Review | Jonas Mekas: Survey of a cinematic lyricist
Serpentine Gallery, London 5 December 2012 – 27 January 2013
The Serpentine Gallery is a remarkably suitable setting to host Jonas Mekas’s work. Its location stretches inside Kensington Gardens where trees and ornamental flowerbeds surround the gallery’s building from the South to its North rooms. All his life Jonas Mekas celebrated the small forms of cinema. Its lyrical forms, the poetry of what it is to live, notice and sing. The diary impulse of Mekas’s new feature-length film, Outtakes from the life of a happy man (2012), is idyllic in this architecture and pastoral setting.
The introduction of the Jonas Mekas exhibition is written by Mekas himself: “In putting together this exhibition I faced one of the hardest challenges of my ‘artistic’ life. The reason for this was that the Fates had endowed me not only with a long healthy life, but they also saw that it was extensively productive. So here I was at a crucial ripe age, with all my work scattered all around me, spreading across a wide range of directions, and me, facing a challenge: what should I show, what should I share with others?”
Mekas has a strong online presence with his brilliantly designed website where one can see and read selected works and more recently a new DVD boxset with his films is released in France. So his work is accessible but as a leading figure in avant-garde and independent cinema with works spanning a 60-year career, the majority of it is made on film.
In 2011 his film Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) and co-directorial work with JL Guerin, Correspondences (2011), screened at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. A year later he is back in London to mark his remarkable activities as filmmaker, poet and independent cinema producer since he arrived in New York in the late 1940s and following a long and difficult journey from Second World War stricken Lithuania.
Mekas’s long journey would be unimaginable to capture in the gallery space limited just in a number of rooms. Or could Mekas’s body of work make sense of the gallery space? As I walked through the exhibition, I realized these boundaries were in constant flux. The more I looked through this survey of Mekas’s work with moving images, poetry and photographs dating from the 1950s to the present day, the more I discovered about his manifestos for promoting avant-garde cinema and its filmmakers next to his support towards independent cinema abroad.
Selected especially for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, To London with Love (2012) is a portrait of the London-based avant-garde filmmakers in a set of 25 photographic prints from 16mm frames. These are images Mekas recorded with his Bolex camera during his visit to two landmark events that took place in London’s National Film Theatre (NFT): the International Underground Film Festival in September 1970, and the International Independent Avant-Garde Film Festival in September 1973.
But Mekas’s support to the international avant-garde film community is not just a part of his life. It’s his family and more exclusively his life diaries in moving images and words. A series of 80 prints that is on display, My two families (2012), are all extracted from his captivating new film featuring in the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, Outtakes from the life of a happy man. The 43.2×27.9 cm wall display not only gives the viewer an insight into Mekas’s film but, also an immense experience into his family, friends and colleagues. It includes Anthology Film Archives’ patron Jerome Hill alongside filmmakers and artists such as Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hollis Frampton, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali.
Nevertheless the material included in the exhibition, are fragments of the monumental experiences in the artist’s life. Mekas himself wants to be called a ‘filmer’ instead of filmmaker and he tells me: “My greatest challenge is to get to the essence of the situation and not to destroy it”. With his 16mm Bolex camera, also on display in the exhibition, he recorded a tremendous amount of diary footage. During an interview with Scott MacDonald in the early 1980s, Mekas said: “I really live only in my editing room. Or when I film.”
An admirer of the American avant-garde filmmaker and painter Marie Menken, Mekas’s sensibility in the editing room followed Menken’s style leaving much of the original material just as it was filmed. Both Lavender (2012), a selection of films presented in a block of 16 monitors, and Dumpling Party Installation (1971) are essential to understanding Mekas’s editing style reconstructing his experiences at the viewer’s will. His sensitivity to the moment, as shown both in these works and his Outtakes is that of, as Polish poet of Lithuanian origin Czesław Miłosz puts it, “a poet and a poet of things observed and preserved on the film reel.”
Together with Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney and Stan Brackhage, Jonas Mekas founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1969. Until today Anthology largely showcases avant-garde cinema alongside many other activities promoting and caring the work of independent filmmakers. Its original fabric banner designed by Jerome Hill, is among the objects in the exhibition and laced next to Laboratorium Anthology (2011), a record 101 min long film celebrating the work undertaken by Athology Film Archives.
Mekas’s Serpentine exhibition is a celebration of his recorded life-memories. Written in the dust of time, they are glimpses of beauty in the adventures of his long journey unfolded and experienced in the present. Quite rightly Czesław Miłosz’s text sits next to Mekas’s mixed media installation of the 29 poems cycle (a series of poems Mekas wrote in 1946 while in a Displaced Persons’ camp), Idylls of Semeniskiai, and reads: ‘How many Europeans have lost their homelands in this turbulent twentieth century? Millions, and there seems to be no end…Those who become exiles lose not only their possessions. Trees, meadows, fields as seen in their childhood are taken from them. And yet if they write about their lost countries, they are, in a way, privileged, and I am going to explain why, upon the example of Jonas Mekas’ poems.’
Originally published in LOST LOST LOST: The Jonas Mekas Diary Film Project.