Chris Marker at the Museum of Modern Artby Robert A. Haller
OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men is a work of mourning, a 19 minute looped meditation on the catastrophe of World War I—with a very few glancing references to World War II. Its physical form is of eight monitors in a straight line, exhibiting two channels (each bearing words and images) in a pattern of abababab. When the words appear, or more frequently when isolated fragments of previously seen words appear, Marker often pans to the right, which when multiplied by the configuration of the monitors, conveys the impression that the visible characters are marching in the other direction—like the neon words that circle the “news” signs in Times Square. In this repetition-in-motion there are suggestions of history repeating itself, and even the regimentation of language; though the language here is not regimented.
“The Hollow Men” of the title pointedly refers to T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem about the desolation wrought by World War I. Parts of Eliot’s poem are quoted on the screens in Marker’s installation—sometimes complete phrases, or only a few characters that we are tempted to relate to the intact words that precede them. These words and fragments of words haunt us nearly as much as the images of a blasted landscape, of fields of the dead, of hospitals for the wounded and maimed, of the faces of the shattered men and the women who are presented attending them.
Some examples of these word-picture combinations:
The words “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” followed by aerial views of bombed-out cities.
“How often did we meet in dreams?...These eyes Eliot did not dare to meet.” Then images of the wounded in a hospital—“Remember us”—faces like the mummified remains of Egypt—the solemn, watching women, and then pictures of tangled tree limbs with bodies suspended in the branches.
“This is the dead land” with images of trenches, then, “A fading star…the blazing trail…of battle-struck airplanes.” This integration of language and images is stirring, and seems faithful to Eliot, but there are times when Marker introduces his own words to enlarge the impact of the whole work. For example, “the blazing trail…of battle-struck airplanes” does not appear in Eliot’s poem, though it seems to be quoted from it. But this is very minor—the word-image Marker creates in OWLS AT NOON is unforgettable.
Marker underlines all of these visual elements with a grumbling, bass, low-chord music track by Toru Takemitsu that enhances what we see and the experience of the whole work.
It should be noted that this installation is only the “first part of Marker’s visual history of the 20th century.” Additional chapters will be coming, presumably to the Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned OWLS AT NOON.
ContributorRobert A. Haller