasting a second and a half, maybe two. The most extraordinary thing. An emerald ripple. A million times bigger than the ones I'd filmed.

According to Jules Verne, if you see a green ray, you will be transformed.

My favourite place

"I don't think I have a favourite place, because the moment I think of one, I can think of somewhere that's even better.

"But years and years ago I did think Mistra was the most beautiful place on the planet. It's in Greece on the Peloponnese. I love Greece but I've banned myself from going there. I nearly destroyed myself trying to do a contemporary art exhibition there. It was a £100 Prince's Trust Award. I'd just left art school and we got a long way down the road to making it work. And then it all fell apart and was so bloody awful by the end I told myself I wouldn't go back for 10 years. That expired in 2002. But I love Greece. Mistra has incredible paintings in the church. And I love the slight contempt Greeks have for their ruins. My great unmade project Blind Pan takes place entirely in Greece."

My top fantasy spot

"I've always wanted to go to Antarctica, but when the opportunity finally arose, my son Rufus was only a few weeks old so I didn't go. One place I've had a fantasy about going to for years is Tristan da Cunha. There's only one boat a year, and all that business about communication and being able to write an annual letter... sooo appealing. I used to fantasise about Tristanians and imagined they were a sexy bunch. But now they've got a postcode and satellite communication and generators... it's terrible, terrible. Hah! One day."

Tacita Dean is showing at The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, from 22 March until 17 June and at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 6 June 2007.

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