Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chris Marker | Passengers

As you probably already know, the great avant-garde filmmaker, photographer and multimedia artist Chris Marker died this July 30, a day after his 91st birthday (and a day before my own 50th). Marker was a huge influence on my own art and thinking; when I lived in Minneapolis in the 90s the Walker Art Center held a Chris Marker film fest and I saw a number of his still hard-to-find movies like Letters from Siberia and Le Mystere Koumiko, in addition to Sans Soleil and La Jetee.

Last summer, a friend of mine in Berlin, Ekkehard Knoerer, tapped me to review what would be Marker's last gallery show in New York, Passengers; my story, translated into German, ran as the cover story in Ekkehard's magazine Cargo.

I never wound up doing anything with the original English-language version, so, given Marker's recent passing, it seems fitting to post that here now.

Peter Blum Soho, 99 Wooster Street , New York, NY
Peter Blum Chelsea , 526 West 29th Street, New York, NY
April 2, 2011–June 2, 2011

Now in his late 80s, prolific image-maker Chris Marker continues to make work as intensely personal as it is politically and socially aware. His most recent project, a collection of more than 200 photographs taken between 2008 and 2010, mounted in two different Manhattan gallery locations and published in book form this April by Peter Blum Editions, is as resonant, affecting, surprising and relevant as anything he’s done over the years—no small feat for a man who will turn 90 less than a month after the show’s close in New York. (The show will then move on to France, where it will be included in Les Recontres d’Arles Photographie Festival later this summer.)

The premise is simple: a series of digital photographs of people on the Paris Metro. The photographs are remarkable in their feeling of having been,
a la Daidō Moriayama, snapped quickly on the sly with less than the finest equipment, and yet compositionally and semantically rich. The other project that comes immediately to mind is Chantal Akerman’s long still takes in the New York subway that comprise about a third or so of her film News from home

But Marker’s vision of the Metro is his own. Like Diane Arbus, Marker appears to have his “type,” and in focusing on them we get a window into a France, or even a Paris, that we’re not really used to seeing. Most of the people foregrounded in these photos are women of various ages and cultural backgrounds—predominantly African, Arab, East and South Asian and Gypsy. Only a few seem to notice that Marker is shooting them; most stare off into space, read, or even sleep. When men appear it is often in the background; though there are a few images featuring them, such as one of a middle aged rocker with a faux-hawk and dark circles under his eyes, with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in paper clutched to his chest at about bicep level. The look on his face appears to be one of absolute abjection.

In the book version, like Moriayama, Marker appears to take two-page spreads into account, often giving us visual rhymes (a photo of two Arab women smiling and laughing in similarly purple headscarves on the left appears opposite one of an African woman and man, not obviously together, their faces blank, on the right) or other playful acknowledgement of their existence in book form. My favorite spread is that of an African woman in headdress in a photo on the right staring over the top rim of her glasses down and left in such a way so as to appear to be checking out the book the white woman in the photo on the left is reading: anthropologist and ethnologist Faouzi Skali’s
Traces de Lumière.

Moments like that aside, Marker does not, typically, milk juxtaposition as thoroughly or radically as Moriayama; he’s still a filmmaker at heart and the book and show’s power is largely cumulative. The images read like stills. This effect is heightened by Marker’s process: once downloaded from his digital camera he manipulates them slightly, perhaps in Photoshop, sometimes altering or washing out the color, and often heightening the images’ pixilation, giving it all the impression of something originally shot on video.

This “transient” effect is heightened even further in the gallery, where the photographs are mounted on a white archival board that, from a distance, gives the impression of foam core. They look temporary, fleeting, bringing us back to the circumstances of their initial moments. Because so many of the people in these photos appear to be deep in thought or reverie, the viewer can’t escape the impression that he or she is, in some way, culling these images from his or her own databank. It’s haunting, if not exactly gloomy.
The repetition of close-ups, predominantly of women, despite variations in angle and background, does run the risk of becoming monotonous. But Marker is too playful, and too socially aware, to ever fully lose the viewer’s engagement. Like the famous 1 or 2 seconds of movement in his 60s masterpiece La jetée, PASSENGERS includes numerous blip-like moments that cut through the drone. For instance, a black-and-white photograph (not juxtaposed with anything in the book) in which we see, in the station near what looks like a tollbooth, three police officers standing around an older man in a heavy sweater—one of the officers is frisking the man who, in the slightly blurry image, appears to be either Arabic or East European. There are other such moments interspersed throughout the book, though nothing quite as bracing. The book ends with a photo shot through the open doors of a train with the car crowded with people: a shorter, gray-haired white woman looks up with slight smile on her face at a much taller, beefier, darker woman standing to her right.
Curiously, the book and show open with a brief statement from Marker:
Cocteau used to say that at night, statues escape from museums and go walking in the streets. During my peregrinations in the Paris Metro, I sometimes had such unusual encounters. Models of famous painters were still among us, and I was lucky enough to have them sitting in front of me.
I say “curiously” because I can’t think of a less painterly artist than Marker, who, even in the 20th century, seemed to already have a foot in the 21st. True, some of these photos are compositionally, and even texturally and colorfully “painterly”—but those are in the minority. Most really do look and feel like video stills. Great video stills, but video stills nonetheless.

I was informed by someone at the Peter Blum Chelsea gallery that Marker’s statement mostly relates to four images being shown in the SoHo location, and which are included in the book as a pull-out, folded poster. In each of these images, a woman shot on the subway is juxtaposed with a reproduction of a classic painting—including the Mona Lisa.

This feels, frankly, like more an afterthought, having little to do with the work’s real strength and meaning, though it is certainly playful. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Marker’s intro to the book, where he claims to have begun the project using a wristwatch camera (which would certainly explain how he’s able to take so many photos of people who look completely unaware of what he’s doing), begins and ends with a reference to Ezra Pound’s famous poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” which reads,
en toto, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”

certainly feels apt, though from another zeitgeist altogether. The American poets I know who are at least five to ten years younger than me don’t seem to bother much with Pound at this point; I can’t guarantee that poets even younger than them have even heard of him. That’s no slight to Pound, or to younger American poets or even to Marker. Marker’s work of the last several years—PASSENGERS included—feels so contemporary, so globally aware, that it’s easy to forget that their maker was born nearly two decades before World War II.

No comments: