Marked by Chris Marker at the Whitechapel Gallery

It is a rare occurrence to step out of an exhibition knowing that you have just been marked for life by what you have seen and experienced. Saying that, I am just adding my name to a list of far more prestigious ones: James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola and Terry Gilliam are among the many filmmakers who have been inspired by Chris Marker (1921-2012). The first UK retrospective of the visionary French artist is currently at the Whitechapel Gallery and simply should not be missed.

The works are not presented chronologically, a choice that is suited to his timeless production. Instead, the exhibition revolves around four themes that were central to Markers’ work: The Museum, Travelogues, Film and Memory and War and Revolution.

This framework should not be perceived as a constraint and how could it? Chris Marker could not bear constraint. During his lifetime he managed to cast doubts on his place of birth asserting one day that he was born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia and the next that it was in Belleville in Paris while it was actually in the chic suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Filmmaker, photographer, writer, editor, the multidisciplinary Marker is a 20th century visual art Pic de la Mirandole. He was a frenetic globetrotter whose favourite cities are as different from each other as one could possibly imagine: Berlin, San Francisco and Tokyo. His equally dissimilar totem animals – cats, owls and elephants – appear throughout his work.

Well aware of André Malraux and Walter Benjamin theories, he embraced the potential of new technologies throughout his life. Ouvroir: the Movie (2010) is one of the two large screens installed in the first gallery; there, Chris Marker’s avatar invites you to step into the museum he created on Second Life. Created in 1997 on a CD-Rom, the interactive installation Immemory can be explored through a set of computer screens installed on tables in the same gallery. Seated in front of one of them with headphones on, the viewer embarks onto a guided tour of Marker’s memory, a map of his life where significant events are linked to trifling ones. As Marker would put it, it is a life like any other where you can find “continents, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae.”

I waited for a 35mm black and white movie to loop back to the beginning. My patience startlingly rewarded as I watched Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die). The 1953 film co-directed with Alain Resnais demonstrates why Marker is considered the master of the essay film. His political commentaries are astute and moving yet humorous and full of hope. In the first part of the film, sculptures and masks from Sub-Saharan Africa are filmed in a museum set to music making them lifelike. They seem to convey every single emotion ancestral traditions required of them. With colonization, came their new fate and they became mere artifacts produced to please the crowds. With them a culture died that can only be retrieved in museums that have become the beholders of an extinct past. While a new culture is trying to define itself, there is this transitional state that has the fragility of its flaws and the imbalance of its uncertainty.

Transitional states inspired travels and several of his movies: Dimanche à Pékin (Sunday in Peking) (1956), Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia) (1958), Description d’un combat (Description of a Struggle) set in Israel (1960) and Cuba si (1961). At the same time, Marker edited and designed Petite Planète, a series of travel books on show at the Whitechapel Gallery; they are witness of the artist’s willingness to show the world. In Zapping Zone (1990-1994), his desire to teleport becomes a reality for all. The installation consists of numerous TV sets in a darken room; as such, they allow the viewer to travel across multiple screens to multiple locations with various moods and topics being displayed. Gleaning ideas and information might be a difficult yet dangerous game enhancing our fragile butterfly-like state.

A gallery is entirely dedicated to Chris Marker’s 1962 seminal masterpiece, La Jetée (The Pier) that explores poetically the question of both the collective and the individual memory. A rare version with an alternative opening sequence is presented of Marker’s futuristic vision. After the Third World War, life on earth has been almost entirely wiped out by a nuclear blast. In this post-apocalyptic world, the survivors who are living in the underground galleries of the Palais de Chaillot only have one chance: “to create a hole in Time”. Experiments are failing. Facing the past as an adult means death or madness for most. Only one man seems fit to travel through times thanks to his obsession with an image from his childhood: a mysterious woman at the Orly airport. The cinematic projection is stripped down to its most basic form. The film is a series of stills, a roman photo. The archaic style echoes the destruction that has occurred and does not prevent the promise of a futuristic elucidation.

War and Revolution is the theme than resonates in the last section of the exhibition with series of photographs that have been taken by Chris Marker in relation to anti-war movements spanning from the Vietnam War in the 1960’s to the second Iraq War in 2003. Excerpts of Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May) (1963), relating to the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s, can also be viewed.

Marker once said “He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function is to leave just a trace in memory.” If this exhibition is to be a trace, it might well be an indelible one.

Chris Marker, A Grin Without A Cat, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until June 22nd, 2014

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