Chris Marker: ‘A Grin Without a Cat’ – Whitechapel Gallery, London.
“If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” – Jean-Luc Godard.
The current retrospective of Chris Marker’s work at The Whitechappel Gallery, London, is a definitive observation of the enigmatic artist who’s most famous work ‘La Jettee’, has been a cornerstone of Lectures and Arthouse cinema retrospectives for years. Far from being the exhibitions masterpiece, ‘La Jettee’ sits alongside a career’s worth of meditation on memory and its disparate meanings and implementations.
Upon entry into the gallery, we are presented with a screening of ‘Statues Also Die’, a collaboration with the Film Maker Alain Renais mediating on the African experience of colonialism, from discovery, through slavery and commodification, to aspects of integration with the West. Made in 1953, the film was banned for ten years because of the nature of its comments on colonialism. Today it looks like a pair of filmmakers light years ahead of their peers in both the understanding of geopolitical concepts and the boldness of its historical comment. It refuses to be cowed by the commercialisation of black culture and stands firm in its belief that African identity has its own place, distinct from the European and American readings of the continent that tried to make it their own. The magic of African craft and culture, almost lost to the mindlessness of the Western consumer.
‘Zapping Zone’ is Markers take on postmodern media. Screens stacked and in competition with one another in an otherwise darkened room. There are images of The Berlin Wall, newsreaders, Japanese television, and archival footage in a cacophony of visuals that long predates the internet. That said, it does not lose its impact for being presented on television screens, more it reminds us of the physicality of meaning that the online world streams into a pre-assembled, sensationless package.
Upstairs, ‘La Jettee’ forms the centre of the show. A narrative that draws on trauma, memory, and time, and puts them into a story that is a side-step from both pulp fiction and the theories of deconstruction that were emergent in the 1960’s. The story is a cyclical reflection on death, its inevitability and its inescapability. It creates photomontages of still images that are one moment drawn from the characters’ personal memory, the next their technology induced premonition, and splices them with terrifying images of post-apocalyptic Paris. Its effects are still profound and it leaves the viewer on a searing moment of recurrent horror. We leave, ourselves ‘marked by an image’, much like the central character of the film.
In the final room we are presented with pieces that engaged more directly with Marker’s Left Wing political principles. Images from his travels and documentation of war zones and protest are prolific in both his photography and film. ‘A Grin Without a Cat’, the piece that gives the show its title, interjects elements of humour amongst an arbitrary sweep of collected footage into the didactic tones of revolutionary commentary. The image of the grinning cat occurred around Paris in response to the Iraq War and took on the mantle of covert opposition to political hegemonies. Marker skillfully draws its lineage back to the Cheshire cat grin first popularised by Lewis Carroll in 1865 while simultaneously documenting its use in modern day France.
The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see the full spectrum of Chris Marker’s work and to acquire a full understanding of an enigmatic artist who was not scared to adopt dedicated and complex stances of opposition in the face of media domineering and political upheavals.
The exhibition is free and at The Whitechapel Gallery until 22nd June.