Gareth Evans: ‘Tait Modern’


Margaret Tait was one of the most distinctive artist film-makers these islands have produced

Until recently one of the UK’s most shamefully neglected but wildly talented artist film-makers, the fiercely independent Margaret Tait worked entirely at the edges of both the industry mainstream and the geographical mainland, living between Edinburgh and the Scottish Orkney islands. The maker, over five decades, of over thirty shorts and one feature (the inspirational Blue Black Permanent), as well as three volumes of poetry and two of short stories, she made almost all her work without any formal funding, driven, like many of her peer group in the United States, towards a recording of the heightened, phenomenal world through close observation of her immediate environment and daily life. Through her own company Ancona Films, set up after she returned from formal study in Rome at the height of the Neo-Realist movement, she set about making what she called ‘film poems’, often quoting the Spanish poet Lorca’s claim to be ‘stalking the image’ to define both her intention and method.

Margaret Tait, programme notes for Where I Am Is Here. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

This idea of absolute attention to everyday objects, locations and weathers, coupled with an innate sense of seasonal and aesthetic rhythms, gives her short work the intensity of a lyric without any sacrifice of the accessibility her subject matter suggested. Portrait of Ga (1952), the earliest work included here, is a portrait of origins, of Tait’s mother. In a similar vein, Place of Work (1976), at 30 minutes one of the longest pieces, explores the much loved family home in Orkney in the months before it had to be vacated. In a different vein, Aerial (1974) and Colour Poems (1974) deal with the elements and include some animation directly onto the filmstock. However, her masterpiece is perhaps Where I Am Is Here (1964) a 33-minute symphony of amplifying patterns and hues, a moving paean to the passing beauty of things that exemplifies Tait’s singular approach to both film and the world.

Margaret Tait, Tailpiece, 1976. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

These magical works have recently been released for the first time on DVD, and the disc itself sees a straight presentation of eight films (those mentioned above plus Tailpiece (1976), John MacFayden (The Stripes in the Tartan) (1970) and Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964)). It is produced by the hugely important, London-based LUX artist’s film and video archive. Growing out of the pioneering London Film-maker’s Co-op, it distributes and exhibits internationally. The DVD itself grew out of a touring programme of restored titles, which also saw publication of Subjects and Sequences, a magnificent full colour volume of essays, statements, poems, stories and interviews by and about Tait, an invaluable companion to the disc.

Originally published in Vertigo, Vol. 3, Issue 6 (Summer 2007).

Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, presenter and producer. He is Film Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London. He is also co-curator of Swedenborg Film Festival, Whitstable Biennale and Forum of the Future, Porto.