The recently closed Walker Art Center exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time ended with Tacita Dean’s 2007 film installation, STILLNESS. The multiscreen work features the choreographer, then 90, performing John Cage’s composition 4’33” (1952), a musical score built around the performance of not playing one’s instrument—a kind of performance of silence. In the composition, a musician is on stage and refrains from playing their instrument for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds and only a series of small gestures (perhaps opening and closing the lid of a piano) indicate breaks in the composition. While ostensibly about absence, refrain, or silence, the composition’s minimalism and purposeful refusal to undertake the expected set of actions (here playing the instrument) bring attention to ambient sounds, drawing such noises into the foreground and into listener’s consciousness.
In Dean’s piece, Cunningham transposes Cage’s composition to his dancing body, remaining seemingly still for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Coming at the end of the exhibition, which began with Cunningham’s earliest dance compositions and throughout featured extensive documentation of his virtuosic and hyper kinetic dance practice, the film seemed a mediation on a dancer’s mortality—the body not moving with fullness and kineticism. (Indeed, STILLNESS’s first screening happened some four months after the choreographer’s death.) In his New York Times review of Common Time, Holland Cotter concludes by detailing Dean’s film; he describes the achingly small gestures—blinks and small muscle twitches—that Cunningham performs as “the dance, defined, like everything else, by time.” Cotter ends with time seemingly as a means of reflecting on dance’s ephemerality, an artist’s mortality, the temporal logic of the retrospective, and the ways such melancholy musings on the passage of time rise to the fore within the vexed relationship between dance and the museum gallery. In part this is because the gallery for Cotter and others remains a fraught space for displaying ethereal art forms like dance. Certainly he acknowledges the ways gallery exhibitions can be productive and highlights, in his review, the innovative ways the Walker and the MCA Chicago exhibited materials ranging from video, ephemera, costumes, sound, paintings, works on paper, and sculptural objects. It is here, where Cotter and the exhibition ended, that I wish to begin: with time. In this third piece on interdisciplinary art, I focus on how to display and exhibit such work. What are those strategies curators marshal to draw immaterial artworks—or time—into visitors’ experiences of an exhibition?
Many reviews of Common Time commented on the key difficulty of the exhibition as they saw it: namely “how to exhibit the ephemeral.” While I agree with this assessment—indeed it remains a central problematic within ongoing conversations around how to apply a museological lens (with all the questions around preservation, acquisition, and display a term like ‘museological’ implies) to live performance—what Common Time displayed most effectively was time. Or rather, time’s passage. This is perhaps an overly banal recitation of the exhibition’s aims—after all the word “time” does appear in its title. But at the risk of reiterating the patently obvious, what I mean to articulate through this assertion is the way the exhibition’s curators used curatorial display and the architecture of the Walker’s galleries to make time, or rather a visitor’s experience of its passage prominent. Common Time’s chief achievement, in other words, was not the presentation of art that represented time, nor an acknowledgement of the inability to ever fully display ephemeral dance practices—although, the exhibition certainly did both these things. Rather, Common Time used the gallery space in such a way as to heighten an awareness of time, and its slow passage.
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The task of the art curator (indeed curator in general) has often been described as creating a spatial argument through visual materials. In other words, a visitor comes to understand certain aesthetic, political, or emotional ideas about art works by seeing said works in situ and in certain spatialized relation. This logic, of course, is based upon long-standing assumptions about what sort of art is most appropriate for gallery spaces: painting, works on paper, sculpture, or object-based installation. While such assumptions now seem retrograde for many curators and art institutions (think of the explosion of time-based art practices that emerged in the 1960s or the number of biennials in the past ten years that have included live performance, moving image, and sound works), Common Time, nevertheless, exemplifies the challenges and possibilities of displaying interdisciplinary art.
The exhibition aimed to present Merce Cunningham’s numerous artistic collaborations. Throughout his decades long career, Cunningham continually created his dance works in partnership with visual, textile, film and video, and sonic artists. While this highly collaborative method of working cemented the choreographer’s status as a key artistic innovator of the twentieth century and leading voice in postmodern and contemporary American dance, it also presented a unique opportunity for Walker curators to explore how to exhibit materials that spanned the plastic arts, décor, costume, props, moving image, and sound. Common Time occupied seven of the Walker’s galleries, drawing visitors through an exploration of the choreographer’s earliest works as a college student on the West Coast to his final performance in Dean’s film.
The exhibition drew upon the art center’s holdings of the complete scenic and costume archive of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The exhibition included a host of archival materials including costumes and ephemera from various performances, like posters and programs from performances, a curatorial convention typical to many shows. It also featured set pieces and décor used in his various dances, a more unusual curatorial choice. Such works, by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Morris Graves, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, raised a host of questions about such works’ inherent interdisciplinarity, slipping as they do between sculptural object and theatrical set piece. Chief among such questions might be whether such a distinction is even all that interesting to iterate. As Rauschenberg rather bluntly stated, “I don’t find theater that different from painting”—an assertion with particular weight within the artist’s own career as his initial set pieces for Cunningham became the first in his series of assemblages called “Combines.” While the conceptual or theoretical overlaps between the plastic arts and theatrical sets leaves much room for continued debate, pragmatically such works in Common Time were materially similar to artworks long displayed in museum galleries.
Alongside this proliferation of objects, the exhibition featured an immense amount of moving image work projected on gallery walls, screens, displayed on small monitors, or taking up an entire gallery. Some of these pieces were installations by artists working with moving image: Dean’s STILLNESS, as well as works by Charles Atlas, Stan VanDerBeek, and Richard Moore. Much of this material, though, has often lived uneasily between dance film and archival documentation of a live event. The status of such material, in other words, shifts based upon the exhibitionary desires of particular institutions, exhibitions, and curators. Common Time aimed to claim a certain artistic rather than archival legitimacy for the moving image material included in the exhibition. If the costumes and décor overtly attest to the absence of the live dance itself and the dancer, so too do these films. Cunningham, after all, is not actually performing Changeling (1957) in real time. It is a celluloid trace of his body’s virtuosity.
Joan Rothfuss, one of the exhibition’s curators, described the display considerations taken around the use of video. The work projected on the gallery walls was large, taking up real estate equivalent to a large-scale Rauschenberg or Morris. It was a deliberate choice, Rothfuss explained, to make dimensionally equivalent video and three-dimensional material work. It was an attempt to render such moving images legible as artworks in their own right, and not merely instantiate such pieces as archival documentation. Much of the moving image material was also projected on the walls within the exhibition’s main galleries and not placed in small rooms specifically built to accommodate video. It was an attempt to, again, create an equivalence between art objects and video by hanging them in the same space, right next to each other. The aim, as Rothfuss described it, was not to render Cunningham’s choreography present through moving image materials, but rather to validate a form of time-based art within the space of the museum gallery.
In addition to moving image, the exhibition also included recorded sound—a way to highlight Cunningham’s close and lifelong collaborations with music composers, Cage chief among them. Two small galleries built into the exhibition floor plan housed vitrines of archival materials attesting to each composer’s practice and career. The composers included Cage, as well as David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi. The two galleries were painted a dark gray and carpeted a similar shade; the two spaces felt intimate and enveloping, in contrast to the stark white walls and marble floors of the rest of the exhibition. The gray palette created a kind of visual quietness for the spaces, a simplification of the optic vibrancy of the exhibition’s larger galleries. Looped tracks of the various composers’ works filled the gallery space and headphones, attached to the vitrines, offered visitors additional opportunities to hear music. The galleries, as Rothfuss described, were designed as spaces for study and reflection. Listening to music, study, and reflection are all, of course, things that take time. They require patience and contemplation, and stand in rather stark opposition to the typical way visitors make their way through exhibitions, pausing to examine an artwork for approximately 15 seconds. While the various objects, ephemera, and films displayed in Common Time created a rich aesthetic constellation of the array of Cunningham’s relationships and collaborations, it is these two sound galleries that seem to most epitomize the notion of exhibiting time through immaterial art. In the two galleries, we witnessed the giving over of gallery space so that sound filled the air, and in the gray walls and carpet we see an attempt to invite visitors to linger there and pass the time.
For all that the moving image materials and the sound galleries revealed ways time, or its passage, can be exhibited, there was a particular iteration of time I found myself missing. As I walked through the Common Time galleries, I felt a deep desire to know the dancers projected across gallery walls and captured in stillness in photographs. It was these individuals who animated the static décor carefully exhibited in each gallery and fleshed out the costumes stretched across mannequins. With no body filling the leotards and tights, the clothing sagged a bit on the slender mannequins’ frames. As I walked, familiar faces reappeared: there is Carolyn Brown in Assemblage, the experimental dance film by Richard Moore from 1968, and again in Music Walk for Dancers (1960), her long limbs creating seemingly endless diagonals across the screen; I catch glimpses of Cédric Andrieux and Rashaun Mitchell, who danced with Cunningham at the end of his career, in Charles Atlas’s immersive film installation. Largely, though, the biographies of the tens of dancers who worked with Cunningham are absent from the exhibition and it was their time, their labor I missed.