Fragmented histories

Ann Jones on two new exhibitions in London.

La Jetee
La Jetee

It’s a long time ago but I clearly remember seeing Chris Marker’s La Jetée for the first time, and the power it exerted. I was at art school. I was studying photography and working for a place like Boudoir photography in CT and suddenly here was the revelation that the still photograph could be used to make a film. A proper film, such as one might watch in an actual cinema. Photographs often work as series, of course, and photography is a strongly narrative medium. And why wouldn’t photography and film work the same way? They do, after all, share a lot of common ground. Nonetheless, La Jetée took me by surprise and, though I think it was the narration that I found particularly compelling at the time, some of the images have stayed with me with real clarity. I’m all too aware that I really don’t know enough about Marker’s work, though, so news of a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery was welcome – though I admit to approaching it with a certain trepidation; film is never especially easy to show in a gallery space and though there is a lot more to Marker’s practice, his films are better viewed in other circumstances.

Indeed, in this setting, though I watch La Jetée for quite a while, I join it a good way in and miss the start which here, thanks to the curators’ acquistition of a rare print of the film, apparently has a different opening sequence to the version that is usually seen; as this less-seen version is not Marker’s preferred one, this may not matter much beyond, perhaps, being indicative of the problems inherent in making an exhibition of this nature. More interesting, perhaps, is the opportunity to see Marker’s notebooks for the film along with prints of a couple of key stills.

La Jetée aside, there is work here I knew before – particularly the photographic works – but it’s some of the work that’s new to me that really fascinates. There are a couple of multiscreen monitor-based works: I find Silent Movie, made in 1995 to mark the centenary of cinema, particularly compelling. Here a tower of monitors shows what appear to be images from early film. Though the monitors are clearly late twentieth century technology, the steel tower that houses them has a constructivist feel. The images too come from both ends of the twentieth century. The work includes footage from early cinema but this is just part of a complex montage; for all that the images seem familiar from film history they were, in the main, made by Marker for this work. Silent Movie seems to be in a constant state of flux: though I’m mesmerised by the images, a hook to tie them together in my head stays tantalisingly out of reach. As with so much of Marker’s work, there is a sense of a shared memory and a need to record but the impossibility of taking in five screens at once means that everyone gets a different take on a highly fragmented narrative so collective memory struggles with individual experience.

Silent Movie
Silent Movie

Another video installation, Zapping Zone, a darkened room full of televisions, offers an apposite representation of multi-channel television, the way it often entices us to change channels just because we can and the resulting impact on our attention span. Though Zapping Zone retains a real relevance, especially in the idea of the bombardment of sources that characterises our multi-media age, the rise of the box set and view on demand services means that television viewing habits have changed radically in the two decades since the work was made. We have more choice than ever, of course, but television has lost the constraints of the box in the corner of the room, making the form of Marker’s installation seem almost antiquated.

Zapping Zone
Zapping Zone

Marker’s readiness to explore new technologies means that some works show their age more that anything in poor screen resolution. Works that were once at the cutting edge of technology are now pixelated and clunky in a way that at times make them seem like museum pieces rather than artworks. In a sense, of course, this fits with Marker’s cultural concerns rather well – indeed Immemory, a CR-rom based piece now available online, and Ouvroir. The Movie, a film of the museum Marker created in Second Life (remember that?) – are both in a section of the show entitled Statues Also Die: The Museum (along with the film Statues Also Die which, inexplicably, I decide I don’t need to watch having seen it last year as part of a work by Duncan Campbell). But though I can rationalise it as such, the clunkiness of what was once state of the art technology is at times a real distraction. Interactive screen-based works never really seem to live up to the promise of the technology and it’s simultaneously depressing and reassuring that this is just as true for Marker as it is for the rest of us; it does mean though that I probably gave some works rather less attention than they deserved and though I’ve yet to make it back to the gallery for a second look I do think it would be warranted.

Ideas around memory, bearing witness and narratives leaking from one time to another seem key to many of Marker’s works and it’s this, for me, that ties the exhibition together. Here the fact that we are offered only small samples of some works – a short excerpt of Sans Soleil in the downstairs gallery for instance, or the clips of Le Joli Mai and Chats Perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat) that face each other in the upstairs space – and the way Marker works with both fact and fiction often without seeming to draw a distinction between them adds to the sense of a fragmented sampling of a bigger narrative and messes intriguingly with my sense of what I have and haven’t seen before. The work at times seems both familiar and new to me. Along with the recurring themes the show is pulled together by photographs, mainly from the Staring Back Series, which Marker worked on for more than half a century, in several places around the gallery. These work as both a coherent series and as fragments of history, pictures of the protest and upheaval that features in much of Marker’s work. The intensity of the gaze from within the frame in the Staring Back Series and the way Marker isolates faces in the crowd when photographing protest are what makes these thought-provoking for me.

This sense of the fractured narrative and of voices from another time underpins another work on show, for want of a better word, in London at the moment. Saskia Olde Wolbers’s Yes, these Eyes are the Windows at 87 Hackford Road in Stockwell, a house once briefly home to Vincent Van Gogh, explores the layers of history within the space using voices that both guide visitors around the house and seem to come from another time. There is a strangeness to this piece that comes as much from the experience of visiting the work as much as its content. Unlike the Chris Marker exhibition at the Whitechapel, where the audience samples the works, dipping in and out of films rather than sitting down at the start and watching until the end, this is a work where the artist is in control of how her captive audience see the work. Arriving at 87 Hackford Road I find a small sign on the front door telling me to wait until my allotted time and then ring the doorbell to gain entry. Having arrived a bit early I go for a wander, noting the Van Gogh themed names in the area, and arrive back to join the others with tickets for 8:30 on a warm Friday evening. There are five of us. Checking our phones, we decide it’s time and ring the doorbell as instructed by that little note. There’s an odd interlude as we stand together in the hall, a group of strangers with a shared sense of anticipation and uncertainty, unable to open either of the doors to the rest of the house. A door opens and we go in. For the next 25 minutes we are guided round the house by the voices of those who tell its story; we start downstairs, moving on when the voices move and lights come on upstairs.

Van Gogh's room
Van Gogh’s room

The house, occupied until 2012, is of course very different to the space Van Gogh briefly inhabited – and where he possibly fell for his landlady’s daughter – but that’s not the only story we are told. The family that lived here until 2012 moved here in 1950 and the house bears witness to their lives and experiences including the discovery that Van Gogh lodged here which came from the researches of a local postman who knocked on their door in the 1970s. In a sense this work is a piece of theatre but the real fascination lies in exploring the dilapidated house and the traces of its past, of a small group of strangers left to our own devices with nothing to guide us other than that little note pinned to the front door and in the quiet interaction between us; the narrative added by Olde Wolbers seems perhaps a bit slight by comparison.

Seeing Saskia Olde Wolbers: Yes, these Eyes are the Windows and Chris Marker: The Grin Without a Cat in the same week, I’m struck not only by the parallels of fragmented narratives and being a witness to history but also by the way in which the two use technology to engage their audience. Marker is, rightly, spoken of as a very influential figure in the art world and find myself wondering about his influence on Olde Wolbers, especially given that she more usually works with film.

In the end, though I find a lot to enjoy about the two exhibitions, I also have reservations about both. In the case of Marker, the work is extraordinary but there have, inevitably, been compromises. Making a Chris Marker exhibition can’t be an easy task – showing durational work in galleries is inherently tricky, especially when the works are long and when they’re narrative based – and I’m not convinced the curators here have got it right. There are some major frustrations, in the main because it’s just not possible to see it all: some key works, Sans Soleil for instance, are shown as brief clips; The Grin without a Cat, which is shown in full, is three hours long (should one happen to pitch up at the right time to catch the start, the available seating is limited to a few beanbags or the gallery floor). But there are works here I didn’t know before that mesmerised me and it’s good to see the film works in relation to Marker’s photographs, video installations and other works.

Above all I’m happy that the show’s sent me back to Marker’s work. That alone would probably be more than enough.

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 22 June 2014.

Saskia Olde Wolbers: Yes, these Eyes are the Windows runs until 22 June 2014. It is an Artangel project. Tickets need to be booked in advance.

About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at and occasionally contributes to – writing about art, mostly.

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