A new exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art pays homage to the powerfully intimate and nearly forgotten work of filmmaker-poet Margaret Tait
On the Gallery of Modern Art’s ground floor, the space ahead appears almost pitch black and even before entering the dark room, we perceive faint sounds echoing from its high ceilings. Inside, there are few sources of light apart from two screens, placed at the centre, and a long row of glass cases to the left illuminated from above. A voiceover comes from a small speaker attached to the screen by the entrance – its echo permeates the room, inescapable. Maybe it is the voice of a woman demanding to finally be heard.
Stalking The Image: Margaret Tait and Her Legacy honours a filmmaker whose creative voice was drowned out for much of her own life. Notably unwilling to compromise on her own visions in order to appeal to funding bodies or distributors, her idiosyncratic and experimental work was quickly forced to the margins of Scotland’s film landscape. It is ironic, but no real surprise considering issues of gender imbalance in mainstream cinema’s leading production roles, that Tait was actually the first Scottish woman to direct a feature film, Blue Black Permanent, in 1992. Only in the last couple of decades have Tait’s intimate depictions of daily life, often with an intent focus on women, become recognised as an undeniable part of Scotland’s film heritage. The new exhibition at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern art operates in this spirit of reviving once more an impressive body of work left behind by a fascinating pioneer of Scottish experimental cinema.
As the focal point of the exhibition, two separate screens display Tait’s short films as well as selected works commissioned as part of the Margaret Tait Award. A speaker attached to one of the screens at the centre sends voices across the dark room constantly, filling it with an almost mystical atmosphere. Further toward the back of the room, visitors have the option to experience a selection of Tait’s films through headphones. Surrounded by the buzzing of bees, clattering construction work, cheerful jazz, we are invited to become truly immersed in the poetic, or what has often been called “authentic”, composition of Margaret Tait’s short films. In this exhibition, this sensation of intimacy is foregrounded, with great success: darkness and soundscape make it so easy to forget time that, on my first visit, I stayed transfixed on one of the wooden benches for at least half an hour. The exhibition does not just work as homage to a great artist but also quite simply as space for serene meditation away from the city buzz.
The films of Margaret Tait are an exercise of finding the magical in the mundane. And while intimacy and familiarity figure heavily in her films, she seemed eager to take her own person out of the equation. The artist’s voice often accompanies her stories but we only get small visual glimpses of Tait herself through a shadow or a reflection. Margaret Tait liked to stay somewhat obscured from our view. When the BBC and Channel 4 made programmes on Tait in 1979 and 1983, she was unhappy with the overemphasis on her biography at the expense of her art. This exhibition is very much in line with the late artist’s own thinking by refraining from over-exploring her personal life, and instead focusing almost exclusively on her art. Artefacts displayed in glass cases on the left side of the gallery were selected primarily to tell a story of Tait’s body of work, not to paint a biographical picture. There are screenplay drafts, film negatives, small paintings and poems, old film rolls, and just one or two pictures of the artist herself. At the back sits, retired but dignified, a 16mm Bolex camera.
Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and her Legacy is a slow and intimate experience. Tait’s films are not Netflix-and-Chill-material, they are delicate and beautiful spaces carved out of her present and enduring into ours, spaces we can immerse ourselves in for a glimpse outside our own reality. The exhibition creates a rare space to explore these parallel temporalities which often do not fare well in our current modes of film consumption. Those yet unfamiliar with Margaret Tait will find in this exhibition something that leaves them contemplative and calm, happy to have met her.