A Grin Without a Cat, at the Whitechapel Gallery till 22 June, is the widest Chris Marker retrospective ever shown in the UK. The visitor evolves through four sections organised around themes pivotal to Marker’s oeuvre: museum policies, travels, memory, war and politics. The non-chronological display of works demonstrates how these topics interlace to forge a consistent body of work.
Marker’s identity is almost impossible to outline. Deliberately clouding the issue, he has produced work under various names, refused mediatised attention and forbidden the disclosure of his portrait till his dead in July 2012. He has however casted a myth on his own.
‘Zapping Zone’ (1990-1994) is a multimedia installation made of twenty television screens. It is a true gateway to his singular voice. The viewer is immersed in a fiction intermixing personal and public archives. One is invited to zap from screen to screen to craft a tailored participative experience. Image categories blur, the visitor is lost in a multimedia environment.
Despite much biographical information one implicitly encounters Marker along his ‘documentary-fictions’. In these film essays, images carrying both historical and personal records question the supposed objectivity of the traditional documentary genre.
‘Statues also die’ (1953) is striking and ahead of time. It reveals Marker’s opinion on Western centric museum policies. African artefacts, interpreted by ‘Hitlerian racism’ and displayed in Western museums, have died the commentary says. It condemns the introduction of machinery and capitalist Western policies as having void tribal art of its essence. Historical and personal records blur again in this strong statement.
‘Travelogues’, the second section of the exhibition pays tribute to Markers inveterate passion for travel. Journeys have largely documented his oeuvre overall. ‘Petites Planetes’ is a series of travel books based on personal records. They include philosophical and political essays commissioned to authors including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Agnes Varda, William Klein and Armand Gatti. Each book is illustrated with photographs that transcend their merely illustrative value.
The link between image and text is something Marker also explores in his filmography. ‘Sunless’ (1982), distorts reality and fiction to explore travel as an experience of alienation in time and space. As acknowledged in the 85th minute: ‘These images have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory’.
Memory was a life long obsession of Marker, probably most strongly reflected in ‘la Jetee’ (1962). The photo roman format creates a narrative situated in a time frame somewhere between the past and the future. Time becomes a reversible curve, full of inflections, which allows to map the complex architecture of memory.
The last section of the exhibition shows ‘Le Joli Mai’ (1962); a series of photographs taken in Paris at the same locations but on a forty years time interval. One touching example is a tree that has grown a few inches from the first to the second shot. It symbolises forty years of life, political turmoil and societal change.
The exhibition closes with a documentary on war and revolution. Left wing opinions show trough. It is Marker’s last tribute to a century of radical transformations.
Witnessing globalisation at its dawn, Marker was a pioneer in addressing issues prevailing today namely des-humanisation, loosened social ties, media manipulation and others. The camera he never left subdued his eye. Messages conveyed in his oeuvre are strong but never pessimistic neither repetitive. His views remain after all deeply humanist.
Although Chris Marker never stepped out of the shadow he certainly left a most innovative stain in the history of experimental film.
Words: Amélie Timmermans © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Top Image Film Still from ‘A Grin Without a Cat’
Image Below: Chris Marker La Jetée (1962) Film Still Image courtesy BFI Stills Collection © 1963 Argos Films