Apollo Magazine (UK)

The reel thing

- Fatema Ahmed, Acting Editor

In 2009, the artist Tacita Dean completed a long film about the choreograp­her Merce Cunningham, to follow another, shorter one she had made two years before. For one hour and 48 minutes, Craneway Event (Fig. 1) observes the Merce Cunningham Dance Company rehearsing over the course of three days in the former Ford Motor Factory in Richmond, California – a craneway being the part of a factory where the raw materials are unloaded, and an ‘event’ being Cunningham’s term for the performanc­es he would regularly put on in non-theatrical spaces, from the Piazza San Marco in Venice to the Park Avenue Armory in New York. In 2010, when the film was shown in the galleries representi­ng Dean’s work, I watched it through twice in one sitting (it was a year in which I had rather more time). What had drawn me to the film in the first place was its subject. Before Dean had finished cutting the film together, Merce Cunningham had died and the Company was about to embark on its farewell tour, prior to disbanding according to its founder’s wishes. What made me stay is the fact that Dean’s film is not so much a documentar­y as a sympatheti­c commentary on Cunningham’s methods and what seems like an almost telepathic rapport with the dancers.

It can sometimes seem unsophisti­cated, even reductive, to be drawn to art simply because of its subject. In her essay, ‘Against Interpreta­tion’ (1977), Susan Sontag argues against ‘reducing the work of art to its content’, to make it easier ‘for arrangemen­t into a mental scheme of categories’. But Dean’s achievemen­t in Craneway Event and in her other, more direct portraits of visual artists, such as David Hockney, Mario Merz and, most recently, the painter Luchita Hurtado talking to a much younger practition­er, Julie Mehretu, is to make her subjects matter in new ways, to make them harder to categorise by the end of the film than they were before. This she achieves through her mastery of her chosen medium: 16mm film. The medium – a word Dean insists on when she talks to Robert Barry for this issue (see Feature, pp. 42–47) – is responsibl­e for the watchful, painterly quality of her work and for the attentiven­ess of the fixed takes (partly determined by the shortness of the film reels) by which her camera seems to slow the passing of time. Thanks to its abandonmen­t by the cinema industry, however, analogue film – and, crucially, the means by which to process it – is in grave danger of becoming extinct; a state of affairs Dean has been campaignin­g against with great energy for a decade.

Jasper Johns, an artist who is often described as ‘famously taciturn’ – perhaps he is too busy thinking about his next artistic move to enjoy giving interviews – has sometimes been more forthcomin­g about the peers he admires. In 1968, for instance, he told Newsweek, ‘Merce is my favorite artist in any field’ and he was the company’s artistic adviser from 1967 to 1980. As a monumental, two-part survey of Johns’s painting and sculpture runs at both the Philadelph­ia Museum of Art and the Whitney in New York (see pp. 90–91), one can’t help thinking that Tacita Dean, who has referred to what she calls ‘my history with old men!’, might be just the artist to record his restless spirit.

 ?? ?? 1. Still from Craneway Event, 2009, Tacita Dean (b. 1965), 16mm colour anamorphic film, optical sound, 1 hour 48 mins
1. Still from Craneway Event, 2009, Tacita Dean (b. 1965), 16mm colour anamorphic film, optical sound, 1 hour 48 mins

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