"For me," Tacita Dean recently stated, "making a film is connected to the idea of loss and disappearance." In her art, loss is registered variously - not only loss of the subject to history but also loss of the very mediums she uses to make her work. Dean is committed to analogue as opposed to new digital technologies, a preference largely determined by aesthetic concerns, in that film has certain qualities not found in newer media: detail, depth of field, luminosity, saturated hues. While treasuring its formal traits, she is also attentive to its affective potential; a sense of time past almost inevitably pervades film, as it does black-and-white still photography.
Loss informs various registers of her latest project, 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). There is poignancy in watching Cunningham interpret what is arguably the signature work of his long-time collaborator and partner, John Cage. First presented in 1952 by the pianist David Tudor, Cage’s once-notorious piece assumes a new guise in the celebrated choreographer’s rendering. From its debut, Cage’s radical composition was acclaimed for shifting the focus from the performer to the audience, who, in the absence of musical sound, may become alert to the serendipitous ambient noises that occur over the duration of the piece’s three silent movements.
For Cunningham, dance is best defined as movement in space and time. In STILLNESS, he creates a counterpart to Cage’s silence. On each of the six different occasions that Dean recorded, collaborator Trevor Carlson indicates the tacets, or divisions, that create the work’s empty time structure, prompting Cunningham to assume a series of fixed postures. Viewers become sensitized to chance occurrences within the recorded image, such as a shadow’s flicker across the studio floor or the flutter of an eyelid, or even slight movements of the projector as the film scrolls through it. An uninterrupted flow binds actual space to its illusory and reflected counterparts, and ambient recorded sound overlays the live sounds of the galleries; out of this emerges a haunting equivalent to the original composition.
Of course, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS also functions as a portrait, one of several Dean has made over the past decade of venerable artists and poets. In disposing across Dia:Beacon’s vast basement the six differently sized screens, each displaying the former dancer on a one-to-one scale, this young British artist creates a spatiotemporal choreography of her own, a fitting homage to one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.