John Cage and Merce Cunningham (4 stars)

Touching nothing

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Alexander Kennedy looks at the work of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and finds glimpses of grace in their paintings and drawings

‘Merce has now thrown the dice and the change-over dates are as follows . . .’ So begins an email with lists of information, names and numbers from Paul Nesbit, the director of Inverleith House. The information resembles a score or sheet of instructions by the composer John Cage (1912-1992), the dancer Merce Cunningham’s life-long partner, lover, friend and the absent collaborator of this curated ‘conversation’. Both men lived and worked together for 60 years or so - it’s difficult to pin-point exact dates, as neither discussed the details of their relationship. To be explicit would be to over-simplify, to lie. So, a life, an aesthetic programme, and now an exhibition with No Fixed Points (the title of this show) moves slowly forward.

In the work of Cage and Cunningham, the quest for meaning is pointless yet necessary and this quest forms the subject matter of much of their work. Within dance and music this kind of gloriously empty formalism is not only welcomed, it is the guarantor of aesthetic success. Both artists follow on from a late, high modernism, a Beckettian bleakness that is shot through with the light of illumination - a kind of Zen transcendence of binaries (both were interested in Zen philosophy).

This is evidenced in the paintings by Cage that are exhibited in the gallery (before Cunningham’s drawings replace them later in the month). These minimal yet expressive pieces are the result of chance operations, more specifically, the Chinese I-Ching system of divination, where coins, sticks or sheets of paper are shuffled or thrown to provide guidance. Cage’s horizontal lines and coloured circles could be read as referring to the sign system that is used to record the results of the I-Ching: long lines, dashes and circles denote specific configurations. But the forms are also the outlines of stones lifted from a river bed, transformed into temporary islands as Cage tickled their edges with coloured washes.

Only two works by Cunningham are currently on display, but this will change with time. In the foyer of the gallery a garish tiger head faces a blank wall, a wild ‘childish’ Blakean beast, with a luminous orange coat, hairy teeth and neon blue gums. On a small screen in the gallery a 50-something Merce twitches and dances in front of a blue screen. Everyday actions are exaggerated and repeated before the camera focuses in on his gesticulating elegant hands - hands acting as the tool used to create a gesture in life, in a dance or on a canvas.

‘I cooked and Merce did the dishes,’ Cage once famously said when asked about their friendship (and now imagine those hands in yellow Marigolds). The specifics of their relationship will always be vague. Many critics have tried to reduce their aesthetic sensibility to a kind of ‘closet aesthetic’, where ‘saying nothing’ meant the artists could avoid revealing their sexuality in their work. But maybe the artists set themselves a more difficult task - to attempt to annunciate and gesture towards the nothingness at the heart of sex, self and art.

Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, until Sun 8 Jul

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