That the frozen of the image is always in part a memento mori is an endlessly complex trope of the last century, because of the parts of the captured subject that remain alive. How various modes of documentation—video of film in conversation with photography, installation work—differ from straight photography is the subject of the Guggenheim’s current survey from its collection, Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance.
MERCE CUNNINGHAM PERFORMS STILLNESS (IN THREE MOVEMENTS) TO JOHN CAGE’S 4’33” WITH TREVOR CARLSON, NEW YORK, APRIL 28, 2007 (2008). INSTALLATION VIEW FROM DIA: BEACON, 2008. IMAGE © DIA ART FOUNDATION, PHOTO BY KEN GOEBEL.
Visitors spiral the museum through four themed sections (“Appropriation and the Archive,” “Documentation and Reiteration,” “Landscape, Architecture, and the Passage of Time,” “Trauma and the Uncanny.”). The exhibition’s touchstones are Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, whose works alone should indicate that the show’s themed categories should be scrambled.
Installed at the exhibition’s summit is Stillness (in Three Movements), six screens featuring 16-mm film projections by British artist Tacita Dean, grouped in the “Documentation and Reiteration” section. In 2007, Dean made the last film of Merce Cunningham at his studio on Bethune Street on the West Side of Manhattan; in three short acts he sits in silence and adopts simple gestures. The installation is encountered as a eulogy, but makes a surprising, vivid end to an exhibition ostensibly about death.
If documentation in the context of performance—setting out to capture impermanence, in perpetuity—is the problem set forth by Haunted, the film preceded the performance.
Dean prepared Stillness (in Three Movements) for the 2007 Manchester International Festival, specifically “Il Tempo del Postino,” a group exhibition featuring 15-minute presentations on a stage. “I really wanted to insert a silence in what was really going to be a very cacophonous male affair,” says Dean, who approached Cunningham about performing to the silent soundtrack of John Cage’s famous 4:33. Hers was the only contribution that approached performance by documentation: “No one told me that it had to be live,” she explains. “I just thought it had to be performative.”
By that time, Cunningham was too fragile to travel anyway, and was no longer performing in front of the camera anymore. He went for the project. She established that the choreographer, not his dancers, should perform. Beyond that, Dean says, “I didn’t know what he was going to do.”
They convened in the smaller of Cunningham’s two studios on Bethune Street, as a class practiced in the other. Cunningham practiced holding three poses for the period of three movements of 4:33. “I didn’t know there were to be three movements-first, 33 seconds; then, 2:40; and the last 1:20,” Dean says. Trevor Carlson, the executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, counted down with a stopwatch, in the manner that Cunningham and Cage had used. “He counted down the times of each movement, which Merce noticed in his peripheral vision somehow without acknowledging it,” remembers Dean. Then the choreographer shifted his pose. Luckily Dean had two cameras, so she didn’t break up the visual.
Cunningham executed the performance six times, in six takes. “I realized I had not just six takes, but six separate performances,” she says. The artist had two cameras, so Dean ended up with two versions of each of the six performances. She chose one from each.
“The beautiful thing was how totally in control he was,” says Dean. “We tend to dismiss the old as being people that are infirm, mentally as well as physically. And of course he wasn’t; he was sharp as a knife.”
Stillness (in Three Movement) was acquired by the Guggenheim, like all the works on view in the present show. Dean says the video was initially about vivacity, although it’s exhibited here in a history of recorded loss: “I didn’t have any input into it. And I see that it’s a weird context for it. Because it’s not really a film about death in any way, but it’s become that. It was a vibrant and brilliant older man taking the stage again.
Dean would make a second film, Craneway Event, with Cunningham, before his death. This time Cunningham was the initiator, although again Dean insisted that her document be a record of incompletion. She recorded Cunningham’s rehearsal process for a performance at CalArts, rather than the final event, for three days.
“And it was an event,” recalls Dean. “He used to make these events out of bits of his choreography and then stage them over often three stages, so he had three stages in this huge, beautiful building, former Ford factory.” 14 actors ran between three stages, in a building on a jetty, surrounded by ships and pelicans. The beauty of the scene deflects the themes of finality implicit in recording one of the seminal choreographer’s final events: “It’s not really a documentary at all, it’s more of an observation.” The film was made for Performa in New York last November, but not in time for Cunningham’s birthday anniversary.
HAUNTED IS ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTMEBER 6 AT THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM.