The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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NOV 2010 Issue

JONAS MEKAS To New York With Love

On View
James Fuentes Llc
September 24 – October 31, 2010
New York

The World Trade Center was big. Well? It was. Growing up, everyone said that the twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world-even taller than the Empire State Building, if not quite as nifty looking. In truth, the towers were the tallest for only about two years, when they were promptly surpassed  in 1974 by Chicago’s Sears Tower. Today, the Sears Tower is the Willis Tower, and it's dwarfed by Burj Khalifa–a gleaming, corporate stalagmite at the edge of Dubai. 

But, so what: if you lived here, then the twin towers felt like the biggest. You can see why in Jonas Mekas's new video installation “World Trade Center Haikus,” recently on view at James Fuentes LLC. For this piece, Mekas accumulated footage from several of his films–finished and unfinished–from the past few decades. Mekas lived in SoHo for a long time, and the towers naturally kept popping up: when he would film his friends on the street, hippie happenings on rooftops, family outings to the waterfront. As he puts it, “I had a feeling I was Hokusai glimpsing Mount Fuji.” The trick of the WTC was its long shadow, its inescapable, glowering loom; in Mekas’s video it starts to look like a castle in antique SoHo, the terminal point of every alleyway and thoroughfare. 

The WTC is still inescapable, but in a different way. More than nine years since it was destroyed, it’s still an avatar for all sorts of imagined postulates, talked about as a good reason to go to war, a bad reason to soften immigration laws, a rampart against any and all Islamic community centers.

How does Mekas feel about all this political turmoil? You can’t say, at least not by looking at the work here. Mekas helped to pioneer a small-scale, humanist sort of filmmaking, shooting informal documents of his friends and family, music, parties: home movies out of nervous, graceful energy. Mekas cuts and jabs, weaving his imagery out of happy gestures and glinting light: you can imagine him moving his camera around like a snake charmer, trying to tease out the rumbling spiritual potential of his at-hand subjects. Sometimes, though, his work seems to dead-end into its own lived-in familiarity, like watching a slide show of someone else's relatives. 

Mekas emigrated to Brooklyn from Lithuania in the late ‘40s, and would go on to co-found the venerable Anthology Film Archives and take part in New York’s legendary mid-century avant-garde (in a way, this video is like a love letter from one New York institution to another). In the sixties and seventies, Mekas had a perfect medley at his disposal: a fine sense of rhythm and composition, a foothold in a beautiful city with a phenomenal arts community, and newly-democratized filmmaking technology. These days, everyone can and does make movies, and they’re generally not so interesting. Things change. 

The other video in this exhibition, “Orchard Street”, shows a bustling street scene from 1975, filmed mere blocks from the gallery itself. In the years since, the Lower East Side has become a pretty good place to look at art, and a bad place to try and find a cheap apartment.

The loss of the towers hit New Yorkers hard, partly because we all just assumed that they wouldn’t change. It’s funny, because for most people, the towers weren't such a big part of life. As a goofy tourist attraction that you maybe went to once, as a snapshot backdrop, as a little gray smear in the corner of a Super-8 film frame crowded with family and friends, the World Trade Center was small. But, it was there. Here’s proof.


Michael Newton


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

All Issues