Last week I went to see Tacita Dean’s film Craneway Event at the Frith Street Gallery in London (which these days is not in Frith Street but in Golden Square). There are lots of reasons why I enjoy going to see films in art galleries: the films are free, you can stay and watch them over as many times as you want (or walk in and out as much as you like), people bring babies in buggies and no-one shushes them (art-lovers are a tolerant bunch). Above all, there is something about watching films outside of their usual institutional contexts that revives the magical possibility of viewing the film frame as a window on the world.
Dean’s quiet and contemplative films document the passing of modernity and its obsolete visions of the future: Donald Crowhurst’s beached and rotting trimaran with its fake high tech fittings and secret compartments, a futuristic bubble house fallen into disrepair before it was ever completed, sound mirrors at Dungeness standing like ancient monuments to forgotten gods, a communist palace of the people, awaiting demolition.
Dean’s films fall into two major groups, more or less landscapes and portraits: films about places, usually empty and dilapidated buildings, and films about people, typically elderly artists whose work has inspired her. Craneway Event brings these two forms together: it is a film about the choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and about a modernist building, the former Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California, a classic piece of art deco industrial design. With a leisurely pace, the film follows a rehearsal for a performance in the building, through three days in November 2008.
The building, glazed on three sides and situated on San Francisco bay, offers plenty of opportunities for the kind of chance conjunction that Cunningham was interested in. Birds, shipping traffic and the occasional human passerby join the corps de ballet. But it is the continually changing light that has the most profound effect on the dance, turning the polished floor into a shining expanse of blue water or dissolving the dancers’ bodies into a haze of golden light, making them appear as weightless as the dancers in Maya Deren’s The Very Eye of Night (1958), the sidereal dance film she made with choreographer Antony Tudor.
On the third afternoon, Cunningham falls asleep in his wheelchair while the dancers work on in the glow of the late afternoon. The film is graded to an autumnal palette that subtly registers Cunningham’s nearness to the end of his life. He died the following summer, while Dean was editing the film. Dean’s films are not simply about past time or obsolescence but about anachronism – time out of time. Temporality is keyed to spatiality. The architectural films emphasize the hollowness of space, encouraging us to read the frame as a portal through which we could enter other times and spaces, but the portraits emphasize the solid volume of the body, occupying a singular space and time on which the viewer could not presume to trespass. Combining the two spatio-temporal logics, Craneway Event is a moving testament to the mortality of the artist and the endurance of art.