Merce Is in the House

An exhibition of the dance master's sets and costumes levitates above the MoCA boards

Timing, as they say, is everything. When I contacted North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) recently, it was just to make arrangements to see "Merce Cunningham: Dancing on the Cutting Edge," an exhibition featuring sets and costumes from productions by dance-world titan Cunningham. As it turned out, the great man himself was slated to appear at a small private reception and brunch that morning, and suddenly I found myself among the few from the South Florida art media lucky enough to be invited.

First off: The exhibition is sensational. But more on that in a moment. Indulge me a bit as I share what it's like to be in the presence of someone whose impact on contemporary arts in America has been substantial in breadth and depth.

The group was maybe three dozen or so, including some museum trustees and big-ticket donors, staffers, and representatives from Cunningham's dance company. After milling around in the lobby, we were escorted into a central gallery. There, surrounded by a handful of surreal sculptures from a dance set, Cunningham sat in a wheelchair — in an especially cruel irony, his movement is restricted by arthritis — holding a cane and wearing dark glasses.

Theater without the stage: MoCA's set detritus
Steven Brooke
Theater without the stage: MoCA's set detritus
a Rauschenberg unitard
a Rauschenberg unitard

Details

On display through April 29.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Joan Lehman Bldg., 770 NE 125th St., North Miami. Call 305-893-6211.

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Exhibition organizer Bonnie Clearwater, MoCA's longtime executive director and chief curator, introduced Cunningham and congratulated him on the previous evening's successful premier of eyeSpace, commissioned by Miami's new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. Cunningham returned the compliment by declaring simply "I think this exhibition is stunning" and commenting on what it was like to see an exhibition of "things I've only seen in the theater, when they were used as décor."

From there, he talked about his experiences with visual artists not typically known for theater-related work. And he offered a couple of charming anecdotes about his collaborator and partner of nearly four decades, experimental composer John Cage, who died in 1992. One story had to do with Cage, an amateur mycologist, winning a quiz show about mushrooms in Milan and using the prize money to replace the well-worn Volkswagen van that Cunningham's dance troupe used for touring.

The choreographer summed up his working relationship with Cage with a succinct quote from the composer: "Merce does his part, and I do my part, and for your convenience we put it together." Amazingly, that's not far from the way Cunningham really does work with other creative talents. "It has been our policy not to tell the visual artists what I wanted it to be," he explained. "The same thing applies to the composers."

Cunningham's modus operandi has been to provide only the most basic parameters of a dance to his collaborators, who are then given pretty much free rein to come up with costumes, sets, and music. Such creative generosity is no doubt a strong draw when it comes to attracting artistic collaborators the caliber of Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Robert Morris as well as composers like Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Gavin Bryars.

After half an hour or so of holding forth, Cunningham paused and looked over to Clearwater. "Is that enough?" he asked, sending ripples of laughter through the audience.

Now back to the exhibition itself. The introductory wall text provides a few relevant numbers from Cunningham's life: Born in Washington state in 1919, he became a soloist for Martha Graham's dance company in 1930 (at age 11!), presented his first solo dance composition in 1944, and founded his own company in 1953. In the more than half century since, he has produced more than 200 works.

Upon entering the show, you find five costumes to the left, a sculptural piece of stage dressing to the right. The costumes, worn by mannequin torsos hanging from the ceiling, are made of gingham, some in green-and-white checks, others in blue-and-white stripes, some in a combination of the two. What distinguishes them from the simple unitards Cunningham's dancers typically wear are the foam pads that have been incorporated into the outfits, creating bulbous distortions that not only disrupt the normally sleek look of the dancers but also affect the ways in which they are physically capable of moving. Fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, who made her name at the Comme des Garçons label, created these quirky, provocative garments.

The stage set opposite is called Windmill (1999); it's by Brazilian artist Sandra Cinto, who has fashioned the white, 10-foot-tall title object from aluminum and automotive paint, then motorized its wheel to turn. The text panel indicates that Cinto was inspired both by the sculpture Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp (who also strongly influenced Cunningham) and by Bruce Nauman's décor for Cunningham's 1970 dance Tread.

Duchamp reappears, again indirectly, around the corner in Jackie Matisse's untitled 2004 walk-through installation: eight long, narrow kites and banners, made of Mylar and painted, "spunbonded" polyester (whatever that is), and suspended from the ceiling. Duchamp was Matisse's stepfather, and she worked for him from 1959 until his death in 1968. A crude maquette on the far side of the installation shows how it looked as a theater set.

The space is also shared by Olafur Eliasson's supremely strange Convex/Concave (konvex/koncav) (1995-2000). A transparent rectangular box on a platform houses a pneumatic pump system that continually (and noisily) inflates and deflates a large circle, 63 inches in diameter, mounted on the wall above it. The circle is constructed of a flexible, highly reflective foil stretched over a wooden frame, and as it slowly goes from convex to concave and back again, the viewer's perceptions are subtly toyed with. The disorienting effect is enhanced by the device's wheezy "breath" and the stark music of Meredith Monk, Paul De Marinis, and Takehisa Kosugi, who initially objected to the mechanical sound but came to embrace it.

There's a brief lull here — Terry Winters' four oil-on-linen abstracts used as set décor, presented here seemingly as an afterthought — then a quick rebound with Indian Point Road (2004), a large-scale color DVD projection with sound by Christian Marclay, whose video work has been included in previous MoCA shows. The artist planted a camera on a country roadside in Maine and gathered static footage punctuated by cars whizzing past; Cunningham projected the video onto the stage from in front, so that his dancers' shadows interacted with the unexpected appearances of the cars.

In the same gallery, Duchamp makes yet another appearance via an untitled DVD projection from 2005. Legendary pop artist Richard Hamilton appropriates some of Duchamp's readymades (hat rack, snow shovel, bottle dryer) and adds some of his own (comb, corkscrew, top hat). Again, the resulting video was front-projected, very slowly, onto Cunningham's dancers so that they and their shadows might interact with the objects.

The rest of this gallery is populated by Charles Long's looming Tripods(2001), five wire structures wrapped in brightly colored metallic foil that more closely resembles papier-mâché. Cunningham's dancers were able to move around and through these odd objects, which are simultaneously abstract and suggestive of animalistic forms.

The exhibition draws to its conclusion with a bang, although an intentionally muted one. First, there's a wall-mounted screen playing Lifelike (2001), a mesmerizing video in which Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar, and Marc Downie use digital technology to transform Cunningham's moving hands into dancing abstract figures.

And just beyond is the show's coup de grâce, Kaiser and Eshkar's BIPED (1999), which has to be one of Cunningham's most inspired marriages of media. The artists attached light-reflecting sensors to a pair of the choreographer's dancers and filmed them. They then used computer software to generate ghostly, skeletal 3D figures that move across a transparent scrim, alternating with floating vertical bars of color, all front-projected so that the images continue beyond the scrim and onto the walls and floor of the space behind, where Cunningham's dancers would perform. The entire sequence is set to a dreamy score by Gavin Bryars that meshes music and found sounds. I slumped against a wall and drifted into a reverie, and my blood pressure must have dropped ten points.

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