Categorising Chris Marker (1921 – 2012) as a filmmaker and photographer doesn’t do this multifaceted artist any justice. He was also a writer, editor, poet, cartoonist, activist and multimedia artist, but most of all a visionary. Perhaps you won’t know his name or his works (like I didn’t initially), but no doubt you are more than familiar with his legacy. Surely you know the film Twelve Monkeys (starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis) which has been directly influenced by Chris Marker’s most celebrated film La Jetée. Also filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron have been inspired by Marker’s works. Furthermore, he has re-invented the so-called ‘essay film’ genre and was the editor for the avant-garde travel book series Petite Planète which not only offered practical travel advice, but also featured high-quality essays and photos by famous photographers as William Klein. This article focuses on the elaborate exhibition ‘A Grin Without a Cat’ at Whitechapel Gallery, London.
The exhibition about this versatile and groundbreaking French artist shows nearly one century of works and follows four main themes in Chris Marker’s career: Museum, Travel, Image & Text, and War & Revolution. It is the first UK retrospective on Chris Marker and displays some unique works.
Early adaptor of avatars
Although he was a cosmopolitan and apparently a very social person with a good sense of humour (made clear by many small details in the exhibition), Chris Marker hardly did any interviews and most of which is publicly known about the man is what is to be deducted from his works. Chris Marker is one of the many pseudonyms he used and he would never let someone photograph him. As his portrait photo he would use photos of cats. I wonder if this would make him one of the earliest users of modern day avatars?
Both cats and owls were significant symbols for Chris Marker. Christine Van Assche, one of the curators of the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition and former chief curator at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, explained Marker’s animal personification during the gallery talk she gave on 25 April 2014: ‘The owl was an important metaphor because Chris Marker would often work at night and this bird can see at night. The cat symbol was chosen because cats are regarded as intelligent animals.’
The first section in the exhibition, ‘Statues Also Die: The Museum’, shows Marker’s conception of the personal museum: Ouvroir, which he had created on the website Second Life. Visitors of the Whitechapel exhibition can get a guided tour through the virtual museum by host Guillame-en-Égypte, a big orange cat and often used avatar by Marker. Furthermore, this section displays the interactive multimedia installation Immemory, which was published on CD-ROM in 1997. Although this type of medium sounds dated now, this work by Marker was groundbreaking at the time. Immemory is Marker’s own imaginary museum: it contains memories from Marker’s life visualised through stills and photos by him or taken from others and edited by Marker. His wish for Immemory was that the viewer would feel inspired to start replacing Marker’s images and memories for their own.
Even at the age of 91 he would be sending photos from his iPad”
It’s obvious that Marker valued viewer/user participation. Christine Van Assche elaborated on this by explaining that it was Marker’s will to leave his website Gorgomancy open for other artists to add their work to. The website’s name is a reference to a monster without a beginning or end. From the beginning of the exhibition it’s obvious that Marker embraced technology. Van Assche: ‘Even at the age of 91 he would be sending photos from his iPad.’ Furthermore, he was really into synthesisers and computers and made his own music on the computer. Legend has it that he even died while working on his computers, aged 91 years old.
Eye-catcher of the second section, ‘Petite Planète: Travelogues’, is the colourful display of the series of travel guides Petite Planète of which Marker was the editor in chief from 1952 till 1965. These books were most of all very practical travel guides (also Van Assche recalls on using them in the past), but also philosophical and political essays. Marker was responsible for the layout of the books, which was very original for the time. Travel was an important element in Marker’s life and he would always have his notebook and camera at hand. He explored other cultures and meticulously documented them. Writer, filmmaker and co-curator of this Whitechapel exhibition, Chris Darke, explained on the exhibition opening day that Marker travelled to countries as China, South Korea, Cuba and Brazil in the early 1950s already while these were still very uncommon destinations. Right from the start of his career, Marker had an international audience with followers in countries as Japan, the United States and Russia. However, some of his works were highly criticised and Marker was politically banned through the 1950s.
Other pieces in this section include the multi-media installation Zapping Zone (Proposal for an Imaginary Television) (1990-1994). The installation is like a mnemonic apparatus which ‘zaps’ through a collage of photographs, still images and infographics. For the installation Marker used photographs on screen or screengrabs on print and thus established a disconnection of media. A keyword in Marker’s oeuvre is ‘rework’ as he would constantly remake or rework his own works/archive. This is the UK premiere for the installation.
Indispensable for the Chris Marker retrospective is an extract of his iconic film Sans Soleil (1983). As the exhibition notes state, this film ‘reflects on memory, images and technology and is told via letters from an anonymous woman to a cameraman, with shots flitting back and forth across the world from Japan to (…) Africa.’ The film is absolutely beautiful and each scene is saturated with colour. It also emphasises on the sense of space. Chris Darke: ‘Geography is quite significant for this film and for Marker’s style.’
The third section focuses on Image & Text, two elements that are often linked in Chris Marker’s works. This section includes the video installation Silent Movie (1995) that uses TV monitors found in the studio at the time. Marker was commissioned to make a piece on the occasion of cinema’s centenary and he created an installation that is a tribute to silent films. The installation uses a combination of film stills and photographs. These images were either shot by Chris Marker or taken from silent films.
Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée (1962) is also shown in the third section of the exhibition, in a dedicated gallery space. Despite that it’s only 28 minutes long, La Jetée is the only feature film Chris Marker made. Other films by him are shorts or documentaries. The film was originally shot in 16mm. Then Marker took photos from the film which he then transferred back to 16mm. Thus the entire film basically consists of still images (except for one brief shot of moving images), making it appear as a photo-roman. The original copy of the film has still not been found. In this exhibition, a rare version of the film is being shown with an alternative opening sequence. In addition, for the first time in the film’s history, the script is on display for the public.
In the film we see a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic Paris. Scientists experiment with time travelling, trying to find a way to prevent the Third War to happen and thus to save the future. Not everybody can withstand the consequences of time travelling though and eventually the scientists start to use the prisoner for their experiments. The prisoner is haunted by ‘a vague but obsessive memory, from his pre-war childhood, of a woman he had seen on the observation platform at the airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He had not understood exactly what happened, but knew he had seen a man die. After several attempts, he reaches the pre-war period. He meets the woman from his memory, and they develop a romantic relationship.’ After many quests and more time travelling, he returns and finds the woman again ‘on the jetty [la jetée] at the airport. However, as he rushes to her, he notices an agent of his jailers who has followed him and realises the agent is about to kill him. In his final moments, he comes to understand that the incident which he witnessed as a child, which has haunted him for his entire life, was his own death.’ (edited Wikipedia synopsis)
If you have seen the fantastic film Twelve Monkeys (with a brilliant Brad Pit!), then you will immediately recognise where director Terry Gilliam got his inspiration from. In his version the prisoner is played by Bruce Willis and the woman by Madeleine Stowe.
War & Revolution
The fourth and final section of the exhibition is called ‘When the Century Took Shape: War and Revolution’. As I learned from the gallery talk on the opening day, war played a prominent role in Marker’s life. He was born in the interbellum and supposedly joined the resistance and took part in the American army as a translator. He was very traumatised after WWII. All his life Marker was interested in war and revolution. In 1962 he documented a demonstration in Paris and returned to exactly the same place 40 years later and witnessed another demonstration taking place there. Marker took a new photo of Place de la République with exactly the same view. With these photos he ‘relooks’ at how the world and people have changed, people being the constant factor. Marker documented more occasions of war and rebellion such as the Vietnam War demonstrations in Washington in 1967. He provided text to accompany these photos and once again we see the strong connection between text and image in Marker’s works.
Other works in this section include excerpts from interviews that are projected on two big screens and the photographic series Staring Back. The last two works in the exhibition I’d like to highlight are the installation Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men and the installation Quand le Siècle a pris formes (Guerre et Révolution).
Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (2005) is based on T.S. Elliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). The installation alternatively displays 2 different images on 8 screens at the same time. The images are a combination of drawings, photos, still images and neon signs. The sources for these images are not known yet.
Finally, Quand le Siècle a pris formes (Guerre et Révolution) (1978) is a curious installation consisting of TV monitors that were originally arranged in four rows of three screens. The installation shows ‘a montage of events from the first 30 years of the twentieth century. (…) Archive film sequences from the First World War, the Russian and German revolutions, and the postwar period are intercut with text captions.’ (quoted from the exhibition catalogue)
The installation reflects the relation between France and Germany and it’s immediately obvious what screens symbolise what countries as the sequences were colourised (which was quite common at the time). Red shots refer to Russia, blue to the French frontline and brown stands for Germany. Marker had installed cameras and microphones in the original piece and it’s thought that exhibition visitors were recorded and integrated in the installation.
If you are interested in media and socio-cultural studies then I highly recommend this exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery. The show is free entry and still open till 22 June 2014. The exhibition enables visitors to curate their own visit and decide how much time they spend there. If you go there and just look at the still images and read the texts then you can easily see the exhibition in 1.5 hours. However, you can also spend entire days there when you watch all videos on display. Whatever you fancy, I urge you to see the show and simply take from it what you wish. Bear in mind that this is a unique exhibition displaying films, photographs and texts that have never been shown before. It also is an encompassing exhibition as it has all of Chris Marker’s multi-media installations shown together for the first time.
Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat
16 April – 22 June 2014
77-82 Whitechapel High Street
London, E1 7QX
Nearest tube: Whitechapel
Want to read more exhibition reviews? Then go to this article by me on three very special exhibitions featuring works by Jan Švankmaier, the Brothers Quay and the Chapman brothers.