Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery (16 April-22 June)

The Chris Marker exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery is unwieldy, disorienting and a bit bleak, which is probably what one should expect from someone who was prolific for decades and had an obsession with war and the ravages of time.

This French filmmaker, born in 1921 had made over 60 films by the time of his death in 2012.  He is possibly most well known for La Jetée, a 1962 sci-fi work made up of still images, which formed the basis of Terry Gilliam's movie Twelve Monkeys.

Gallery notes say that his main themes are: The Museum, Travelogues, Film and Memory, War and Revolution. Marker was fascinated by how time, history and memory interrogate practices of collecting, archiving and displaying images and objects. 

On arrival, we see some collage work, but much bolder and more intense than Hoch's. It has a stronger futuristic feel to it, reinforced by the typographical/fonts image next to this set. 

Marker has captured glimpses of people all over the world - his lens being an "inquisitive snake" in the crowds.  There are many faces beautifully frozen in a millisecond, often sad, thoughtful, distant. Often the photographs are very dreamy with soft focus, heavy grain, natural light and velvety dark contrasts.

One of my favourite parts of the show was Zapping Zone (Proposals for an Imaginary Television - 1990-94) - a dark room chock full of TVs and old computer monitors displaying a variety of footage. This is a strong sensory experience but not as manic as I feared it might be at first. There is a mixture of colour and B/W and some pleasant sounds (eg slot machines which we associate with leisure time, even in this intense environment). There is a lazy cat alongside clips of war and civil unrest.  On the back wall, small images are displayed like contact sheets on a light box.  The whole effect is unusual, thought-provoking and very effective.

Next we watched a black and white film where stills of wooden and clay masks are shown to an edgy soundtrack of drumming. The overall impression is of a build up to war. The light is harsh and the contours of the masks are in high contrast. Different cultures are portrayed with slightly different features and sculpted approaches reinforcing the sense of conflict being global and eternal.

The differences in faces around the world (which I am fascinated by) was then echoed in the Petite Planete covers from various countries. Very strong graphical design - surprisingly timeless. The images worked beautiful alone as and a set - I could have stared at these for ages.

The section which really caught my attention were the The Hollow Men set (Owls at Noon) and the photogravures along side the monitors. Creepy but strangely compelling and very haunting.

La Jetée was the highlight of the show for me, despite there being a lot of screaming children in the vicinity, but there are many other haunting images and ideas to explore. It feels very multi-media, with multiple screens bombarding us with scenes of the world we have made.

I suppose I was a bit disappointed that there was not more of a sense of Marker's quirkiness in the exhibition. It was mostly rather pessimistic narrative spliced with documentaries which force the viewer to go into dark and haunting places.  Even the set which explores the post Cuban missile crisis euphoria, he concludes that he is just seeing "the everlasting face of solitude". My husband said "I would not want to be inside this guy's head".  And there were not enough photographs of cats, imo!  Lots of intriguing ideas and images though that would warrant many hours of exploration.

Here is a proper review of the show.

Ideas to explore: 

  • The Photo Roman is very appealing to me - both as an art form and a documentary approach (as sometimes used by duckrabbit to such powerful effect)
  • Creating more dreamlike images - some of Marker's work really succeeds in forcing the viewer to slow down and drink in the imagery. He famously said "I compare dreaming to cinema and thinking to television."
  • Using disintegrating photos, damaged by time and neglect (this was always powerful in the Saatchi exhibit of items found after the Sumatran tsunami) - would need some context/anchoring
  • I need to do more research on the Nouvelle Vague
  • 'Silent screams' - capturing intense moments but in a quiet, still way
  • There is a wonderful juxtaposition of two images of protesters. He urges us to focus on the young tree in the background rather than the faces of the people. The second picture shows how the tree has grown.  "Within these few inches, forty years of my life." This is great device to show "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" - would be a great social documentary project 
  • Images of animals from travels...

    From Immemory:
    "And always the animals
    From each trip
    You bring back
    A gaze
    A pose

    A gesture
    That points
    To the truest of humanity
    Better than images
    Of humanity itself

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