Tacita Dean

Tacita Dean’s new film, Craneway Event, 2009, is a 108-minute edit of a three-day rehearsal that Merce Cunningham led with his dance company in late 2008. Set in a disused factory on San Francisco Bay, the film pays unabashed homage to the late, then eighty-nine-year-old dance legend, who directs from a wheelchair with immense dignity. He is ever attentive and respectful toward his accomplished dancers, who move in silhouette against a wall of vast industrial windows overlooking a busy port. Behind the dancers ferryboats drift by; a pelican flies past. The sun rises and sets on these quietly productive days of rehearsal.

The dancers are like faceless bodies animating the shadows; only Cunningham is given recognizability. At one point his head seems framed by a halo created by the illuminated fuzz of his gray hair. The expanse of windows forming the long interior facade—well served by the elongated 16-mm film format—is punctuated by concrete columns of almost classical proportions. Lithe bodies in dance emerge almost magically among the columns and move in unexpected directions across the full width of the screen. In effect, Dean mimics a certain outmoded, mid-twentieth-century high-modernist aesthetic; figures curve against the rigorous grid of the factory architecture in the way that voluptuous, 1950s-era outdoor Henry Moore figurative sculptures contrasted with the severe steel-and-glass structures rising around them.

The California factory, a former Ford assembly plant, was built in the 1930s by Albert Kahn, best known for his Detroit architectural firm that boomed in that city’s heyday. Like so many twentieth-century buildings that have failed to survive as ruins, being subjected either to demolition or development, a great number of Kahn’s industrial buildings have perished, unable to reinvent themselves in post-Fordist Detroit as, say, shimmering modern dance spaces—or art museums, like the London power station reborn as Tate Modern. Kahn’s factory may yet be passed on to posterity only thanks to Dean’s loving eye, which habitually languishes in adoration on a single perfect view. Whatever the future holds for this building, its magnificent, unencumbered modernist interior, shining in bright white daylight or aflame in a coppery-gold sunset, is forever preserved in Craneway Event. Indeed, the work preserves much that Dean fears is being irrecoverably lost in her own time—the quiet, assured teaching style of the important pioneer Cunningham, and, symbolically, a whole generation of avant-garde practice—in a medium that is itself on the verge of extinction in the digital age: 16-mm film, echoing Dean’s homage to celluloid film in Kodak, 2006.

Like the gold-tinged Soviet-era parliament building in Dean’s Palast, 2004, empty and doomed to demolition in modern-day Berlin, this Ford-era building seems to glow with a patina of the bygone ideology that once gave it life. Dean’s almost-ruins are oddly reminiscent of Piranesi’s imaginary ones: Both look longingly at the past and yet open new formal possibilities for the future—a staggeringly modern, infinite space in Piranesi’s art; and in Craneway Event, an art practice that combines in an unprecedented way moving and still images to capture a late-modernist culture on the brink of disappearing. In today’s culture, unable to preserve the relics—both mortal and architectural—of the last century, Dean’s film offers another means of reclaiming and displaying overlapping moments of our recent past.

Gilda Williams