Several times a week, I sneak downstairs to watch dancers rehearse with Merce Cunningham. I work at a nonprofit located in the New Museum and its current Tacita Dean exhibition includes Craneway Event, a 108-minute film of the choreographer at work in an enormous former assembly plant outside San Francisco. A postcard vista of the bay glistens in the background. As the sun creeps in, it warms the reflective surface of the floor to a bluish-gray so that in some shots water seems to ripple beneath the dancers’ feet.
Architect Albert Kahn originally designed the plant for maximum natural light. Stripped of furnishing and ornament, it looks porous rather than cavernous. There feels something almost prescriptively calming about looking at a space that size while living in a city as densely populated as New York; as if just by looking at it, I reclaim my proper wingspan after weeks in shoebox-sized studio apartments and subway cars sitting elbow-to-elbow with other passengers. My sense of time is similarly unreined. Nothing rushed, no antics, and absent of narrative; the film offers rather than requests my patience.
The term “time-based art” seems especially apt when discussing Tacita Dean’s work. In interviews, she talks of her delight in the period between shooting footage and processing it, as it allows her to revisit a film in progress with a new perspective. Her subjects might be defined broadly as the history slipping through our fingers: fleeting moments, obsolescing technology, the wisdom of an old master (Cunningham died a year after Craneway Event was made,) things just about to disappear.