Chris Marker (1921-2012) is most commonly thought of as a film maker, a true visionary who blended realism and poetry to create incredible works like La Jetée (The Pier) (1962) and Sans Soleil (Sunless) (1983), combining elements of documentary, science fiction and photography. The reputation of his films is matched in many ways by his personal reputation as a reclusive, private individual who seldom granted any sort of interview and fought against the attempts of others to mythologise his work, often preferring to use an image of a cat to represent him rather than any sort of official portrait. The retrospective ‘Chris Marker: A Grin Without A Cat,’ currently showing at Whitechapel Gallery in London comes as a welcome access point not only to some of the artist’s most famous and important film works, but also a way to reassess his wider oeuvre, which includes photography, text, collage and installation works.
The exhibition is divided into four sections across two floors, covering his works over a period of decades as well as images and other materials which offer a rare glimpse into the processes by which they were created. These divisions help highlight his interest in the Museum, travel, the possibilities of film, particularly with reference to stylised documentary film making and also Marker’s sharp political focus. On the ground floor of the gallery, it is one installation work in particular however which holds centre stage, not only as a indication of the way Marker used moving image to present his hybridised forms of semi-biographical narrative, but as a flash point for some of the major themes of his work as a whole.
Originally created for the exhibition Passages de l’image at the Centre Pompidou in 1990, the work Zapping Zone: Proposals for an Imaginary Television acts as a shifting, multi-faceted travelogue which moves between places and events to blur the lines between memory and lived experience. The importance of editing is often highlighted in Marker’s work, and in Zapping Zones the viewer becomes the editor through their own memory of the work. The installation collects a body of footage from cities like Berlin, Paris and Tokyo, as well as from some of Marker’s own films, and shows them across 13 monitors, alongside accompanying photographs and slides. Images which appear on one monitor may later appear on another in a different form, as a film frame, video, photograph, computer graphic or text, blurring the particular “race of image” and creating a “memory of a ‘passage’ (transition)” as the artist himself described it in the proposal for the installation written in 1987.
The work is immersive and affecting, not just for the way in which it deliberately engages the viewer and uses their experience of it to define its wider parameters, but also for the inclusion of early Macintosh computers and other now obsolete technology, indicative of Marker’s innovation and the changes over time which many of his works both here and elsewhere in the exhibition address. This is furthered by the inclusion of Immemory (1997) in the retrospective, a labyrinth, museum like collage in the form of a CD-ROM which collects images and footage into ‘zones’ labelled War, Photography, Cinema, Travel and so on which again engages the person navigating through it directly, and is in turn defined by their response. Marker himself stated in the booklet “My fondest wish is that there might be enough familiar codes here (the travel picture, the family album, the totem animal) that the reader-visitor could imperceptibly come to replace my images with his, my memory with his, and that my Immemory should serve as a springboard for his own pilgrimage through Time Regained.” This idea feels present in many of his other works as well.
Marker’s installations are of course only one part of his incredible body of work, but the presentation here of Zapping Zones beautifully captures the way that memory, time, travel, experience, the personal nature of documentary and the construction of narrative all come together in such a captivating, lyrical way in Marker’s treatments of them. Throughout the rest of the show, further installations like Silent Movie (1995) and in particular the forceful and poignant Owls At Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (2005) speak not only to his cinematic sensibilities, but in the case of the latter build on a staunch political awareness which was already evident in much earlier works such as the films ¡Cuba Sí! (1961), Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) (reedited as ‘A Grin Without A Cat’ in 1993) and the multimedia installation Quand le siècle a pris formes (Guerre et Revolution) (When the Century Took Shape [War and Revolution]) (1978).
A remarkable testament to an incredible body of work, ‘Chris Marker: A Grin Without A Cat’ is showing at Whitechapel Gallery in London until June 22nd.
By Will Gresson