Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and Her Legacy
Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art
8th November 2018 – 5th May 2019
I was interested in this exhibition having gone to see Susannah Ramsay’s filmpoem ‘The Essence of Place’ in 2017.
Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999) wrote poetry, short stories and painted but the focus of her practice became her film-making and she viewed her films as being as much poetry as they were anything else.
‘The kind of cinema I care about is at the level of poetry – in fact – it has been in a way my life’s work making film poems.’
For this exhibition, at The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Gallery One was in semi-darkness, lit by the images playing across two large screens. The first was near the door as you entered and the second placed at an angle to this, further into the gallery. Subdued lighting around the walls highlighted two information boards and, to the left, beyond the screens, glass cases held a range of materials related to Margaret Tait’s work.
In front of each screen small wooden benches, which could comfortably sit two people, were arranged in rows in a semi-circle. The film on the first screen had already started and I watched a scene, filmed from a house, of men digging up a road. The sound focused on the noise of the machinery, particularly a piece of equipment used to compress the surface of the road. There was an ebb and flow to the scenes that followed. You were taken through the garden of the house, catching glimpses of a Siamese cat in the undergrowth and the houses across the street. Then, through the kitchen with meandering focus on the shelves. The postman arrived, handing in mail. Outside again, children walked past perhaps returning from school. Later they played around a roundabout further along the street. There was no indication if this was one day or several. The sound track was that of the everyday, the machinery of the road menders, children shouting to one another, a radio playing in the kitchen a muffled exchange with the postman.
Without any more explanation than this I found the film soothing and poignant. It had the quality of one of those days that you get to yourself. Windows are open, you are not doing anything in particular but it is a chance to putter and be in your own space. In the real-life version, the day would have its own soundtrack but you would barely acknowledge it. Margaret Tait, however, uses this ordinary background noise and elevates it so that it provides a curiously meditative counterpoint to the action.
The film lasted another twenty-five minutes and was followed by shorter film called Tailpiece (1976). This was filmed in black and white and showed the same house but, this time, it was removal day with furniture being packed into a waiting van. The sound track cut from a melancholy tune to something altogether livelier followed by a child reciting rhymes with a sing-song confidence. As workman moved furniture, the camera focused on the walls of the rooms and the outlines where the furniture had been. Having watched the first film there were moments of recognition with glimpses of ornate wallpaper in the hallway and an embroidered curtain hanging from a door Margaret Tait, reflected in mirrors, captured the last few hours in the family home.
After my visit to the exhibition I returned to watch these two films in particular. The first film is called, ironically, Place of Work (1976), titled because it was the place where Tait worked on her film-making. It is summarised on the DVD as “An exploration of the ambience of a house (Buttquoy House, Kirkwall, Orkney) in the 4/5 months before it had to be vacated….[and] allows Margaret Tait to present something of the nature and intensity of her experiencing and re-experiencing a place that was, for half a century, the family home and, for the past seven years the centre of her film-making”.
This was the connection I had felt when I first started to watch the film. I didn’t know what it was about at that point but it became clear that the very ordinariness of the scenes was what made it so memorable. There was an intimacy with the place and the people in it that gave you the feeling that Tait was trying to capture not just the what you were physically seeing but something altogether more elusive before it would be gone forever.
I found both films very moving as, over the past few months, we have been working on clearing the family home and the house is at a similar stage. The rooms are empty and soon it will be a home for another family.
A few months after I started this course mum had to go into a care home. I had been at the stage of trying to decide on a direction for the coursework and, in the end, because these thoughts were so all consuming at that time, I began to work with ideas around ageing and childhood memories. At times I debated the wisdom of this, particularly after mum’s death, but, as the work developed, it helped to have this way of thinking about things. In a sense the work became a filter, a lens through which I gained some distance and perspective from the actualities of bereavement.
This was not that clear cut at the time, it was more a case of juggling priorities and trying to keep up with assignments. However, as time went on, I began to see that working with the memories of childhood gave me an imaginative space to be in that helped to balance the emotions associated with the literal space of the family home as we worked on clearing the house. The familiar becomes unfamiliar as the belongings which have had their place are stripped of their context. As in Tait’s films it was like you knew the house but were seeing things for the first time.
In Place of Work and Tailpiece, Tait has created a similar space for the viewer to inhabit. It is about a very specific place, at a particular moment in time, but the sense of loss it evokes, on different levels, is something we can relate to. In the very act of capturing this on film, Tait is, perhaps, suggesting that these places survive regardless, in our memories and in the impact they have had on our lives.
The Essence of Place – Susannah Ramsay – https://katespainting2.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/the-essence-of-place/
GOMA (2018) Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and her Legacy: November 8th 2018 – May 5th 2019, GoMA, Gallery 1. At: http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/news/new-exhibition-at-glasgows-goma-celebrates-life-and-work-of-visionary-scots-filmmaker-margaret-tait (Accessed on 05.04.19)
Grigor, Murray (1999) ‘Obituary: Margaret Tait’ In: The Independent [online] At: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-margaret-tait-1093051.html (accessed on 05.04.19)
Margaret Tait: Selected Films 1952-1976 (1976) [DVD] London: LUX
Margaret Tait 100. About Margaret Tait. At: http://www.margarettait100.com/about/ Accessed on 14.04.19