The Changing Light at Craneway
At the Guggenheim it is impossible to enter the space where any of the six films are projected without walking between a projector and a screen—that is, without casting a shadow on the image. I'm not sure that this is something the artist intended. STILLNESS was previously exhibited at Dia:Beacon, in what must have been a quite different configuration for a very different kind of space, and reviews of that version mention nothing about viewers' shadows. But the intervention of the shadows in this installation struck me profoundly. They constitute a second level of projection in the work, and one that both Cunningham and Cage would have appreciated—an opening for chance into the seemingly fixed nature of film.
Cage himself, after all, had been greatly inspired by Rauschenberg's white paintings of 1951, works in which all one could see beyond the simple presence of the paintings was the changing light of the space in which they hung, "so that one could look at them," as Rauschenberg later said, "and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast." More lyrically, Cage called them "airports for the lights, shadows, and particles." I've never been quite convinced by this view of the Rauschenberg paintings. Their sheer neutrality arguably makes them less responsive to light than a good many other paintings. But taking a similar view of Dean's STILLNESS made immediate sense to me. The installation accords an active role to the light of the projector as an element in itself. And besides, the shadow becomes a much more notable presence when we experience it as interfering with something than when it simply lands on a blank, passive surface; in this case, it is the image of Cunningham performing his stillness that one's shadow partly eclipses. And as far as the theme of "haunting" goes, here it is the living whose shadows haunt the image of the dancer now dead—he who in the seemingly simple act of holding still radiated life in a way that one can only envy.
Cunningham is only the most recent in a series of elderly men whom Dean has been drawn to as subjects. In 2002 she filmed the Italian sculptor Mario Merz, then 77. As with Cunningham in STILLNESS, the film shows Merz just sitting, though not exactly still and not exactly silent. He rests quietly in a chair under a tree, occasionally speaking softly in Italian, seemingly half to himself although at times directly addressing an off-screen interlocutor. Even if you know the language, it can be hard to make out what he's saying. "The weather that afternoon was fickle," Dean would later recall, "casting Mario into deep shade and bright illumination. He joked, chatted and pronounced, and picked his teeth, while observing the scene like a canny old lion with the sun catching his mane. Only at one point did he become more ruminative, when three funeral bells started to toll from the square. Asking if they were bells for the dead, someone replied they were festival bells but he wasn't fooled." Unforgettable is the simplicity with which Merz's willingness to do nothing but be present with the weather and other people and the unmoving camera is matched by the film's willingness to do nothing but be present with him and whatever he is present to.
STILLNESS and Mario Merz might be thought of as two parts of a triptych whose third panel is another portrait of an artistic elder. In 2007 Dean was commissioned to make a work for an exhibition of artists' responses to the writing of W.G. Sebald. Instead of approaching the writer's work directly, she made a film about a friend of Sebald's, likewise German-born, whom the novelist wrote about and in some way ventriloquized in The Rings of Saturn. But Dean is only as indirect as her subject turns out to be. In Michael Hamburger the distinguished eponymous poet and translator is seen and heard talking, not of his literary accomplishments or of those things in his family history that preoccupied Sebald, namely Hamburger's experience as a Jew who had to flee the Nazis in 1933, when he was 9, bearing, as Sebald wrote, "the fears and anxieties of the family as they travelled toward the unknown." Instead Hamburger speaks at length of the apples he likes to grow on his property in Suffolk. Actually, these had caught the Sebald's eye too: he "looked on these apples which shone through the half-light much as the golden apples likened in Proverbs to a word fitly spoken." Like Mario Merz, the film is as much about light (and half-light) and weather—there's even a rainbow—as about the person who experiences them.
Dean has made another, much more elaborate piece with an elderly man, this one a triptych in itself, although in this case it's less clear that it can be said to be about the man. Rather, it's about a building. Boots (2003) must have been shot just before Mario Merz, because Dean has said it was the first time a person had appeared in one of her films—her previous works had showed places without people. The work consists of three films, or three versions of the same film, projected simultaneously in adjoining rooms. In each of them a man walking on two canes wanders through an eerily empty Art Deco villa reminiscing about events that took place there long ago, but in each version he tells his vague, fragmented story in a different language—English, French or German. Are these his true memories, lies or fiction? It's impossible to tell; but this "Boots" is clearly a slippery character, louche in a very cosmopolitan way, who seems to quietly pride himself on a hyper-sophistication that's not a little bit creepy. And hearing him repeat his tale three times only heightens the sense of artifice. (It's interesting to learn that the three versions were not filmed separately; Dean has explained that "Boots" kept switching between languages as he spoke and that only when she started trying to edit her footage did the idea of making three separate films occur to her.) Given that the work is essentially a tour of the house, it's notable that Dean's camera (as usual in her work) never moves; it changes position from shot to shot but always maintains a sort of monumental stillness. In the end, only the building seems real, the man just a wraith who haunts it.
STILLNESS was made in an afternoon. Six takes were done and turned out to be the six versions of 4'33" that make up the installation—like the decision to break up the Boots footage into three parts, evidence of the spontaneity underlying the somber, almost stolid sobriety of Dean's vision. But Dean had not seen enough of Cunningham. Luckily, she was able to work with him once more, on her first feature-length film, Craneway Event (2009), recently shown at the Frith Street Gallery in London (and at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris through July 23). If the phrase "feature-length" conjures up something with a plot, or even just something like a conventional documentary—well, remember, this is an artist's film, so adjust your expectations accordingly. "I refuse to have my films shown in cinemas because they're just inappropriate and wrong," Dean has said. "They are works for galleries." In the case of Craneway Event, I longed for the more comfortable seating and higher-quality sound that might have been afforded by a theater. Precisely the things that make the film so different from anything you'd be likely to see in a movie theater—its slow pace, lack of linear development and so on—would be easier for viewers to accommodate themselves to if everything else was less spartan.