Chris Marker
Staring Back

September 8 – November 3, 2007
at Peter Blum SoHo & Chelsea

Chris Marker: Gazes and Relationships

Art in America
December 1, 2007

by Tom McDonough

He was born in 1921 at the outer reaches of the world, in what was then called Niislel Khuree by its inhabitants, but known in the West as Urga, and now as Ulan Bator, capital of the relatively recently independent state of Mongolia. Or he was born in Belleville, the famous working-class neighborhood in northeastern Paris where the Communards of 1871 made their last brave stand. Or perhaps it was in the privileged suburb of Neuilly, in the bourgeois western precincts of the French capital. The most recent of his two latest biographers doesn't even bother trying to sort it all out. His name was once Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve. He is a novelist, or a travel writer, or a left-wing militant, or a maker of documentaries, or the director of one of the most acclaimed science-fiction films of the 20th century. He does not allow himself to be photographed.

The autobiographical discretion of Chris Marker is legendary, the keystone, we might say, of the myth that has arisen around his work and his personality over the past few decades. From a relatively obscure filmmaker (at least to American audiences), he has become an oft-cited--if little seen or understood--figure in the world of contemporary art, an influence on a younger generation of artists who have also chosen to work in the gap separating documentary from fictional forms, and a crucial link for them back to the generative moment of the '60s. Hence the eagerness with which "Chris Marker: Staring Back," an exhibition held at the Wexner Center for the Arts of 200 photographs from his personal archives, was awaited; chosen by Marker himself, they represented six decades of his work behind the camera, and promised a unique insight into his own understanding of his wide-ranging project, a kind of film retrospective in the form of digitally manipulated stills. Not a definitive pictorial autobiography, then, but a provisional map of the gazes and relations he has met in his travels and through the lens of his camera over the course of this momentous past half-century.

Marker has certainly been enjoying a period of reassessment and celebration recently: in addition to the two new biographies, he has been the subject of a two-part dossier in Film Comment, and his most recent film, The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), was released to some acclaim in New York. But if this newfound popularity in North America has a single source, it would have to be Bill Horrigan, media arts director at the Wexner, who has for over a decade worked closely with Marker to ensure his visibility on this side of the Atlantic. In 1995 Horrigan invited Marker to be in residence at the museum, and the result was Silent Movie, a media installation that foreshadowed his increasing willingness to produce work for art exhibitions as well as the cinema. Thanks to the friendship that arose with Horrigan, Marker entrusted the Wexner with the inaugural exhibition of the images in "Staring Back," culled from the digital archives of his films and photographs. This was, in fact, one of the first times he has been willing to show such still imagery, although Film Forum in New York accompanied its 2006-07 screening of The Case of the Grinning Cat with a small show of his photographs of Paris in May 1968 and on May Day 2006, prefiguring the much more ambitious display at the Wexner several months later.

That display was mounted in a wedge-shaped gallery, whose three walls permitted a triangulation of themes among the photographs: on one long leg, "I Stare," a series of images of political demonstrations in Paris and Washington, D.C., from the early 1960s to the present; on the other long leg, "They Stare," consisting mainly of portraits of individuals Marker met during his travels around the world; and on the short leg, a selection of photographs of animals, "Beast of...." All the photos were black-and-white (regardless of the type of film on which they were originally shot) and just a bit larger than a standard sheet of stationery; they were printed without borders on heavy cardstock and displayed unframed. They were presented, that is, in a manner meant to affirm their distance from the realm of fine-art photography and its fetish of the archival print. This was only reinforced by Marker's careful installation, in which photographs were seen grouped together so "masterpieces" couldn't be singled out (which makes his decision to display these works at Peter Blum's New York galleries, where they are available for purchase as individual images archivally mounted on aluminum, somewhat surprising). One's attention was continually drawn away from the individual image to the display as a whole, making for a distracted sort of viewing that could be compared, naturally, to watching a Marker film. Indeed, with the addition of wall text that evoked his famous voiceovers and, at the Wexner, a musical accompaniment played in the gallery like a soundtrack, we could call "Chris Marker: Staring Back" a kind of imaginary or static film.

What was its subject? I suppose an easy answer would be: Chris Marker himself, since what we saw in these 200 prints were the traces of a distinctively peripatetic life. But that doesn't ring true; this seems less an exhibition about Marker than about the world around him--from the Paris streets outside his apartment to the most distant corners of the globe, across Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America--at least as he understands it. Despite being made up largely of stills drawn from his numerous films, this seemed less a retrospective than a creative reshuffling of the archive to make a point: what is offered in "Staring Back" is, I think, a vision of a world marked by the incomplete project of liberation, undertaken mostly in what we used to call the "Third World" in the second half of the 20th century. Marker offers a particular lens on that history--for all the talk of him as an "unknown cosmonaut," as a critic once called him, he is nevertheless very much the product of a Parisian intelligentsia, and is particularly concerned with the ramifications of decolonization on France, for example. But whatever his limitations, it is a singularly generous and open-spirited lens, drawing surprising connections across space and time and permitting us a privileged glimpse into one of the great dramas of our era.

It is only appropriate, then, that "I Stare" began with images from Paris in the winter of 1962, when the French Left belatedly rallied around the cause of Algerian independence: nine demonstrators were killed, crushed to death in a police charge at the Charonne metro station on Feb. 8 of that year, during a march calling for peace in the former French colony; this brutality on the part of the state shocked the public and led to large-scale mobilizations the following week. "I Stare" included two solemn photographs taken on the Place de la Republique during the funeral for those killed, photos that frame a group of three blurry stills from films apparently made by Marker on the night of Feb. 8 itself, of aid workers leading away protesters injured in the crush. From France's dirty war the installation progressed to America's own colonial counter-insurgency in Vietnam, itself a onetime French holding; Marker and fellow director Francois Reichenbach went to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1967 to film the massive antiwar demonstration that ringed the Pentagon, and from that footage Marker selected a large, dramatic grouping of 11 stills, mostly drawn from the moment when protesters managed to break through a cordon of military police and were beaten savagely while trying to enter the building. From there it was back to France and to the great student-worker strikes of May and June 1968, which we might recall were set off precisely by anger over the arrest of students in a Vietnam war protest, and which derived much of their organizational force from earlier rallies against the Algerian conflict--so this, too, takes its place in a broader history of decolonization.

There was then a large gap--a complete obliteration, in fact, of Marker's immersion in collective, militant film production during the 1970s--and the next set of images shown were from 2002, when Parisians turned out in huge numbers to object to the racist candidacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen (a former paratrooper in Algeria), who had stunningly made it to a presidential runoff that year. The wall concluded with a selection of rather more somber photographs from the spring of 2006, when young people protested the increasing deregulation of the French economy and the government's ever-closer embrace of an American model. This political history, with its collectives and crowds, was met across the gallery by singularities: the individuals depicted in "They Stare." From the clamor of street demonstrations we passed to the encounter of two gazes: between that of Marker (and, through him, us) and of his subject, who often looks directly at the camera. If the arrangement of "I Stare" gave precedence to an external history, with groupings that followed a chronology of protest, "They Stare" was arranged along much more arbitrary lines, according to formal rhymes and thematic echoes: white skin and dark background, dark skin and light background; goggled cops and masked demonstrators; Greek Orthodox monk, Thai Buddhist monk and so on. Most individuals seen here are anonymous, figures glimpsed in Marker's films from the 1950s onward, but a few faces are easily recognizable: Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, the subject of a biographical film of 1985, or actress Catherine Beikhodja, who starred in Marker's 1996 film, Level Five. If the emphasis in "I Stare" was on the shared experience of history, here it was on history as met by the individual person--on the varieties of subjective experience one could find at various points of the globe in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st. It was supplemented, I should note, by "I Stare 2," a large poster with more portraits printed on it, looking something like a computer desktop with thumbnail digital files arrayed in a grid across its screen. While this effectively continued the theme of the rejection of fine-art photography, in the Wexner show it came across as something of an afterthought. (The awkwardness of this solution was rectified at Peter Blum SoHo, where these portraits were shown as individual prints.)

This poster hung adjacent to a small alcove that housed the final section of the exhibition, "Beast of...," devoted to images of animals, including Marker's favorite alter ego, the cat. The title obviously referred to beasts of burden, to the way humans have domesticated animals and trained them to perform tasks for us, particularly those that are physically demanding. Insofar as those references apply, it is a caption quite out of sync with its photographic accompaniment, for here we found predominantly shots of animals not performing tasks, but rather lazing around, alone or with companions (whether human or beast), or--in the case of a blurred photo of a bullfight--even charging their human "masters." But the title has another resonance, sounding like "Best of...," and indeed what we see here are some of the greatest hits of Marker's longtime fascination with animals, and also a group of images that manage to capture, as he himself notes in the wall text, "the truest of humanity better than images of humanity itself."

I have already noted Marker's apparent lack of interest in photography as a fine art, and the rather casual manner in which the digital prints of "Staring Back" are printed and presented. But there is more: any close examination of these frames, many extracted from his films, reveals that he has manipulated them, blurring certain areas or "painting" barely discernible "brushstrokes" across the image. At times these serve to highlight a face or to isolate a figure from the background, but at other times these interventions seem merely arbitrary, almost abstract patterns. In all cases, they work against any fetishization of the individual composition. Marker's manipulations do more than this, however; it is not simply a matter of interrupting the formalist's gaze, but also of preventing the viewer from having any illusion of immediate access to the past through these representations. We might say that they inhabit the Zone, that realm of synthesized images Marker explored in his film Sans Soleil (1982). There, the Japanese computer technician Hayao Yamaneko manipulates pictures in a manner reminiscent of Marker's own activities in "Staring Back," explaining that in this deformed state they are "less deceptive than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality." (In the film a depiction of a young woman's face, taken in Cape Verde, is subjected to these computer-generated mutations; tellingly, we find her again, with another digital alteration, in "They Stare.") This, in brief, is Marker's aim in "Staring Back": to insist that these figures are not windows onto the past or the present, but exist only as the archive of a memory.

I opened this essay by recalling Marker's autobiographical discretion, and by cautioning that "Staring Back" was not really an exhibition about the person who would ordinarily be called the "author" of these images. Yet perhaps that is not entirely true, for we do glimpse Marker himself in one of the photographs. There he is, at the Pentagon in 1967, surrounded by white-gloved MPs, apparently being led off--the image is blurred and the precise action is rather hard to make out. So the author does indeed make an appearance, but only to undermine our expectations: after all, he clearly didn't shoot this footage himself; it must have been taken by one of the several cameramen from the Societe pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles (SLON, the militant film collective Marker had helped form earlier in 1967), who had accompanied him and Reichenbach to the demonstration. In other words, at the very moment the unique creator emerges, he does so to point to his own disappearance in a collective project.

Perhaps a more revealing self-image comes in allegorical form: at the end of the wall of "I Stare" we find a pairing of photographs taken on the Place de la Republique. Above is a cropped version of the first photo to appear on that wall, with the balcony on which stand various dignitaries of the then-powerful French Communist Party reviewing the funeral cortege of those killed in the Charonne massacre. Below, the same site 40 years later, during the 2002 antiracism marches, the balcony now occupied by a young couple and a man talking on his cell phone. In the background of each image is the same tree, young and spindly in the winter of 1962, rather more robust in the later photograph. In his wall text, Marker comments on all his travels between these two dates; on the changing technologies, from film to the computer, that he has used; and on the tree, concluding: "Within these few inches, forty years of my life." Here, then, is the "portrait" of the author--as a gaze, as a passage of time, but still not as a subject.

"Chris Marker: Staring Back," curated by Bill Horrigan, originated at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus [May 12-Aug. 12], and traveled to the two Peter Blum galleries in New York City [Sept. 8-Nov. 1]. It was accompanied by a catalogue including essays by Marker; Horrigan and Molly Nesbit.