Critic's Picks: Chris Marker
by Clare Davies
“Staring Back,” the title of Chris Marker’s current exhibition, suggests a challenge to viewers’ sense of self-entitlement, a bold visual and ethical gesture of response. Marker’s intervention quietly sidesteps the familiar impulse to capture a universal humanity and, in so doing, to guarantee the viewer’s right to empathize from a secure distance. Certainly, this collection of nearly two hundred black-and-white scenes and portraits “stare” back with probing or distracted glances, vulnerability or contempt, glamour or poverty. Many images are recognizable from Marker’s films, and their combination (in an exhibition divided between Peter Blum’s Chelsea and SoHo locations) follows his poetic logic rather than any strictly documentary pretension. At the same time, each image presents a “real” moment of heightened engagement that lends itself easily to a nostalgia for a poetic or heroic reading of difference and struggle: a young veiled woman in a Tehran crowd of the 1950s; the sad, all-too-human eyes of two chimps behind bars; '60s-era antiwar activism; more recent demonstrations on Parisian streets. The idiom and its sentiments approach liberal kitsch. But this is not Marker’s last word, and the works’ smallish dimensions, the low-resolution effect of the digital-print medium, and the simple mounting undermine the sentimentality and self-aggrandizement that one might otherwise expect of a humanitarian artistic project.
Just as one wonders what is indeed at stake, Marker urges us to “Watch the tree.” While he’s referring here to the slim tree in the background of a particular photograph showing a scene at a 1962 Paris demonstration, he may as well be urging us to look beyond the specificity of subject and form: the political causes and the projected personality, the echoes of a specialized media vocabulary, the individual choices asserted by the photographer’s own eye, and even the particular juxtaposition of images within the exhibition itself. Instead, a rather more pervasive, ephemeral, and animistic presence comes to the fore. Marker points toward this presence obliquely, through an editing of the images’ “surface texture”; almost as if by chance, a subtle geometry of smoothed and unfocused or, alternately, grainy and pixelated patches is mapped across faces, clothes, and backgrounds. One senses a drama that can only be perceived at a slightly blurred register of awareness, as if Marker is asking viewers first to soften their vision in order to perceive that responsive stare. The burden of specificity shifts to the act of viewing and suggests the failure of the all-too-familiar artistic and media projects of “engagement across difference.” This is, for once, a welcome registration of the complex ethics of “staring back.”
The exhibition remains on view at Peter Blum's Chelsea location until November 3 and at his Soho location until November 10.