Images of Passengers, Memories of Thirst
Early in Chris Marker's 1983 essay film Sans Soleil, an unnamed narrator recites the following passage:
He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?
This brief sequence, at once lyrical and urgent, distills so many of Marker's characteristic traits that today, not long after the filmmaker's death, it reads as a kind of inadvertent epitaph. Cutting from a cat cemetery in Hiroshima to footage of an ocean, a beach, and a passenger ferry in Guinea-Bissau, the film sets the drift of the travelling filmmaker against the flux of natural time, the forced migrations of the postcolony and, ultimately, the movement of 20th-century history. In doing so, it carefully interweaves the rhythms of the everyday with a poetics of struggle, the pressure of finitude, and a sense of memory as a littoral zone, constantly remade by the tides of forgetting and history. Montage thus becomes both associative and dialectical, such that the essay film can mobilize seemingly opposed qualities: it can be speculative and observant, strident and reflective, stirring and subtle.
Marker's career, which spanned seven decades, comprised countless such moments. In recognition of this singular body of work, MIT's List Visual Art Center recently mounted the retrospective exhibition Chris Marker: Guillame-en-Ègypte, in conjunction with Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The show, curated by João Ribas (and named after Marker's cat), was the first of its kind in the U.S. It included moving image installations, a film series, and displays depicting its subject's activities as a journalist, producer, and organizer. While Marker has hardly been ignored in the contemporary art world—building on his reputation in film, which was established decades ago—the Cambridge show sought to introduce his work more thoroughly and to a broader audience, if also a more academic one.
One promising aspect of this approach was its potential to deepen and widen ongoing discussions about aesthetics and politics, given that Marker's fellow travellers ranged from Bolsheviks (Aleksandr Medvedkin) to representatives of the French New Wave (Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard) and Third Cinema (Santiago Álvarez, Patricio Guzmán, Flora Gomes), along with his collaborators in the SLON and ISKRA film collectives. This said, the show also ran certain risks. One is familiar from the art world's recent uptake of Harun Farocki; namely, that militant filmmaking can degrade into aestheticism, radical chic, or left nostalgia when separated from its original conditions of reception. A second danger, perhaps more apposite, was that Marker's ouevre would prove resistant to muscle memory, having already inscribed itself within a more complex, dispersed, and unstable field of mnemonic processes.
The exhibition clearly succeeded in demonstrating the remarkable versatility of Marker's production, its contents ranging from travel guides, photo-books, and reportage to video sculptures, TV miniseries, CD-ROMs, and YouTube videos. Perhaps most alluring were the vitrines of collected ephemera like Marker's published reports on textile workers' strikes, his correspondence with the American filmmaker Jay Leyda, stationery bearing the Medvedkin Group insignia. On this basis alone, the show suggested that describing Marker as filmmaker does not do his legacy justice. Instead, we might have to invent a new term: agit-essayist, photo-poet, image-worker.
This singular, hybrid vocation developed early on, as was clear in the exhibition's first gallery, which paired framed photographs from Marker's 1959 book Coréennes, a collection of images from a trip to newly partitioned North Korea, with a tablet display that let viewers browse scans of his Little Planet guides, which depicted somewhat unlikely travel destinations: post-fascist Austria, non-aligned Yugoslavia, the new state of Israel. Even in these early photographs, Marker's camera is drawn to intersections of the personal and the historical, and the way they produce uncanny, humorous, or revealing effects. We gaze upon Tito's effigy in a wax museum, then move between images of young Israeli traffic police, kibbutzniks, and concentration camp survivors. In the North Korean series, we can see where Marker's project began to pursue more ambitious objectives. Against the weakly political internationalism of much 1950s photography—one thinks here of the Magnum Photos, or MoMA's The Family of Man exhibition—Coréennes sought to enable new solidarities by constructing a specifically socialist imaginary, one rooted in a link between "friendship and silence," as Marker put it. Whether depicting archers, dancing soldiers, or the gazes of passersby, these images often turn on moments of tension between tradition and Communist modernity—a dialectic that animates the ostensibly still space of the photograph.
Another achievement of the exhibition was to illuminate some of Marker's less well-known work in different formats. One standout piece was the 1978 video installation "When the Century Took Shape," which used opposed monitors to juxtapose streams of processed archival footage of World War I and the Russian Revolution. This turn to historical film marked a sharp departure from then-prevalent trends in video, whether the preference for closed-circuit feeds in installations by artists like Bruce Nauman, or the tendency toward formalist abstraction in the synthesizer-based work of Steina and Woody Vasulka. A similar idiosyncrasy characterized a later video installation, "Silent Movie" (1995), which sought to mark the centenary of cinema with a tower of monitors, each of which screened randomly alternating clips of silent film footage, interspersed with fictional "remakes" miming period detail. While the tower's shape expressly invoked Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International" (1919-20), its function left it suspended somewhere between the strident confidence of Constructivism and the weightless infinities of a post-Communist image sublime.
These experiments positioned Marker as both an antiquarian and an early adopter. However, the exhibition made clear that Marker's most powerful innovations transcended technics in favor of techniques—the practice of associative montage; the recursive, rhythmic structure of the essay film; the conception of the image as a kind of time machine, enabling us to traverse the past even as its meanings arrive from the future. While the emblem of this temporal deferral can only be the photograph that opens and closes "La Jetée" (1962), one thinks also of the sequence in "A Grin Without a Cat" (1977) showing footage of a Chilean Olympic equestrian who later became a general in the Pinochet junta. As that film's narrator chillingly remarks, "You never know what you may be filming." Later in his life, Marker used this principle as the basis for the project "Staring Back" (2007), in which he revisited footage of protests to isolate images of demonstrators returning the gaze of the camera. The cumulative effect of these pictures, many of which were displayed at MIT, was such that it awakened a strange feeling of gratitude, as if these images themselves had acted with some sort of generosity.
A principled and very real generosity suffused Marker's practice, and even fans of his work likely came away from the exhibition with a deepened respect for his example. In this light, it seems almost churlish to criticize the problematic aspects of his work: his occasional use of clichéd, portentous high modernist gestures, as in the overtly Eliotic "Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men" (2005); or his indulgence of a voyeuristic male gaze in the series "Passengers" (2011), which repeatedly depicts veiled Muslim women without apparent self-reflexivity. It would be better to question the ways in which the exhibition, for all its virtues, might have done better to be less faithful to its subject—to be more poetic, more subversive, more owlish or feline. One wonders how a curator might have subjected Marker's corpus to the randomization of "Silent Movie" or the self-sampling of "Staring Back."
More concretely, the MIT show would have done well to highlight Marker's collaborations with decolonial filmmakers like Guzmán and Gomes. It also might have included emerging artists who have taken up Marker's legacy, like Filipa César or Juan Orrantia, both of whom have engaged the history of Guinea-Bissau. It could even have incorporated new citizen media collectives like the Egyptian group Mosireen, who have repurposed direct cinema to meet the current needs of radically democratic movements. Perhaps this goes to show that Chris Marker's memory neither can nor should be fixed to any one place or time. Rather, it should travel between the street, the museum, and the factory, between past, present, and future. May it travel long and far.