The Changing Light at Craneway

The Changing Light at Craneway

In the film projects of Tacita Dean, everything is just about to disappear.


The current exhibition at the Guggenheim, "Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance" (through September 6), is a grab bag of works from the museum’s collection that left me wondering about the point of its title. Few of the pieces seem obviously haunted or haunting. On the contrary, anything manifesting too vividly the possibility of an unseen reality has been avoided, despite the fact that photography has been used to visualize the spirit world nearly since the invention of the camera, as we were reminded in 2005 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cleverly titled exhibition "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult." William Mumler made the first spirit photographs in the 1860s; the Cottingley Fairies that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle were photographed in 1917. And people are still arguing about the "thoughtographs" Ted Serios purportedly produced by purely psychic means in the 1960s.

You don’t need to be a spiritualist to be interested in photography’s affinity for ghosts, but it helps to be willing to imagine why someone might take the idea of spirits seriously. The curators of "Haunted," Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, are unwilling to do that. Strangely, the art they prefer is mostly dry and theory-driven and doesn’t want to think too hard about the unknowable. Chronologically, the show begins with works from 1963 by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Could JFK be the specter that haunts this show? Maybe, but section titles like "Appropriation and the Archive" and "Documentation and Reiteration" promise only another rehearsal of the post-Minimalist, post-Conceptual, academically approved mainstream of art since the ’60s. Not too many ghosts or fairies linger about the water towers that Bernd and Hilla Becher have photographed with such perfect clarity and detachment. The shadows in which weird folk might lurk have been banished. Nor does Sarah Charlesworth’s series "Herald Tribune November 1977"—twenty-six photographs of the newspaper’s front pages for the month, but with the text expunged, leaving only the banner and pictures—seem terribly otherworldly. A work of ideology critique, raising questions about how the news media use images to construct a mythology of the present, it doesn’t have much truck with the uncanny.

Meanwhile, a host of contemporary photographic and other art overtly concerned with the supernatural has been left out. I had expected to see all of Rachel Harrison’s "Perth Amboy Series" (2001), photographs of the window of a house in New Jersey where the image of the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared: hands reach out fervently to touch the miraculous pane of glass. And where are Francesca Woodman’s photographs of herself blurring into or out of her surroundings? I don’t think I’ve ever read a description of those pictures in which the writer has been able to avoid using the word "ghostly." "Haunted" may not be entirely bereft of anything numinous—the shadowy, downward-drifting wreckage in Paul Chan’s flash animation projection 6th Light (2007) is eerie enough to qualify—but the atmosphere is not conducive to its manifestation.

Blessing and Trotman see things differently. Of Charlesworth’s series, for instance, they write that today’s viewer "experiences a certain pathos in seeing the smiling faces of figures that are now long gone, symbolizing the collective loss of memory that occurs over time." It’s true that all photographs, insofar as they capture a slice of a determinate moment in time, present something that is always becoming increasingly lost to us even as we look at it, and that every portrait is the portrait of someone who will subsequently die. "In front of the photograph of my mother as a child," Roland Barthes famously wrote, "I tell myself: she is going to die." One could say the same of anyone whose face happens to have been featured on the front page in 1977. But by this criterion, all photographs are haunted, and to abide by it is to deny oneself any basis for curatorial judgment.

While "Haunted" is a ho-hum show on a promising theme, it’s still worth trudging up the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp. Not only does it include some good, if rather familiar, work by mostly quite prominent artists—I greeted pieces by Joan Jonas, Annette Messager, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gillian Wearing and others as old friends—but it saves the best for last. At the top you’ll find Tacita Dean’s six-screen color film installation of 2008, whose entirely self-explanatory title is Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films). Cage, who died in 1992, was Cunningham’s life partner for nearly fifty years; 4’33" was his most notorious composition, the one that gave a new meaning to the expression "more heard about than heard." Cunningham died last year at 90.

Born in Canterbury in 1965, but for some time now resident in Berlin, Dean is one of a number of British artists who, in the 1990s, fomented a revival of film as a medium for artists (among the others the most prominent are Isaac Julien and Steve McQueen). In the interwar period artists had dabbled in celluloid, particularly those in the orbit of Dada and Surrealism: Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema appeared in 1926, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart in 1936. Film came to the fore again in the ’60s with artists like Warhol and Michael Snow, but by the ’70s most artists with an interest in the moving image had abandoned film in favor of video. By the time they began to reclaim film in the ’90s, it had accrued a somewhat retro patina that undoubtedly contributed to people’s fascination with it. Dean’s work often has an elegiac tone, which is enhanced by her use of celluloid, a waning medium.

Her installation is on a very different scale from anything else in "Haunted." You might think you’d wandered into a whole other exhibition, for STILLNESS, as I’ll call it, sweeps you up into its own heady atmosphere in a way that the rest of "Haunted" pointedly refuses to do. More than that, it could take you a while to realize you’re looking at films. For a minute I thought these were slide projections, so still—"unimaginably still," as Dean has said—does the great dancer and choreographer hold himself. But no, this is film, and its stillness is the dance most appropriate to Cage’s silent music. Like many classical works, 4’33" is in three movements; when Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, gives the signal for the end of a movement—a word that in this context has a rather ironic ring to it—Cunningham changes position and you know you’re watching a movie. And while it’s hard to accept silence-as-music as more than a hypothesis, he embodies stillness-as-dancing with such fierce concentration that the idea becomes irrefutable.

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.

Craneway Event is pure Dean in style: widescreen (like most of her longer pieces, such as Boots, though not short ones like STILLNESS), static camera, no voiceover or music, a soundtrack that gives equal rights to seemingly random background sounds and human speech, an exquisite sensitivity to the changing qualities of light. It shows Cunningham rehearsing his company for a performance to be given in Craneway Pavilion, a former industrial building on San Francisco Bay, built in 1930 as a Ford assembly plant, from which cars could be craned directly onto waiting freighters. Its windows are so massive, the place could almost be a giant greenhouse. The linear architectural skeleton functions as an abstract container for the light that permeates it and the people who pass through it. The weather must have been extraordinarily changeable over the three days in which Dean filmed (beginning on election day 2008), because the constant variations in light from bright to dark and back again could give the impression that the work covers a longer stretch of time.

And just as it seems to span more time than it really does, Craneway Event seems to encompass vast space. The double-width format Dean often uses lends itself to this effect, in any case, but I’ve never seen another work of hers exploit it so fully. So much is going on at any one time. The image has no stable center; any point within this long rectangle might be at the corner of your eye. Even as Cunningham might be working with one group of dancers, others are warming up or practicing moves alone or in pairs or trios. Things happen in flurries here and there—all this small, sudden, fluid, fluttering activity—while elsewhere there is near-stasis. Simultaneities occur that are random and yet filled with intentionality—a quintessence of the Cunningham/Cage aesthetic. I kept thinking of Pie, Dean’s brief 2003 film of magpies flocking around some trees at dusk, and of the sense I had that there is a pattern to their unpredictable movements but one that could never be reconstructed. At stake, as the art historian and critic Briony Fer put it, is not the patterns of the birds’ movements "so much as the patterns of our viewing habits"—how we make sense of coincidence.

Cunningham must have had a superbly developed sense of how to perceive separate movements both simultaneously and as a constellation. He is very much the witness within the film. He never dominates—or rather, he dominates in the most understated possible way. Clearly, the dancers already have a deep implicit understanding of what it is they are supposed to do. He has no need to remind them why. I couldn’t help but think, by contrast, of the tension Calvin Tomkins witnessed while following the preparation of a new Cunningham piece in the ’60s: there were scenes of dancers breaking down in tears at their inability to execute difficult new moves. There’s nothing like that in Craneway Event. Sitting in his wheelchair instructing his company, Cunningham speaks in brief, economical phrases, never philosophizing, never waxing lyrical. His observations are technical and mostly mean no more to a layman like me than, say, a mechanic’s advice to a colleague about why an engine is running badly would to someone who doesn’t drive. Yet over the course of 108 minutes, something seems gradually to cohere. Not that the dance takes on an overt and final shape on which the viewer can get an overview, but this multiplicity of movements grows more and more concerted.

At heart, Cage’s aesthetic constitutes a plea that we pay more attention with greater equanimity to things as they occur—to sound, for example—without our habitual urge to form or transform them in the image of our will or desire. What Germaine Greer once wrote of Boots seems to be an apt observation of all of Dean’s work: "The artist is on one level demanding and directing an extraordinary degree of attention and on another absenting herself altogether." Cage would have approved. But Cunningham, as steeped in this aesthetic as he was, also saw its limitations. He told Tomkins he could not employ chance in performance because, for one thing, the dancers might crash into one another and injure themselves. We can never be as laissez-faire with living bodies as we can with things like sounds. Our care for one another precludes the suspension of will and desire.

For Dean the camera may be an instrument of detachment, but its impassivity in the face of life is poignant because time witnesses the wreckage of human projects (many of her films center on disused or abandoned buildings) and the failure of human bodies. "All the things I am attracted to are just about to disappear, more or less," Dean once told the writer Marina Warner. I admit it gives me the willies, a bit, when I think about how all these old men disappeared so soon after Dean filmed them—Cunningham, Merz, Hamburger and the old family friend nicknamed Boots. Their fragility must have been part of what fascinated her, yet in the films she never sets out to expose their weakness, their weariness, their pain. Her camera never pries below the surface of things: the surface is enough. In looking at Cunningham and the rest, she is not looking for signs of their mortality. Mortality is implicit in time itself—in the shivering of a branch when a bird alights on it, in the ripening of an apple, in the stillness or motion of a dancer’s limbs, in the changing quality of light.

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