Portraits: Films by Ute Aurand and Margaret Tait

The September 2022 edition of the Mutual Films Session presents a dialogue between works by friends and mutual admirers. The German filmmaker Ute Aurand – who has previously shown her films in important festivals in cities such as Berlin, Hong Kong, Mar del Plata, New York, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Vienna – will travel to Brazil for the first time to present her works in 16mm and to speak with audiences about her working methods. The activities involving Aurand will include a tribute screening of recently digitized short films by the Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait, an important reference for Aurand’s work.
The following original essay about the relationship between Aurand and Tait was written by Sarah Neely, Professor of Film and Visual Culture at the University of Glasgow. Her publications include
Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (published by the Peter Lang Group in 2017) and, as an editor, Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings (Carcanet, 2012) and Margaret Tait’s book Personae (LUX, 2020). From 2018 to 2019 she served as the director of Margaret Tait 100 , a year-long program of events celebrating the centenary of Tait’s birth.
- Aaron Cutler and Mariana Shellard (curators of the Mutual Films Session)

These passing instants: The films of Ute Aurand and Margaret Tait
Let me tell you: I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant - now so fleeting that it’s already gone because it’s already become a new instant – now that’s also already gone. Everything has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space.
- Clarice Lispector
, Água Viva[1]
Pulsating, fragmentary and fleeting – the blush pink flesh tones of a series of muted images opening Ute Aurand’s film Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 (2020) are intermittently pulled into focus to reveal a variety of roses, presumably from the garden of the Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait (1918-99). The mobile camera zooms in and out, with each movement, each shot offering fresh perspective and perhaps even the false promise of catching the flowers’ scent. The silent film, commissioned on the occasion of the centenary of Tait’s birth, is comprised of images that were shot when Aurand visited Tait at her home in Orkney, an archipelago off of the North-eastern coast of Scotland.
The German filmmaker and curator Aurand (1957-present) first encountered Tait’s work in 1992, when the film Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964) was screened in Berlin as part of a programme of films presented by the London Film-Makers’ Co-op.[2] After she received encouragement from a friend who thought that the personal and poetic style of Tait’s filmmaking would appeal to her, Aurand visited the Co-op to view its collection of Tait’s films. She then returned to Berlin with a few prints that she used for her own study, as well as for purposes of exhibiting and distributing Tait’s work more widely. In 1994, as part of a series held at the Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V. of films made by women filmmakers, Aurand put together a programme of Tait’s films, which was shown first in Berlin and then later in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt. (A few years later, Aurand was able to acquire six prints of Tait’s films for the Arsenal’s distribution department.)
By the time that Aurand visited Tait in Orkney, a sense of mutual admiration had been established. My first encounter with Aurand was through Tait’s archive, when I was undertaking research for a book I was writing on Tait.[3] As I looked through the many files of correspondence documenting Tait’s life-long struggle to seek the necessary assistance for funding and distributing her work, Aurand’s letters stood out to me for their offering of genuine support and solidarity. Back in the 1950s, when Tait had returned to Scotland after studying filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, her expectations had been to make films on a large scale – as Aurand described in an interview, not “like the lonely poet or the lonely artist, but like a filmmaker”.[4] Only a few weeks before her death in 1999, Tait expressed gratitude in a letter to Aurand for having “done more than anyone else for my films, showing them, introducing new audiences to them, even getting me revenue.”[5]
During the Orkney visit, Tait showed Aurand some of her films that weren’t held by the Co-op, as well as unfinished work, including some rushes featuring poppies, which Aurand encouraged her to develop into what would become her last film, Garden Pieces (1999). Whilst in Orkney, the two also began working on a project responding to a rough outline of a script Tait had produced called Video Poems for the 90s.[6] They took their Bolexes and began filming. As Aurand recalled, “We didn’t finish the film poems, but it was an unforgettable beginning…with no end”.[7] The film was indeed never finished, although attempts were made to continue it by sharing new sections by post as they were being filmed.
The films, the programmes, the letters are all part of a conversation, something that the filmmaker Peter Todd often refers to as “a dialogue”. It is also likely that the openness and immediacy of the works of Aurand and Tait themselves inspire this kind of engagement. Aurand has recalled her early experiences as a filmmaker of being inspired by Jonas Mekas’ style of filmmaking, which has, she says, a quality that is both “intimate and private […] and speaking to the whole world.”[8] Similarly, she has described watching Robert Beavers’ film The Stoas (1997) and experiencing a sense of entering “a space beyond the images where one is entirely in oneself and simultaneously in the world. Where one no longer speaks; where one is simply present and receives the full gift of the film.”[9]
Both Tait and Aurand have often referred to their films as gifts. These are sometimes gifts for the friends and family members that the artists are filming, but they are also ultimately gifts for the viewer – an offering. This generosity of spirit is apparent in a shared style of filmmaking, one that is both inward and outward-looking, and one which invites the viewer to wholly engage in the world being filmed – to join the filmmakers in their pursuit of the passing instants.
In a letter to Tait’s husband, Alex Pirie, Aurand writes of “these little moments together creating a feeling, a place of Empfindungen [in English, “sensations”], this invisible something without any proof…”.[10] This is what also marked Tait’s work with what Pirie described as a ‘poetry of presence.’[11] It is a plea for giving attention to the everyday moments passing easily with each passing breath, yet that within themselves contain multitudes – the “fireworks” that Clarice Lispector describes which “explode silently in space.” For both Aurand and Tait, this is what is at stake in their films.
Clarice Lispector’s writing was first brought to my attention after the publication of Tait’s experimental non-fiction work, Personae [12]. While it is uncertain if the Scottish filmmaker and poet was aware of the work of the celebrated Ukrainian-Brazilian writer, their stream-of-consciousness styles of life writing at times bear uncanny resemblances. Tait wrote the bulk of Personae in 1959, but it remained unpublished during her lifetime. Lispector’s Água Viva, published in 1973, is, like Personae, dedicated to rendering the full experience of everyday life – all the richness of detail, both ordinary and extraordinary. Whereas Lispector writes of the fireworks in the instant, Tait writes about her commitment to a kind of raw poetry akin to Lorca’s idea of “blood poetry”, of poetry which matches “the sun’s movement to the movement of oneself”, of “interstellar space” and the “stars in the blood”.[13]
Tait and Aurand’s films hold much in common with Tait and Lispector’s styles of writing: Through their commitment to registering the fullness of the passing instant, to acknowledging the poetry in the everyday, and to valuing that poetry’s potential to pull both inwards and outwards.
In Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995, a handful of moments from Aurand’s visit to Tait’s home are offered in expanded form. The changes in focus and staccato editing emphasise the fleeting nature of experience and pay homage to Marie Menken’s film Glimpse of the Garden (1957), which is referenced in Aurand’s title. They also alert us to pay attention, to concentrate, to keep our eyes open and avoid missing the images that quickly flash across the screen. Aurand intercuts the film’s different segments with a series of monochromatic screens which dissolve into a variety of colours. This device interrupts our ability to discern the subject being filmed and calls attention to the preciousness of the film material itself. It also provides the viewer with an experiential sense of the way that memories are processed.
Towards the end of Glimpses, we finally catch sight of Margaret Tait. Although halfway through the film we have briefly seen what might be Tait’s hands, first writing on a chalkboard, then turning over pages in a book. It is not until the very end that we see Tait in her studio, seated at a table set for lunch, pouring a cup of tea – first for her visitor, and then for herself. She looks to the camera, smiles, and then the screen goes black – a sudden jolt, a fleeting glimpse, a passing instant.

Sarah Neely
Glasgow, August 2022

[1] Trans. Stefan Tobler, ed. Benjamin Moser (Penguin Modern Classics, 1973/2014), p. 3.
[2] Interview with Ute Aurand, June 19th, 2011.
[3] Sarah Neely, Between Categories - The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (Oxford: Peter Lang Group, 2017).
[4] Interview with Ute Aurand, reflecting on exchanges with Tait, June 19th, 2011.
[5] Letter from Margaret Tait to Ute Aurand, March 23rd, 1999. Published in Garbiñe Ortega (ed.), Cartas como películas/ Letters as Films (Pamplona: Punto de Vista/ La Fabrica, 2021), p. 26. It’s worth noting that, in the same letter, Tait also mentions the support of filmmaker and curator Peter Todd, who had been showing her films in London.
[6] Margaret Tait, “Video Poems for the 90s”. Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings, ed. Sarah Neely (Manchester: Carcanet, 2012).
[7] Ute Aurand in Peter Todd (ed.), “Remembering Margaret Tait (1918-1999): Annabel Nicolson, Peter Todd, Ute Aurand and Sarah Wood”. Vertigo, vol. 2, no. 7, 2004. Accessed by the author through the link Remembering Margaret Tait (1918-1999) on July 30th, 2022.
[8] Ute Aurand, “How I began to film”. Garbiñe Ortega and Maria Placios Cruz (eds.), Meditaciones sobre el presente: Ute Aurand, Helga Fanderl, Jeannette Muñoz, Renate Sami (Punto de Vista, 2020), pp. 138-9.
[9] Ibid., p. 139.
[10] Letter from Ute Aurand to Alex Pirie, March 1996. Published in Garbiñe Ortega (ed.), Cartas como películas/ Letters as Films (Pamplona: Punto de Vista/ La Fabrica, 2021), pp. 57-8.
[11] Interview with Alex Pirie, September 1st, 2006.
[12] Margaret Tait, Personae. Ed. Sarah Neely (London: LUX, 2020).
[13] Ibid., p. 57.