Whitechapel Gallery, until 22 June
The title of the Whitechapel gallery’s Chris Marker retrospective derives from the French writer, photographer and documentary film director’s powerful 1977 work that splices together political movements of the ’70s into a 180-minute film essay that disturbs and provokes. Marker, who died in 2012, aged 91, was a fighter in the French resistance during World War II and cut his teeth writing travelogues for the title Petite Planéte (Small Planet). The themes throughout much of his work are his passion for travel and conflict; he looks repeatedly at military and political struggle, from Vietnam to President Salvador Allende’s final speeches.
The films are displayed here as a vast video installation; the finale a continuous loop (all 180 minutes) of the aforementioned A Grin Without a Cat. This is the first time that Marker’s extensive output has been shown in the UK in a gallery space rather than con ned within the tight scheduling of a film festival or art cinema listing. Be warned: to fully absorb and explore this show you may require a season ticket; it’s more than worth it to return again and again.
The gallery context changes how we, the audience, approach Marker’s cinematic essays – displayed in this way his film images multiply, overlap and intersect, drenching us in solarised digital reflections on human behaviour, with the overall experience framed by Marker’s photographs from his Staring Back series (1952-2006) providing a static contrast with the frenetic video and flashing film cuts. The exhibition reveals how Marker identified and worked with changing technologies that shape-shifted images and perspectives.
I discussed with co-curator Chris Darke how Marker saw the rise and fall of technologies for reproducing images. Darke described how Marker grew up when the silent movie was at the height of its popularity, then saw it surpassed by ‘talkies’ and, later, television. The fact that Immemory (1997), an interactive CD Rom containing ten hours of film, can only be played on a MAC G3, shows Marker taking on yet another medium for interacting visually with the human sciences, a format that has since been discarded.
Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) (1950-53), directed by Marker and Alain Resnais, shows the colonial displacement and commercialisation of objects from non-Western, especially African, cultures and how the French art world of the ’50s appropriated cultural artefacts, displaying them devoid of contextual meaning within the construct of the museum. This film proved challenging to the French establishment and the full-length version was censored until 1963. The first time the director’s cut was publicly screened in France was November 1968.
Marker’s most acclaimed 1962 short film, La Jetée, premieres here in an alternative, earlier version, with a previously unseen pre-titles sequence. The workbooks for this iconic post-nuclear sci fi essay La Jetée on display are equally absorbing and I wish there had been similar books, and the full transcript, for A Grin Without a Cat. The most astonishing aspect of this show is how much there is to see and take in, but also how many different ways there are to read it.
We can still learn from Marker’s interpretation of and reflections on violence and struggle as we view news reports of the Arab spring uprisings and ongoing global conflicts, and this show creates an intriguing environment for exploring the meanings and symbols of power and beauty. Marker the Cheshire cat has left his grin hanging in East London.