ON CUNNINGHAM AND “STILLNESS”

In February 2019, I was asked by choreographer Netta Yerushalmy to make a short, one-time contribution to her “Paramodernities” project when it came to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. It was an honor to sit on the stage with wonderful performers and read the brief essay below. I chose to talk about my experience of visiting Tacita Dean’s film and sound installation “Stillness” while at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“Stillness,” Tacita Dean’s video and sound installation at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis (Image: Brian Harnetty)

“Stillness,” Tacita Dean’s video and sound installation at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis (Image: Brian Harnetty)

On Cunningham and “Stillness” (February 9, 2019)

In April of 2017, I spent an afternoon with Tacita Dean’s film installation, called “Stillness.” I remember walking into the darkened room and immediately hearing the whirring of projectors and the faint noise of traffic. I could feel the heat from the projectors’ mechanical breath filling the air. My eyes adjusted, and I saw six screens, each with a life-sized image of Merce Cunningham sitting quietly on a simple folding chair. Cunningham, near the end of his life, looking focused and frail and curious, was performing John Cage’s silent composition 4’33”. Each screen featured a different take of the piece, with Cunningham only shifting his pose to mark its three movements.

I walked among the translucent screens. I thought about how each performance felt distinct, detailed, nuanced. I began to sense how Cunningham and the light in the room and time itself were multiplied, folded on each other, moving not only forward but also outward in many directions at once.

This was perhaps Cunningham’s last performance. I thought about his proximity to death and his inevitably failing body, and how he nevertheless conveyed poise, confidence, exactitude, and perseverance. This piece for him must have involved both memory and loss: a reflection on a life lived, an embodied knowledge of our fragile mortality, a remembering of his life with Cage. And yet, there is also a sense of presence: performing 4’33” demands that you can only do it now, at this very moment.

All of these thoughts are tied up with listening. I grew up on Cage: I read and listened to everything I could. And like so many others, I often felt like someone trying to pick up remnants of what Cage shared in order to move into my own voice. Now, I often feel that the act of listening has enveloped and subsumed my practice, and I and the work have disappeared into it, into that quiet awareness that can only come through listening’s openness and uncertainty.

It is exactly this combination of stillness and awareness that is made human in Cunningham’s performance. He proved that the most simple of gestures –– sitting –– is a radical act, one that is simultaneously action and contemplation, even (and especially) when our bodies fail us. It is here that listening (Cage) and movement (Cunningham) meet; they are together in one contemplative act: sitting.

To sit like this shows us a way to contend with life
And guides us as we move toward death
Two sides of the same coin