notes on the Marker retrospective
May 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
1. Presumably the aluminium mounts for the photographs are in accordance w/ Marker’s exhibition instructions – I seem to recall something similar at the Louise Blouin show in 2012. But frankly it looks cheap & unpleasant. Given they didn’t follow it for the series of stills from Silent Movie – wh/ have the loveliest, most careful printing & framing – you have to wonder why they did it.
1a. Why display a straggling bunch of photographs from Staring Back – a mostly overrated sequence – rather than Marker’s best photo series, Coreennes & Le Depays (the latter of wh/, being out-of-print, is the kind of thing you’d only see in a museum/gallery context)?
1b. How were the Staring Back works produced? The gallery gives no information, though their captions are noisy about all other aspects of the works. Many seem obviously derived from digital moving-image files, specifically from freeze-frames of digital transfers of Marker’s own films (most obviously The Sixth Side of the Pentagon). More than that, their condition, w/ patches out of focus or blurred by effects approximating localised lens flare or degraded into bulging pixels, looks as if they had been fed through some primitive version of Photoshop.
1c. The Silent Movie stills might actually be the best, most unexpected thing in the whole exhibition, these lovely frozen moments of superimposition, interdependency, snatched from the disappearing motion of the memory of cinema.
2. Presenting the Petite Planete series & the commercially-available Zone Books edition of La Jetee as “bookworks”? Pull the other one love.
2a. While we’re at it: £23 for a catalogue as flimsy as this, consisting mostly of bad stills & mediocre writing (the exception being Raymond Bellour, whose essay is reproduced in Between-The-Images)?
2b. The two pieces of writing by Marker translated in the catalogue remind us of the need for a selected writings in English, preferably one that includes the cat-show reviews he wrote for Esprit in the 40s.
3. While I appreciate the boldness of presenting A Grin Without a Cat & La Jetee in their entirety, one wonders why they then presented only 10-minute chunks from Sans Soleil & Chats Perches, works no less damaged by excerpting than the former. (& specifically why they cut the excerpt from Sans Soleil at the most contentious part of the film.)
3a. Why not present some films we actually can’t just see on widely available commercial DVDs &/or Youtube? Isn’t this the purpose of films in a gallery context? (Flashback: watching films at the Jeff Keen exhibition in Brighton, realising that they were just the BFI DVDs I had back at the flat.) Some candidates off the top of my head: 2084, Four Camels, Sunday in Peking, The Embassy (the only other fiction work he produced apart from La Jetee), One Day in the Life of Arsenei Arsenevitch (currently only available on the ridiculously overpriced Artificial Eye Tarkovsky boxset), Berlin 1990, Prime Time in the Camps, Theory of Sets…
3b. The screening conditions aren’t ideal: the screen showing Sans Soleil isn’t in a darkened space, so you have to squint to see the image, there’s only one chair nearby, & soundtrack bleeds through from Silent Movie & the Immemory tour film. Wh/ isn’t the end of the world – it’s quite nice to have some limpid piano under the cat shrine scene – but given Marker’s penetrating attention to sound it seems a pretty poor service for people who don’t already know the films. Similarly, if you want to hear the soundtracks for Le Joli Mai & Chats Perches, you have to sit directly under the speaker & listen very hard.
4. Zapping Zone is wonderful, even if it’s hardly conceptually challenging. Like Silent Movie it surely belongs w/ the triumphs of aleatoric art, alongside Cage’s Imaginary Landscape IV or the clouds at the top of the Large Glass. The space itself is weird: the box is a bit too small, so it’s hard to get in & hard to shift positions once in, if you want to look at a different screen or interact w/ the computers. A weird social taboo hangs around actually touching the computer mice. The fact that, as far as I can tell, the monitors haven’t been updated nor the computers replaced w/ iPads or whatever or the video elements been transferred to digital leaves the chattering sonic & visual unevenness of the work – mapping the no-space of satellite TV onto an actual space – in continuing relation to technological unevenness: a patchwork of (then-)emerging & residual technologies, haptic & passive technologies, with varying resolutions, themselves almost all ruined by the early 90s when Marker first exhibited the work. (My first contact w/ a computer was the BBC Micro we had in our year 2 classroom, a residue of the early 80s. I’m sure the spelling game we played included a pixellated owl.)
4a. A memory of playing w/ MS Paint in Year 3, the same year Silent Movie was first exhibited, & being so annoyed not just by the technical limitations but the way they combined w/ the superegoic imperative to get a drawing “right”. “No”, the teacher told me, “a rhinoceros doesn’t have a hump like that.” The idea that the image & the haptic aspects of its making might just be its own mute, playful self, rather than something surrounded by battering value judgements & discourse, seems to have been extinguished for me as soon as it appeared. Not so for Marker, as the goofy cut-and-pastes of the yellow cat in Chats Perches make clear.
5. A retrospective that’s not a retrospective, for an artist obsessed with the convoluted glance of retrospect. (Famously La Jetee regards its own present, 1962, with eyes that picture it as the bitterest & most tender of memories.) As if the curators said to themselves that since no-one knows the work they can get away w/ the most obvious, beginners’-primer middlebrow selection of Marker. As Nick Cain notes, the organising ‘themes’ – museums, war, politics, memory – are both actual threads of the work & a conceptual cage designed by the useful idiots of the blossoming Marker industry, a way of devising a version of the work that can be re-presented wholesale by the middlebrow art press, that the Sunday paper readers – &, w/ a few more adjectives, Art Review readers – can churn out in brunch conversation.
5a. Or are retrospectives supposed to be for a certain parodic image of ‘mass consumption’? The concept of the blockbuster show, in wh/ there are no surprises, only up-front bang-for-your-buck. (It felt that way at the Tate’s Hamilton retrospective, wh/ included a weird interactive reconstruction of the This is Tomorrow installation, & whole rooms of dull late paintings in a nice linear narrative.) Thus the art world reproduces the division of labour at the level of culture, as always. In other words, this retrospective isn’t for me – not as someone who knows Marker’s work (I’ve seen comparatively few of the films) but as an autodidact weary of the way a social fraction happily possessed of the cachet of sophistication & savvy – of distinction, in Bourdieu’s terms, written in the beards & brothel-creepers & all-black outfits – insist, in the name of a false democracy, on spoon-feeding.
6. God I hate all this griping. I’d actually love to be enthusiastic about this retrospective: Marker’s big Anglophone arrival, in wh/ my opinions are suddenly important or at least interesting & my mentions of CM aren’t met simply by blank stares & whispers of “sorry, doesn’t ring a bell…” & if that selfish wish weren’t enough, the chance to see some of the less well-known visual work, much of wh/ has barely been shown in the UK. Optimistic given no-one reads my opinions, much less slips me the IOU note of cultural capital on their basis. The reviews, at least in the middlebrow press, are pretty much what you’d expect: conventional wisdom delivery systems, containers of the approved myths, mild thumbs-ups & embarrassingly cloth-eared raves (describing Marker as a maker of “pioneering video art” is like suggesting Lawrence invented fucking). Why does all this idiocy bother me so much? Pop-psychoanalytic reading: w/ almost everything else in my life as regards ambitions run into the gutter, I want to have at least some control over what I thought of as my own aesthetic discoveries, my moments in the light of cinema’s absent sun. In other words: abandonment issues; an infantile – &, lest we forget, spectrum-y – reaction to losses of control; my own relentless overreading of texts that in fact contain nothing more than can be poured into a catalogue essay (2 pages, wide margins, big type), than can be reformulated as water-cooler chatter.
6a. & then rewatching La Jetee & finding yourself, in the museum sequence, as the camera follows its frozen pivots around the hippo & the toucan & the endless ranks of birds, on the brink of tears.
6b. & worse realising as your eyes well up that the beautiful red-haired gallery assistant you thought of chatting w/ is right behind you & probably won’t be too impressed by an incarnadine, swollen face, crying in public.
7. Nick notes that the inflationary description of Marker as a “multi-media artist” is “only partially validated by the work on display”: “it’s questionable whether he exploited its true potential or was simply content to transplant his film-making methodology to this new context with only minor innovations in style.” Perhaps, although he did happily use his early Apple Mac to make digital graphics for The Owl’s Legacy, in a practice that recalls the role of animation in avant-garde film, something not present in Sans Soleil or La Jetee. (Aside question: did Marker do his own animation on Lettre de Siberie?) Compare w/ what Joan Jonas or Mike Kelley or Ilya Kabakov were achieving in the same period as a specifically opened-out (as opposed to ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixed’) formal language for multimedia during this period, & the discourse of ‘multimedia’ seems like the wrong frame for these works. If Marker was working on them as a result of the eclipse of film itself – as the abandonment of film for video & Apple, & the great swansong of Silent Movie suggests – those late works are nonetheless incomprehensible without the frame of film (as form, medium, industry, history). The “overestimation” described by Nick becomes the art world myth that Marker himself hid from in his studio, issuing works built from sad, self-referential jokes, under a constellation of pseudonyms into total obscurity. The frames of fine art & underground film become the only ones through wh/ people can think Marker’s work, a fact that lends the most triumphant of late works their sense of ruinous damage, of memory whose agony collapses back into resignation: the universalising frame of cinema – the dream-frame of Aelita, in wh/ man creates a reconciled planet through technology – had disappeared. The only other frame is that of Film Studies, the less said of wh/, the better.