At the Fabric Workshop, six screens float in an edgeless darkness, producing an effect similar to the “Phantom Zone” two-dimensional prison as portrayed in Superman II. (Here's the Phantom Zone, in case you haven't watched that cinematic gem lately.)
Suspended in each screen is an old man sitting motionless in a chair in front of a mirrored dance studio. The only sound in the dark room is film projectors clicking away, illuminating a moving picture that isn’t moving.
The man on screen in Tacita Dean’s 16mm film installation is Merce Cunningham, a man best known for being in motion. The American dancer and choreographer, along with his longtime partner and collaborator composer John Cage, was at the forefront of the American avant-garde for nearly half a century. He wasn’t known for being inert — he appeared in every performance by his dance company until he was 70, and continued to perform until his death in 2009 at age 90.
But Cunningham isn’t just sitting in these recordings, done at the request of Dean. He’s performing inaction in the films, titled — deep breath — 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), 2008.
The dance work is, as the Fiona Apple-esque title suggests, set to Cage’s famous 4’33”, a composition in three movements in which the musician is instructed not to play for four minutes and 33 seconds.
4’33” is often the punch line of jokes about the avant-garde — people often perceive it as a sort of artistic
“Gotcha!” on the part of Cage, passing off nothing as something. In fact, a live performance is a meditation-like experience in which audience members slowly become acutely aware of the ambient noise of the room and people around them.
Cage, who had been dead nearly two decades at the time of the recording, composed this piece for a musician who does not play. Cunningham’s parallel choreography is for a dancer who does not move. It’s devastatingly beautiful.
Born in England and now living in Berlin, Dean explores the possibilities of film with the imagination and obsessive ingenuity that marked the infant medium in the late 1880s. Fabric Workshop is the closest of two opportunities to see her work in the area right now; the second is JG (pictured above), being screened for the first time at Arcadia University.
For Dean, the medium is a large part of the message. Her work is on film; she utilizes no digital technology, an anachronistic choice that slows down her production. Mistakes are made and analog devices must be invented or rediscovered as the means to create film steadily disappear. The result is relaxing, yet engaging enough that you won’t fall asleep, a little like a waking fever-dream.
STILLNESS and JG represent an important before and after for the artist. STILLNESS was created before Dean discovered a masking technique to let her treat film more like collage and used for the first time in FILM, Dean’s 2011 project for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. (Here's a video of that.)
JG, a journey of discovery inspired by Robert Smithson’s mysterious earthwork Spiral Jetty and the work of writer J.G. Ballard, is much more abstract. It was created using Dean’s aperture-gate-masking method and retains elements of a Kurt-Schwitters-era collage with moving parts and sound.
The film invokes time and space using the alien-looking saline landscapes of Utah and Southern California and an armadillo. The dreamlike effect leaves viewers with the distinct feeling that they now have massive amounts of information that can never be put to any real use, like returning home after a peyote-fueled desert vision quest.
STILLNESS…, through March 17, $3, Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St., 215-561-8888.
JG, through April 21, free, Arcadia University Art Gallery, 450 S. Easton Rd., Glenside, 215-572-2131.