Tacita was born in Canterbury in 1965. She was educated at Kent College, Canterbury. Her brother is Ptolemy Dean, the architect. She studied at Falmouth School of Art, graduating in 1988. From 1990–2, Dean studied for a Masters degree at the Slade School of Fine Art. Dean held her first solo exhibition The Martyrdom of St Agatha and Other Stories, at Galerija Skuc, Maribor, Slovenia. Since then, her rise to prominence on the national and international scene has been prodigious. She exhibited widely throughout the 1990s and, following her 1996 film Disappearance at Sea was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998. In 2001 she was given a solo show at Tate Britain. In 2000 Dean was awarded a one-year German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship to Berlin, where she continues to live and work. 2006 saw the most comprehensive retrospective of her work to date, ‘Analogue', held at Schaulager Basel. In 2009 the Nicola Trussardi Foundation has presented Still Life, Tacita Dean’s first major solo exhibition in Italy, on the first floor (piano nobile) of Palazzo Dugnani, a historic building in the centre of Milan. The exhibition has presented a selection of fourteen works, including the world premiere of two films commissioned and produced by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation: Still Life and Day for Night, filmed in the Bolognese studio of painter Giorgio Morandi.
Dean is best known for her work in 16mm film, although she utilises a variety of media including drawing, photography and sound. Her films often employ long takes and steady camera angles to create a contemplative atmosphere. Her anamorphic films are shot by cinematographers John Adderley and Jamie Cairney. She has also published several pieces of her own writing, which she refers to as 'asides,' which complement her visual work. Since the mid-1990s her films have not included commentary, but are instead accompanied by often understated optical sound tracks.
Especially during the 1990s, the sea was a persistent theme in Dean's work. Perhaps most famously, she explored the tragic maritime misadventures of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur English sailor whose ambition to enter a race to solo circumnavigate the globe ended in deception, existential crisis and, eventually, tragedy . Dean has made a number of films and blackboard drawings relating to the Crowhurst story, exploiting the metaphorical richness of such motifs as the ocean, lighthouses and shipwrecks.
Since moving to Berlin in 2000, Dean has devoted more attention to the architecture and cultural history of Germany. She has made films of such iconic structure as the Berliner Fernsehturm and the Palast der Republik. Recent projects have concerned important figures in post-war German cultural history, such as W.G. Sebald and Joseph Beuys. She continues to live and work in Berlin.